Life is never made unbearable
by good and happy circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” For
most people, feeling happy and finding life meaningful are both important and
related goals. But do happiness and meaning always go together? It seems
unlikely, given that many of the things that we regularly choose to do from
daily walking in the early morning or running raising children are unlikely to
increase our day-to-day happiness. Recent research suggests that while happiness
and a sense of meaning often overlap, they also diverge in important and
Positive Psychology that helps explain some of the key differences between a
happy life and a meaningful one. They asked almost 500 world adults to fill out
three surveys over a period of weeks. The surveys asked people to answer a
series of questions their happiness levels, the degree to which they saw their
lives as meaningful, and their general lifestyle and circumstances.
As one might expect, people’s happiness levels were positively correlated with
whether they saw their lives as meaningful. However, the two measures were not
identical suggesting that what makes us happy may not always bring more meaning,
and vice versa. To probe for differences between the two, the researchers
examined the survey items that asked detailed questions about people’s feelings
and moods, their relationships with others, and their day-to-day activities.
Feeling happy was strongly correlated with seeing life as easy, pleasant, and
free from difficult or troubling events. Happiness was also correlated with
being in good health and generally feeling well most of the time. However, none
of these things were correlated with a greater sense of meaning. Feeling good
most of the time might help us feel happier, but it doesn’t necessarily bring a
sense of purpose to our lives.
Interestingly, their findings suggest that money, contrary to popular sayings,
can indeed buy happiness. Having enough money to buy what one needs in life, as
well as what one desires, were also positively associated with greater levels of
happiness. However, having enough money seemed to make little difference in
life’s sense of meaning. Although the reasons are not totally clear, this might
be related to greater religious belief, having more children, and stronger
social ties among those living in poorer countries. Perhaps instead of saying
that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” we ought to say instead that “money doesn’t
Not too surprisingly, our relationships with other people are related to both
how happy we are as well as how meaningful we see our lives. In Baumeister’s
study, feeling more connected to others improved both happiness and meaning.
However, the role we adopt in our relationships makes an important difference.
Participants in the study who were more likely to agree with the statement, “I
am a provider,” reported less happiness than people who were more likely to
agree with, “I am a taker.” However, the “Provider” reported higher levels of
meaning in their lives compared to the “takers.” In addition, spending more time
with friends was related to greater happiness but not more meaning. In contrast,
spending more time with people one loves was correlated with greater meaning but
not with more happiness. The researchers suspect that spending time with loved
ones is often more difficult, but ultimately more satisfying, than spending time
When it comes to thinking about how to be happier, many of us fantasize about
taking more vacations or finding ways to avoid mundane tasks. We may dream about
skipping housework and instead doing something fun and pleasurable. However,
tasks which don’t make us happy can, over time, add up to a meaningful life.
Even routine activities talking on the phone, cooking, cleaning, housework,
meditating, emailing, praying, waiting on others, and balancing finances
appeared to bring more meaning to people’s lives, but not happiness in the
More broadly, the findings suggest that pure happiness is about getting what we
want in life whether through people, money, or life circumstances.
Meaningfulness, in contrast, seems to have more to do with giving, effort, and
sacrifice. It is clear that a highly meaningful life may not always include a
great deal of day-to-day happiness. And, the study suggests, our happiness may
be intimately related to a feeling of emptiness, or a life that lacks meaning.