There has been much research on the similarities and differences between happiness and meaningfulness. Is there a difference between living a happy life or a meaningful life? Does one lead to the other? Is one necessary to have the other? Which comes first? Does it matter? We have many songs about happiness such as “Happy”, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, “Put on a Happy Face”, “If You Wanna Be Happy”, “If It Makes You Happy”. There are two movies called Happy, there is Happy Gilmore. Gretchen Rubin has become well-known for The Happiness Project. And, of course, we have the oft-quoted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What about the pursuit of meaning?
UC-Berkeley has a website called Greater Good in Action – Science-Based Practices for a Meaningful Life. An interesting article appeared in 2014 called Is a Happy Life Different Than a Meaningful One? The article cites research studies which attempt to answer the questions I have posed above. The research found that happiness and meaningfulness go hand-in-hand, but not always.
“Their findings suggest that meaning (separate from happiness) is not connected with whether one is healthy, has enough money, or feels comfortable in life, while happiness (separate from meaning) is. More specifically, the researchers identified five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful one.
Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.
Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.
Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.
Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.
Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness.”
I particularly relate to the involvement of stress and challenges in a meaningful life. During my most difficult times with depression, I was consumed by anxiety and fear. There were days when I felt like I couldn’t go on. After sleepless nights, seeing the dawn reminded me of having to spend another day of rumination and emotional pain. Now that I am on the other side of my illness, my experience has added meaning to my life. My illness has led me to a career change where I serve others and I am doing work that matters. Back in the days when I worked in Corporate America, I used to wonder what would happen if I didn’t do my job for an entire day or even a week. The answer was “Not much, if anything”. What I did really didn’t matter to the outside world. I felt empty. I was paid pretty well but what I was doing was just not meaningful to me. Today, I work harder and make about 1/3 of what I made then. But I wouldn’t want to trade.
To me, happiness is a like a sprint while meaningfulness is like a marathon. Happiness is fleeting while meaningfulness lasts a long time. I have been in this race of life for quite a while. I’ve had much stress, anxiety, and worry. And I am happy.