Happiness vs. Meaning

Happiness and meaning are both good things to have, and are arguably similarly important. But happiness gets the vast majority of attention in psychology, economics, philosophy, and policy. Why? One clue is that happiness tends to be near, while meaning is far:

His own study found a slight negative correlation between the number of times people in a study spontaneously mentioned “goals” and their happiness. … The most intriguing finding from an array of studies on file at the database is the lack of correlation between seeing meaning in life and being happy. (more)

The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy. The more people reported imagining the future, the more meaningful their lives were, but the less happy. … Being focused on the future and being long-term oriented were more strongly associated with meaning than with happiness. In contrast, being short-term oriented went with happiness more than meaning. Happiness was moreover rated as considerably more short-lived and fleeting than meaningfulness. Conversely, meaningfulness was rated as much more lasting and permanent than happiness. … Self-rated happiness was quite consistent across the month from the first to the third time point. (Other data show happiness to be remarkably stable even across many years). Our participants’ rated impression that happiness is fleeting and unstable is thus incorrect. (more)

A new study … asked nearly 400 Americans … whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. … People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry … [and] is associated with selfish behavior. …

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. … Having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. … They also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life, … but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents. … People who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy. Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. (more)

The strong academic emphasis on happiness over meaning suggests that we tend to think of happiness as more what people really want; meaning is more what people pretend to want in far present-a-good-image mode. Of course the crusaders who talk the most about trying to increase the world’s happiness are mostly talking in far mode, and they mainly use that cause to create meaning, not happiness, in their own lives.

So there is a bit of a tension here between the meaning that crusaders choose for themselves and the happiness they try give to others. They might reasonably be accused of elitism, thinking that happiness is good for the masses, while meaning should be reserved for elites like them. Also, since such folks tend to embrace far mode thoughts more, and tend less to think that near mode desires say what we really want, such folks should also be conflicted about their overwhelming emphasis on happiness over meaning when giving policy advice.

I don’t think it works to have the main meaning in most people’s lives to be to try to get more meaning for other people’s lives. Something else must also be importantly meaningful, such as insight, exploration, artistic achievement, etc.

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  • Doug

    Happiness is more emphasized in the academic literature because academics are left-biased. The left tends to support political structures that promote happiness, whereas the right tends to support meaning.

    The traditional source of meaning for most people in Western societies is family, work and religion. Broadly speaking liberal attitudes tend towards decreasing the importance and centrality of these aspects in most people’s lives (and vice versa for conservatives).

    For example consider welfare, liberals tend to support it because they see people in poverty suffering could be easily relieved by re-distribution. The central conservative critique is that while having extra money would increase their near-term happiness, this robs their life of meaning and has a long-term corrosive effect on their spirit.

    People with liberal attitudes tend to dismiss such concerns as “puritanical” and frequently accuse conservative as having a fetish for suffering or being grumpy old fuddy-duddies that hate fun.

    • Robin Hanson

      I’d be interested in data on a left-right happy-meaning correlation.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Leftwing elites seek meaning for themselves by advancing the happiness of the masses. Rightwing elites seek happiness for themselves while speaking to meaningfulness for the masses.

      Specifically, rightwing state elites enrich themselves (not like, say, Stalin and Castro on the left) while preserving traditional, meaning-preserving institutions. Or rightist preachers advocate abstinence or prudery (antihappiness meaningfulness) turn out to be sexual gluttons.

      It’s an interesting pattern that looks strong to me. I don’t have an explanation. (This could be a different kind of ‘data.’)

  • guest

    Part of the problem here is that “happiness” has a wide variety of definitions, all of which are used in research. The broad notion of “life satisfaction” could certainly be said to include what is being referred as “meaning” here.

  • davesmith001

    I’d like Bryan Caplan’s thoughts on this….

  • Hedonic Treader

    “So there is a bit of a tension here between the meaning that crusaders choose for themselves and the happiness they try give to others. They might reasonably be accused of elitism, thinking that happiness is good for the masses, while meaning should be reserved for elites like them.”

    Alternative interpretation: The crusaders don’t know how to make themselves much happier much more efficiently than they already do, and their motivations aren’t perfectly selfish.

    • blink

      I would also push back on this “tension”. True, there may not be room for many people who get meaning from increasing the meaning in others’ lives. But people (some teachers/coaches) do learn skills, etc. solely for the purpose of passing them on to others. Why not the same idea for meaning in life?

      • Robin Hanson

        If some taught others meaning, at least they would both be focused on the same goal: meaning. But more common is that some get meaning from trying to give happiness to others.

      • Hedonic Treader

        This is not very deep. Some personalities may need meaning to be happy, e.g. paradox of hedonism. Others may see happiness as a goal without drawing a 100% line between self-related and other-related happiness, e.g. marginal altruism. The explicit goal is then happiness, not meaning.

        Cheap rhetoric: We call this meaning, to be able to call it hypocritical, to be able to call all altruism always hypocritical, to confirm a cynical view of human motivations in circular logic.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    So there is a bit of a tension here between the meaning that crusaders choose for themselves and the happiness they try give to others. They might reasonably be accused of elitism, thinking that happiness is good for the masses, while meaning should be reserved for elites like them.

    It’s often a point of ideology among professional “altruists” that they can and do act strictly for the benefit of others, that self-interest need not be involved. That is, they reject psychological egoism, although I’ve never understood their position even though various professional philosophers think the same as the altruists. (I was surprised to find nonegoism defended by Richard Joyce.)

    If I eat a piece of bread because I’m hungry, I know I eat it because I’m hungry, not like it is if I supported a cause because it gives me meaning. Any tension experienced from the conflict between striving for happiness for others and meaning for oneself is unlikely to be consciously experienced if it’s experienced at all. Homo hypocritus, I suppose, would imply eliminating that tension is part of the purpose of far-mode.

  • efalken

    We know happiness when we see it. Meaning, however, is often (usually?) delusional, and isn’t as clear. Researchers reasonably analyze measurable things.

    • Robin Hanson

      The usual way we measure happiness is just to ask people how happy they feel. People can and do the exact same thing to measure meaning.

      • efalken

        Wouldn’t you be more confident that a person knows their happiness better than knowing if their life has true meaning?

        That is, if someone believes some wacky transcendent movement (eg, gaia, white power, anarcho-syndicalism) gives a purpose to their lives, I would have no trouble believing them. But I would feel such a meaning is deluded, a mistake. Happiness, is rarely considered blatantly misguided.

      • Robin Hanson

        People might be mistakenly happy, just as they may mistakenly feel their lives have meaning. For both meaning and happiness we can distinguish the proper causes of such things from a person’s beliefs about such things, giving them a feeling of happiness or meaning.

      • efalken

        I still think there’s a large (ie 10 fold) difference between the probability happiness vs meaning is ill-founded.

        Think of ‘meaning’ as the ‘present value’ of all the current and future happiness of all those you care about. If so, meaning contains all the subjectivity and uncertainty as regular happiness…plus the uncertainty in one’s expectations. It’s like the difference between uncertainty in profitability vs. market cap: Income contains arbitrary items like depreciation schedules, or whether necessary investments were maintained, but that’s nothing compared to the uncertainty in a stock price.

      • Robin Hanson

        Even if you think meaning is too ill-founded to want to work to give it to others, I’ll bet that you work harder to give your own life meaning, relative to happiness.

      • efalken

        You’re right, I do. Further, most of my anxiety concerns whether my conception of meaning is ‘good enough.’

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Kahneman criticizes this method, instead asking people about their unhappiness at intervals. More objective but only negative.

        I think it’s actually easier to assess one’s meaningfulness than one’s happiness. Happiness is a sum over times, whereas meaning is holistic and relatively constant for the short term.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    One reason happiness is emphasized more than meaning is that technology has brought increased happiness but seems to have little direct relationship to meaning. In fact, the societal repercussions of the developments of technology have militated for decreased meaning. You might even say human prehistory and history shows an upward trend for happiness and a downward trend for meaning. So, if you believe in progress, like most people do, it is dissonant to recognize meaning as being as important as happiness.

    I suspect that em civilization will turn out (in your book, that is) to reverse this historical trend. (This, incidentally, is a weak clue against it.)

    Happiness and meaning as essentially incommensurable goods should disturb utilitarians. (See “Utilitarianism twice fails” — http://tinyurl.com/bfcm89e (subsection: “Nonnegotiable conflicts between subagents undermine thin utilitarianism”).

  • IMASBA

    Pre-existential crisis: you need meaning (goals) to feel happy

    Post-existential crisis: you need happiness to create meaning in your life

    Most people (young people, religious people, carefree people) are pre-crisis, but that can change for anyone at anytime.

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  • Subbanarasu Divakaran

    Happiness, very different from the evanescent Joy comes out of a genuine spiritual exposure. It never comes out of selfishness.
    As it is emphasized in our Sanskrit kritis, Kama desire is such that
    like fire when you add fuel, it grows further.Have we not seen and felt people who have chased money and Bugattis or Harley Davidsons ending up with shot into their own heads.
    Ultimately Happiness is onlyFeeling Otherwise how do you find a three hundred rupee per day labourer going about with smile even more alluring than that of Mona Lisa.