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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