Isn’t the desire for happiness and a meaningful life the same thing? Research by Roy Baumesiter, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky published in the Journal of Positive Psychology indicates that although seeking happiness and finding life meaningful are interrelated, there are critical differences between the two. The researchers note: “Happiness may be rooted in having one’s needs and desires satisfied, including being largely free from unpleasant events. Meaningfulness may be considerably more complex than happiness, because it requires interpretive construction of circumstances across time according to abstract values and other culturally mediated ideas.”
The researchers gathered their data from three online surveys completed by a national sample of 397 adults. Study participants scored a number of statements (using a 7-point scale) in order to create indices regarding happiness and meaningfulness. The goal of the surveys was to differentiate meaning and happiness. Based on the data, the researchers obtained some fascinating results. Here are some highlights of the study:
1. Happiness and meaningfulness are related but distinct.
2. Easy lives are happier; difficult lives are sadder. However, being healthy and feeling good are both linked to happiness but neither had any connection to meaning.
3. For the most part, money had a large impact on happiness, but very little impact on meaning.
4. Thinking about the present is connected to happiness; however, when thinking about the past and future, people feel less happy, but feel that their lives are more meaningful.
5. The time spent with other people is linked with happiness and meaningfulness. More specifically, time spent with loved ones is important to meaning, but irrelevant to happiness; viz. relationships are more important than achievements.
6. Happy people are takers, while people with meaning are givers.
The researchers summarize their study: “Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.”
So it boils down to one simple question: are you a giver or a taker?
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For further reading: http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/SomeKeyDifferencesHappyLifeMeaningfulLife_2012.pdf