When it comes to our wellbeing, it is crucial that we assess two things: how happy are we? And how meaningful do we find what we’re doing?
Both are necessary components for a fulfilling life. Despite this, happiness gets far more attention than meaning in almost every discipline - from psychology, to economics, to philosophy, to policy. We have a World Happiness Database; we rate the happiest countries in the world, we rate the happiest jobs in the world, and we analyze how happiness impacts our productivity.
But we don’t do the same with meaning.
Often, happiness and meaning are lumped together into one category. It’s an easy mistake to make; many activities give us both happiness and meaning. Many activities do neither and should be avoided.
However, for a select few activities, the effects on happiness and meaning don’t correlate one bit. They show opposite trends. Going on a beach vacation for example, might make you happy but may not add much meaning to your life. Running a marathon on the other hand imbues you with a deeper sense of meaning and accomplishment, but may not make you happy (especially not in your tired, sweaty, blistery state.)
Roy Baumeister’s 5 distinctions
In 2013, social psychologist Roy Baumeister tried to dissect this prickly, often confused line between happiness and meaning, and came out with some startling differences. Together with fellow psychologists Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky, he surveyed 400 American citizens about happiness and meaning.
He did not give a definition of either term in his survey. Instead, he left it to his subjects to respond based on their own understanding of the two words. This gave him huge insight into the way we interpret meaning and happiness in our day-to-day life.
From the results, Baumeister and his colleagues were able to find five major differences between happiness and meaning:
Getting what you want and need
Having your desires satisfied is a reliable source of happiness, Baumeister found. However, it adds nothing to a sense of meaning.
For example, if you want chocolate and you get it, you’ll be happier. But you won’t find your day has become more meaningful.
Happiness was found to flourish only in easy conditions. Things like good health, low stress, and an easy job all added to participants’ happiness, but added nothing to a sense of meaning.
On the other hand, people tend to find meaning even in difficult situations. In a high-stress, challenging environment, meaning flourishes and happiness plummets.
Imagine you’re facing a big drawback at work: the strategy you were working on for months falls through. This obviously does nothing to increase your level of happiness, but it forces you to evaluate your mistakes, focus your energy on overcoming the challenge, and ultimately leaves you with a better understanding of what you should do. A negative experience turns into an opportunity for you to grow personally and professionally.
Ultimately, what we call happiness and what we call meaning has to do with our time frame. Happiness is about the present, about immediate pleasure. It’s that giddy rush you get when you watch the latest Game of Thrones episode, or when you get a pay raise at work. It feels great in the moment, but happiness from one-off events is short-lived.
Meaning on the other hand, is more about establishing a long-term trajectory. Those who found more meaning but less happiness in their lives spent less time focusing on the present, and more time linking past, present and future. They spent a lot of time thinking about their goals, planning their future, and reflecting on past experiences.
Having a caring support network is important for both meaning and happiness. The lack of these networks is linked to low levels of both.
However, there’s a fundamental difference in the type of social connection that increases your happiness versus the type that increases your sense of meaning. Meaningfulness comes when you contribute to other people (selflessness), and happiness comes when they contribute to you (selfishness).
To get both happiness and meaning out of your friendships, you need to both give and take. For example, if you have a friend you always make an effort to call but they never call you back, you might get some meaning out of the relationship but little happiness. If a family member supports you but you don’t reciprocate, you’ll feel a sense of happiness but not a sense of meaning.
Struggles, problems and stress
Where these arise, there is usually lower happiness and higher meaningfulness. The curious thing is, having good things happen to you can increase your happiness and your sense of meaning. But bad things? They only ever show a positive correlation with meaning. Often, those who encounter many negative events (which reduce happiness) have a deeper sense of purpose and humility. Events that are big blows to happiness turn out to have significant positive associations with a meaningful life.
A key example of the relationship between meaning and stress is retirement. Even if someone could stop working tomorrow and have a comfortable retirement with low stress, time with family, and immediate pleasure, many keep working because they don’t want to give up the meaning they derive from their work. With retirement come fewer challenges and more time to relax. As a result happiness goes up, but meaningfulness goes down.
The self: personal identity
The last difference Baumeister found in his study has to do with activities that express the self.
These are activities that you do not because someone told you, or because it’s your job, but purely because of your own desire to do so. It was found to add great meaning to people’s lives, but had no positive correlation with happiness.
If your passion is fitness, or painting, or entrepreneurship, pursuing those interests will yield significant positive correlations with a meaningful life.
They might also make you stressed. Or not yield immediate reward. But that doesn’t matter, because you’re probably not doing them for short term gains. You’re doing them to add purpose, value, and efficacy to your life. In short, to add meaning.
The dichotomy between meaning and happiness investigated here by Roy Baumeister is similar to that expressed by Stefan Sagmeister. Sagmeister doesn’t use the same terms happiness and meaning, but illustrates a similar point.
Stefan Sagmeister’s types of happiness
Last year, Sandglaz co-founders Nada and Zaid were at TechStars Chicago. When they were there, they stumbled upon The Happy Show, which we later featured in an interview with Stefan Sagmeister, the show’s creator.
Rather than dividing positive experiences into happiness and meaning, he divides happiness into three different levels according to time.
There is short term happiness like bliss, joy and ecstasy, medium term happiness like satisfaction and wellbeing and long term happiness like “finding what you are put on this earth for.”
Sagmeister’s description of long term happiness sounds awfully similar to Baumeister’s description of meaning. Baumeister’s conclusion on happiness sounds much like the short-term, instant reward that Sagmeister is describing. Sagmeister’s description of medium-term happiness falls somewhere in between.
Not only do they have similar names, they are also talking about a similar phenomenon.
Whenever we make a life decision, we are always faced by the same question: do I do what makes me happy right now? Or do I plan ahead so that I feel more satisfied in the long run?
Ultimately, we shouldn’t have to choose between either or. In your career or personal life, I’m sure you would wish for happiness in addition to meaning, not one or the other.
So what kind of career gives you what?
Ben Casnocha took a look at typical career paths and what they offer:
- Low happiness, high meaning: This is the job that doesn’t necessarily leave you happy on a day-to-day basis, but leaves you feeling like you’ve contributed to a meaningful cause. For example, working for an NGO in a tough place, or working as a tech entrepreneur where you believe you can create meaningful long-term change.
- Low happiness, low meaning: Avoid this! Casnocha places stereotypical lawyers and bankers into this category: they work in a high-stress environment, without sense of sacrifice for something bigger, and while they make money they don’t have the free time to spend it. Need more convincing? Check out John Zimmer’s TEDx Talk about new beginnings after spending years as a partner at a law firm in Toronto, Canada.
- High happiness, low meaning: these are easy, low stress jobs that leave you feeling happy day-to-day, but not necessarily motivated or inspired. For example, a social media analyst at a large company, or an administrative assistant.
Then, there are jobs where you have both. At a company where team members’ autonomy is valued and your boss encourages your personal development, you are more likely to find your job meaningful while also having a pleasant day-to-day experience.
Casnocha’s advice, if you have to choose between one or the other, is to choose a career that’s meaningful. Once you do that, there are many ways to weave in happiness habits so that both your short-term and long-term needs are fulfilled. Something as simple as going out for dinner with friends or keeping a gratitude journal can give you the momentary enjoyment needed to keep your long-term goals in perspective.
What’s more important to you in your job, your day-to-day happiness or a sense of meaning? Do you find it helpful to think of them as two different concepts? Share your experiences in the comment section below!