December 13, 2013

Meaningful Life or Happy Life? Take Your Pick! ~ Rebecca Fraser-Thill

“If your life had a purpose and you didn’t know it, you might end up wasting it. How sad to miss out on the meaning of life, if there is one.”

~ Roy Baumeister

You walk into a bar and the bartender asks, “So, what are you having tonight? Meaningful Life or Happiness?”

“How about both?” you say.

He laughs hard, “Oh come on. Meaning or Happiness? Take your pick.”

“I want both,” you repeat, unamused.

He stops smiling and stares you down, “You don’t get it, do you? You can’t have both. You have to choose which.”

Welcome to the bar called Life.

The Meaning-Happiness Disconnect

For a good stretch of my life, I didn’t believe this was how the life worked. Or I didn’t want to believe it.

Then I became a parent.

Taking care of my daughter is, hands down, the most meaningful work I have ever done. But on a day-to-day basis I have, at times, felt pretty darn miserable.

What was up?

Feeling alone and confused, I turned to my tried and true vice: trusty psychology research.

Before long, I’d stumbled upon a recent survey of 400 Americans indicating if we want to be happy, it’s likely we won’t have as much meaning in our lives. And if we want to pursue meaningfulness, it’s likely we won’t have tons of happiness.

It turns out that happiness and meaning arise from different source, and, as luck would have it, tend to be in conflict:

“Meaningfulness is associated with doing things for others. Happiness is associated with others 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 in a recent insightful article in Aeon Magazine.

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. On my website, Working Self, I repeatedly emphasize 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.” So, uh, I just decreased your happiness by asking you to read this article. Sorry about that.

Why Meaning is Still Worth Pursuing

After reading this, you might be thinking, “Screw meaning. I’m going with happiness.” And given my low status in the 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.

I don’t necessarily advise living my life the way the parent of a newborn does: sleeping, eating healthy food sitting down, getting a moment or two to brush, bathe and be brain dead—those things do matter. And while there may not be a way to strike a genuine balance between meaning and happiness—since balance is an unattainable desire for most people—a tad of present pleasure goes a long way.

That said, in the Bar of Life, given a forced choice, I’d go for a thick swill of meaning any day. As psychologist Baumeister said:

“If your life had a purpose and you didn’t know it, you might end up wasting it. How sad to miss out on the meaning of life, if there is one.”


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Assistant Editor: Michelle Wiley / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Johan Lange/Flickr

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