Do we have to choose between Meaning and Happiness?

Do we have to choose between Meaning and Happiness?

When you take time to think about it, charting a course through Life towards Happiness and Meaning appears to take more skill than one may imagine.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about “The Meaning-Happiness Disconnect”.
I see a lot of people suffering quietly, trying all kinds of permutations to integrate, or choose between the two. I can really identify with how agonizing it can be to make decisions that follow one path or the other. I decided I needed some help to think through the tangle and went looking for psychological research that may have tilled the fields for me.

Lets first differentiate between the two. Meaningfulness is associated with doing things for others. Happiness is associated with doing things for oneself. Engagement with others that sacrifices the self or that builds relationships over time contributes to meaningfulness, but it has a negligible or negative link to happiness.

~ Psychologists Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky (2013)

Although, meaning and happiness overlap a good deal. In fact, “almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa,” Baumeister writes.
But that other half—the half that doesn’t overlap—is highly telling. It hints at all of the choices and compromises we must make as we intentionally and purposefully construct our lives.

Where Meaning and Happiness Diverge

Baumeister and colleagues found five areas where happiness and meaning diverge:

1. Getting What We Want and Need. “People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult,” Baumeister writes in Aeon. On the other hand, “the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.”

2. The Time Frame We Focus On. The old mindfulness adage about staying present to increase happiness is true. Unfortunately, though, being present doesn’t contribute to meaningfulness. The study showed that, “the more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were.”

3. Social Life. Relationships contribute to both meaningfulness and happiness. That said, taking from social relationships increases happiness but reduces meaning, while being a giver is associated with meaning but not happiness. In fact, “helping others can actually detract from one’s own happiness.” This especially seems to be the case in parenting. While parenthood has been frequently shown to reduce happiness, people still pursue and undertake the endeavor because it adds meaning to their lives.

4. The Hard Times. Positive life events make us feel both happiness and meaning. It’s the hard times of life that reveal a divide. “Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles—all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life,” says Baumeister.

5. Identity. The research points to the importance of finding work that expresses who you genuinely are, which is great advice in terms of increasing meaning in your life. But happiness? Not so much. “Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness.”

Why Meaning is Still Worth Pursuing

After reading this, you might be thinking, “Screw meaning. I’m going with happiness.” And given my sometimes low status during the holiday parental happiness trajectory, I can’t say I blame you.

I argue, however, that life is about much more than right now. Our existence is dynamic; life’s unpredictable curves are liable to snatch our present pleasures at a moment’s notice. Not only that, but questing after present pleasures becomes a constant search, called the hedonic treadmill, in which we adjust to what we have and always desire more.

Meaning, on the other hand, is satiable and “more stable than emotion…so living things use meaning as part of their never-ending quest to achieve stability,” Baumeister writes.

That’s probably why meaning is associated with higher life satisfaction, better physical health, and even lower mortality rates.

So this year-end, as I head off into the mountains for a couple of days, I’m going to sit in front of the fire with my head torch on and plot a course in 2014 that includes both Happiness and Meaning. I may be washed ashore but the journey could be fun.

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