The conversation was never predictable except for the timing and context. Usually I’d been coaching the exec for five or six sessions. Typically he (always “he”) was in his forties, at the director or vice-president level, very bright and had already made enough money to live his life in whatever fashion he desired. We had fifteen minutes remaining of our planned time so he leaned back, smiled and said something like “You seem to be a very happy, fun guy.” My story line is predictable: “I’m married to a wonderful woman, have three glorious daughters and love my work. My life is very meaningful.” “Meaningful? Tell me more,” was the usual response.
So just this past year when Roy Baumeister and his colleagues took on some “key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life,” I was hooked by the research. Would it confirm my own decisions?
Meaningfulness has resonated with me most of my adult life. Happiness, I concluded in my seminary years is serendipity and not worthy of full pursuit. But I was never a member of the “religiously serious” either. They bore the hell out of me. Meaningfulness remains, for me, a work in process. Fortunately, with my education, I had the ability to work much of it out both theologically and philosophically. As a consequence, I tend to carry life lightly, and view reality through the lens of a certain sanctified nonchalance. That liberation has supported my activities and my pursuit of meaningfulness.
To begin, happiness and meaningfulness are two of the most pervasive goals by which people motivate themselves. And positive psychology, the “happiness stuff,” is a long overdue response to psychology’s phenomenally heavy emphasis upon illness, suffering, misfortune and the abnormal.
In their extensive study the researchers argue that though happiness and meaningfulness are highly important to us, they grow out of different roots and are marked by different implications.
A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.
Relating meaningfulness and happiness
The research found that feeling good more often than bad are central to happiness. But here’s the catch: feeling good has relatively little to do with a meaningful life. These results fit the general view that having one’s needs satisfied, being able to obtain what one wants and needs, and (presumably on that basis) feeling good more often than bad are central to happiness. They have relatively little to do with a meaningful life.. . . Happiness is all about your present affect. In contrast, meaningfulness is much more lasting and permanent than happiness. Recognizing links from the present to past and future would seemingly be helpful for success at meaningful enterprises, including education, career, and long-lasting intimate relationships.
The summary of the relationship between the two contains an intriguing caveat: 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.
Indeed, there were numerous findings around the topic of personal involvement suggesting that being a giver rather than a taker suggested that serious involvement with things beyond oneself and one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness, often to the detriment of happiness.
The research has a fairly strong emphasis on stress, worrying and struggling pointing to more meaningfulness, but less happiness. To wit: Consistent with intuitions, more worrying was linked to lower happiness. However, perhaps surprisingly, greater frequency of worrying was associated with higher levels of meaningfulness. People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives. Again, we think this indicates that worrying comes from involvement and engagement with important activities that go beyond the self, and beyond the present (worry is ineluctably future-oriented) and so worrying may often be an unavoidable part of a meaningful life, even though it detracts from happiness.
One item asked “how often do you reflect on struggles and challenges you have faced in your life?” This may be the past-oriented companion to future-oriented worry. This item too yielded relatively strong and opposite correlations. The more people reflected on their prior challenges and struggles, the more meaningful their lives were, but the less happy. Reflecting on past struggles and challenges is likely a matter of integrating past and present, possibly with an eye to the future as well, so this finding is consistent with the temporal integration aspect of meaningfulness. . . .
Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others, and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.
Although these individuals may be relatively unhappy, several signs suggest they could make positive contributions to society. . . . These people were likely to say that taking care of children reflected them, as did buying gifts for others. Such people may self-regulate well, as indicated by their reflecting on past struggles and imagining the future, and also in their tendency to reward themselves.
Although I have no quibbles with the research, my own experience of pursuing a meaningful existence was neither as dark nor as grim as I read the report. I worked very diligently on identity formation between the ages of 18 and 28, resolving many bothersome issues that could have left me distraught. I also was exceedingly fortunate in having many mentors take me on over the years. What they provided was a clear sense of both my identity and cultural reality–insights that enabled me to create a purposeful and meaningful existence. In addition, the careers I’ve chosen can be inherently and obviously meaningful. Furthermore they inevitably provide a great deal of unsolicited feedback—often to a degree that cannot be ignored. The feedback forced me to look at my behaviors and performance and make needed and possible adjustments. I believe also, that based on my own perspective of faith, I was liberated from much of the pain many seem to go through. It’s very clear that though I continue to have an exceedingly happy life, most of all it has been exceptionally meaningful.
So is happiness all it’s cracked up to be? Not on your life. Happiness is simply not worth the pursuit.
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