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.