Would you rather have a happy or meaningful life?


Sarah MacDonald


Even though I’ve heard it a million times I still can’t help loving Pharrell Williams song ‘Happy’.  Its infectious riff hits my pop sweet spot, lifting my feet, mood and heart, injecting brain and spirit with joy.  The song is a perfect example of happiness itself – light, transitory and pleasurable, but not necessarily loaded with meaning.  Sometimes the greatest pleasures are indeed meaningless.

We all know that happiness for happiness' sake is not enough in life.  That we need a purpose, or meaning as well.  But does a meaningful life make us happy?  And are they related goals?  New research suggests while the two are related and feed off each other they do not correlate as much as we may assume.  This means what makes us happy may not always bring us meaning, and what gives our life purpose and meaning may not make us happy.

Social Psychologist Roy Baumeister and a team reported the results in the Journal of Positive Psychology. It’s reported in full here and in an article here.

In summary, they conducted a survey of 400 Americans living in the land where the pursuit of happiness is a constitutional right.  Those who rated their lives as easier, who had good health, enough money to buy what they wanted, were more short-term oriented, felt connected to others, and experienced low stress and worry, also tended to rate themselves as happier. Yet these same factors had either no association with meaningfulness or, in fact, actually had the opposite association.


In contrast to the findings on happiness, people who described their lives as having more meaning tended to say that they spent more time thinking about the past and future, expected to do a lot of deep thinking, engaged in activities that were true to themselves and reported more stress, anxiety and worry.  Hence, a happy life may be easy, pleasant and free from trouble but not meaningful.   

It’s an interesting insight into the modern malaise.  The freedom and privilege of being able to chase happiness doesn’t give us enough purpose in life.  It’s food for thought for we overfed westerners and parents who often express the wish ‘I just want my child to be happy’.  Indeed, the researchers even specifically found that money can indeed buy happiness but can’t buy meaning.

Of course, definitions are important and can vary. But generally, happiness is about the present.  It’s about living in the moment.  Happiness is experiencing the joy of a song such as ‘Happy’, great sex, crazy dancing, partying with friends, or whatever turns you on.  It’s a natural emotion.  Meaning, on the other hand, is a thought or an interpretation and hence, it’s culturally determined.  The psychologists involved in the research argue meaning is about assembling the past, present and future into a life story.  

Interestingly, I am currently helping my father write biographies of his parents and their ancestors. There are reams about the men and the further we go back in time, less and less about the women.   As usual, history omits their voices and seems to suggest that their purpose in life was to breed the men to sail across the seas, be captured by pirates, grow and prosper.  Realising this is not making me happy.  But the work is giving my father and I some context, connection and meaning.  Indeed, telling stories gives my life meaning in many ways.  Stories about women even more so.

The psychologists also asked participants if they were givers or takers.  (For those with dirty mind, they mean in terms of deeds.)  They found ‘givers’ were less happy but had more meaning in their lives.  The ‘takers’ (or those who admitted being so) were happier but had a less meaningful existence.  I admit being stressed trying to help write the biographies but I do feel more useful to my parents.   

Here in also lies the paradox of parenting. Surveys have shown parents are no happier in life than non-parents. Indeed often less so.  Let’s face it kids can bring great joy yet they often bring stress, day-to-day bedlam and sheer drudgery.  But they do give our lives meaning and purpose. 

Having a purpose or a meaning for living gives a structure to life.  It makes the crazy, random, big scary world seem a little safer by imposing stability.  Happiness may be about getting what you want but meaningfulness is about feeling less than just a speck of cosmic stardust.

So the next time you are overly worried about your problems, challenges and struggles, accept the crap as being part and parcel of a meaningful life that may not always include a great deal of day-to-day happiness. And know that an obsession with happiness may be intimately related to a feeling of emptiness, or a life that lacks meaning.

I try to recognise that happiness is transitory.  It’s a fleeting glimpse of lightness and thrill, comfort and joy that can last less than the four minutes of the hit from Despicable Me.  Perhaps living a good life or coping better with a hard one it is about recognising that. About celebrating those moments, but knowing during those crappy times that meaning is a worthy pursuit. 

All the same on truly crap days I do recommend dancing between two speakers to a blasting fun song like ‘Happy’.  Even if you’re sick of it, it sure beats the hell out of Robin Thicke ‘Blurred Lines’. 

But don’t get me started on that.  It sucks both meaning and happiness from my world.



  • HOLY Cow! Sarah you are at it again, reading this made me happy...not sure about the "meaningful part", good work!

    Date and time
    February 25, 2014, 9:12AM
    • We live in a society that craves constant happiness and suffers from the effects of that need. From drugs to material possessions, the result is a need for constant gratification and an acceptance of narcissism. Meaningful lives accept the breadth of experience and learn to appreciate a deeper understanding of the world, including caring for people and the environment, and accepting the complexities of human behaviour. Being connected in the moment brings much more clarity and fulfillment.

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 9:24AM
      • I agree with the article that children bring meaning at the expense of some happiness. That's how most of us structure our lives in the west. We focus on happiness and rely on our children for meaning. Not perfect, but a pretty good formula/balance. Sure, who wouldn't want to be a doctor in Africa saving hundreds of lives or a researcher working on a cure for cancer? But you'd have to give up your own wealth and family to do so. Unless you're rich. I think this is where being rich is useful. You can spending your life finding meaning since you don't have to spend your time earning money.

        Date and time
        February 25, 2014, 10:10AM
    • both in a balanced way.
      one must have purpose and meaning as well as enjoy some happy moments.
      i don't understand superficial people who just co-exist in a meaningless existence, what's the point?

      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 9:27AM
      • Great article.

        Personally I think that happiness and meaningfulness are on two completely different scales that may occasionally diverge but are, for the most part, separate.

        Happiness is more a short term, instant gratification type thing. "I am doing X right now which makes me happy at this moment". I also think happiness is greatly determined by ones attitude and realising that shitty things happen to all of us but how one reacts and deals with that will determine their level of happiness.

        Meaningfulness to me is a much longer term thing. "I am studying medicine at university so that one day I can become a doctor and save lives". Studying is not fun, or endorphin creating but I imagine that saving lives would be very fulfilling and provide meaning to one's life. I can then imagine that a person might look back and "feel happy" about what they'd achieved, regardless of the difficulties in getting there.

        Moral of the story: we all make a choice every day about how happy we are. So, how happy are you going to be today?

        Date and time
        February 25, 2014, 10:21AM
        • I think the major difficulty in applying the labels 'happy' and 'meaningful' is that the meaning of both changes as they develop and as the person develops and matures. Identifying with the word happy as a hormone driven teenager is very different to being happy at the end of one's life when cancer is just about to take it away from you.

          For myself, I'm very philosophical about these concepts and I would say I am happy but it certainly isn't in the context put forward in the article. I've been extremely wealthy, was married and had every reason to expect to be happy by societies standards. Except the woman I had married couldn't see beyond that shallowness and her definition of "I love you" was something closer to 'I really like the standard of living that you are providing'. So after the mental breakdown, the death threats by her and her family, the hounding by investigators resulting in being beaten by thugs (sent by her) followed by homelessness before just beginning to get my life back together - I can actually say I am happy nowadays.

          That isn't coming from a lack of depth. It isn't coming from being crazy and carefree, having great sex (unless you count with myself at present) or dancing to pop songs. It comes from self-awareness and being able to recognise and connect with what is intrinsically good in people and this world and being able to reconcile that with what has gone on in my past.

          Anyway, hope that makes sense to somebody out there.

          Date and time
          February 25, 2014, 10:25AM
          • The problem that I am finding is that happiness is a really hard emotion to define. Is it just those fleeting moments when a song comes on the radio, or your first glimpse of the ocean after a long drive, or seeing someone you like? Or is it waking up most days and feeling content and knowing that you're heading in the right direction? The first one might be easier to pinpoint because it's more of an extreme, but I wonder if the second kind is more linked to finding meaning in your life. I'm aiming to be happy overall in my life, or at least have more good days than bad ones (or can take something positive away from negative days). Hopefully, that will be linked with finding meaning.

            Date and time
            February 25, 2014, 10:55AM
            • The childless around me grow more bitter everyday. In their 40s with every toy under the sun. Cars, boats, holidays.... it barely makes them happy anymore. The pointlessness of it all appears unbearable.

              Seems that the meaning in life becomes more important as one ages.
              Thank god my wife gave me the nudges i needed to make a meaningful life.... kids, volunteering in the community, participating in all the sports clubs. AND!!! it's making me happy.

              Date and time
              February 25, 2014, 11:08AM
              • Happy...I'll take Happy anytime.

                The good thing is that I'm doing something about it...selling my house in Sydney and moving to Europe; no more pain, no more stress, no more mortgage, no more mediocrity, no more crooks & corruption, just purchase a property in the country and take it easy...Happy, Happy...I'll be so Happy. I'm already Happy just thinking about it...

                Happy Man
                Date and time
                February 25, 2014, 11:10AM
                • "But generally, happiness is about the present. It’s about living in the moment. Happiness is experiencing the joy of a song such as ‘Happy’, great sex, crazy dancing, partying with friends, or whatever turns you on. It’s a natural emotion. "

                  I think what you describe as happiness is more accurately called pleasure. Pleasure is fleeting, but happiness is more elusive, deeper and longer lasting. Like contentment, the feeling of satisfaction with one's lot in life. That's what happiness is to me anyway.

                  Maybe I'm lucky...or strange...but I find the things that give my life meaning are also what make me happy. Helping and connecting with others, writing, expanding my mind, finding beauty in the world around me, exploring, little adventures, simple pleasures.

                  Date and time
                  February 25, 2014, 12:10PM

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