Human beings are driven by a fundamental need to find meaning. But does living a meaningful life also mean you have happy life? Not necessarily. Researchers have been researching the difference between meaning and happiness for a while now and they have found clear differences. How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, researchers found, is in essence about finding ways to feel good. People who are happy also tend to think that life is easy and they tend to live more for themselves than for others. The happy life is thus defined by a lack of stress or worry.
However, what sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of meaning. According to Roy Baumeister, the pursuit of meaning is unique to humans as this characteristic has not been detected among other animals. People will often seek out meaning at the expense of happiness, because sometimes the two are mutually exclusive. People who report elevated levels of meaning in their lives, also often report higher levels of stress and anxiety. So why on earth would someone opt for meaning over happiness? Simple. Happiness is often fleeting and short-lived. It is a feeling that is dependent on a particular moment or event, whereas meaning is enduring. It transcends the present moment. It is woven throughout different life events, both pleasant and unpleasant. It connects the past to the present and the present to the future. Those who report higher levels of happiness, do not spend much of their time contemplating their past or their future. They tend to spend most of their time focusing on the present. On the other hand, those who report higher levels of meaning, also indicate that they spend a lot more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings.
In his 2016 book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari speculates about the different projects that humanity will be pursuing in the future, which will inevitably lead to the creation or evolution of the next genus homo, which he calls Homo Deus. Harari paints an accurate picture of future trends to come of which we are already seeing signs everywhere. Future projects of humanity include: overcoming death, creating artificial life and finding the answer to happiness. Thus, the pursuit of happiness is on most people’s agendas. Given that the newest research findings by Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister and Chandra Sripada indicate that human beings are hard-wired to anticipate and plan for the future, we can understand why it is so difficult for people to focus only on the present and why millions of people buy books on meditation and mindfulness in attempts to learn how to stay present and find that ever-elusive thing called happiness.
But perhaps we are going about this in the wrong way. Perhaps happiness remains elusive because it cannot be pursued as a purpose in itself. Perhaps we should be trying to find meaning in our existence and happiness is the by-product of living a life that is characterised by depth and fulfilment instead of the mere pursuit of pleasure. Baumeister and his colleagues postulate that happiness without meaning characterises a relatively shallow, self-absorbed, or even selfish life. Things might go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied and difficult challenges are avoided, but self-actualisation never becomes possible. They found that negative or challenging experiences decrease your happiness but increase the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose.
Viktor Frankl advises that both success and happiness, cannot be pursued; they must ensue. Success and happiness become the unintended side effects of your personal dedication to a cause greater than yourself. He states: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible”. So, if you currently feel unfulfilled, not fully present, almost as if you are a mere bystander to your own life, perhaps it is time to take responsibility and reclaim your humanity. Give yourself the gift of conscious living and discover what your authentic self is calling you to do with this life.
- Baumeister, R. F. (1992). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
- Baumeister, R. F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Baumeister, R. F. & Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Books.
- Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L. & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6).
- Conger, R. D., Conger, K. J. & Martin, M. J. (2011). Socioeconomic Status, Family Processes, and Individual Development. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3).
- Frankl, V. E. (2004). Man’s search for meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. London: Rider.
- Harari, Y. N. (2016). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. United Kingdom: Harville Secker
- Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Hicks, J.A., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R. F. & Fincham, F. D. (2013). To belong is to matter: Sense of belonging enhances meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39 (11).
- Marsh, J. & Suttie, J. (2014). Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? Greater Good Magazine (February, 25th)
- Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F. & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. New York: Oxford University Press.
Originally published at leapjourney.org