Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Meaning and happiness

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Meaning and happiness:
What is meaning and how does it relate to happiness?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Achieving happiness is a common goal, towards which many of us strive, but an important question to consider is whether the pursuit of happiness in life is also the pursuit of meaning. When examining the established literature around this topic, questions arise such as:

  • Can you have a happy life without having a meaningful life?
  • What motivates us to seek meaning in our lives?
  • What factors equate to a meaningful life compared to happy life?

This chapter will examine what the term happiness means within the scientific literature, what factors comprise happiness, and the main theoretical approaches to classifying happiness. It will then examine meaning and whether meaning and how it is derived, and finally, it will examine the differences between a happy life and meaningful life.[1]

It could be argued that living a happy life is synonymous with finding meaning in life. After all, if you are living life in such a way that you feel you are making a positive contribution to the world, and are thus having a meaningful impact with your life, one logical conclusion could be that this would lead to increased happiness. Interestingly, while current research demonstrates that happiness and meaning are indeed related,[1] this simple model does not acknowledge that there are many important differences and confounding factors that comprise a happy life compared to a meaningful life.

Let's have a look at an example, which we will use throughout the chapter to examine the topic in an everyday life setting.

A possible Jane.

Case Study - Jane.

Jane is a 29 year old female in good health. She is in a long-term committed relationship with her partner. She is tertiary educated and is employed in her chosen field. She is completing an internship program with her current employer requiring that she works long hours, though she makes a reasonable wage and is financially stable. She has recently lost her phone. Jane is of religious faith and grew up in a family and culture that promoted the importance of family and living in accordance with her religious values. She learned these values from her grandmother, who has recently been ill. Jane and her partner have decided to have children, which Jane inherently believes will bring meaning to her life in line with her values around the importance of family. When she is experiencing stress from her employment, Jane predicts that once she has children, she will live a happier life.

In line with research in the area[1], one simple definition for happiness that this chapter will use is to define happiness as having one's needs and desires satisfied.  Meaning, on the other hand, is a more complex topic that involves interactions between abstract values held by individuals, cultural norms and ideas, and circumstances across time[1]. The sections below will unpack some of these factors to assist in understanding the similarities and differences between happy and meaningful lives.

Happiness[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

What is happiness?[edit | edit source]

Happiness is an emotion. The basic concept of happiness is well understood within everyday culture, so much so that we even expect young children to understand when they are experiencing happiness, and an understanding of happiness is ingrained in children’s entertainment and early education.

A child experiencing happiness

While we may each have an everyday understanding of what it is to be happy, the research literature around happiness has demonstrated that establishing exactly what is happiness is somewhat more complex.  When examining happiness, the current research literature more commonly uses the term well-being as a suitable synonym. In current research, well-being can be defined as a complex concept that refers to optimal psychological functioning and experience[2]. Happiness can be narrowly or broadly focused:

If we continue to think about our case study example, a narrow focus might be Jane experiencing happiness to have found her lost phone. A broader focus might be Jane experiencing happiness that her elderly relative has recovered from a serious illness. A broader example still would include Jane being happy with her everyday situation and life [1].

Through breaking happiness down into its various levels of focus, we can better understand that what it means to be happy is a largely subjective construct, and happiness will be experienced differently from individual to individual, as well as for the same individual across time.  The subjectivity of happiness has occupied the minds of many past philosophers, including Aristotle and in current times has become a focus of study for the discipline of Positive Psychology[3].

Happiness factors[edit | edit source]

Current research on happiness, notably research conducted by Diener and various colleagues, interestingly finds that many factors that most people would predict to be common-sense indicators of happiness such as money[4] and attractiveness[5] turn out not be. Such factors that may be commonly associated and strived for as means of happiness, yet which have a surprisingly weak or non-existent association with happiness include money, age, parenthood, intelligence, and attractiveness[factual?]. Factors identified to be moderately associated with happiness include good physical health, religious faith, and social activity[factual?]. Factors identified to be strongly associated with happiness include love and marriage, job satisfaction, and even a genetic predisposition and personality, suggesting there may be a hereditary basis for levels of happiness.[6]

Happiness predictors[factual?]

Non predictors Moderate Strong






Social Activity


Love and marriage




Jane’s initial prediction that, by having children she will lead a happier life, is not necessarily supported by this research. There may be many factors involved in whether Jane will have a happy life other than simply whether she has children.

The study of happiness[edit | edit source]

Since the emergence of the discipline of Positive Psychology in the 1990s, the study of well-being has received increasing interest within the academic literature. Positive psychology is an approach to psychology that aims to research and better understand optimal human functioning and ways to enrich human life through the study of the positive, creative, adaptive and fulfilling aspects of human existence[6]. Presently, the study of happiness is a focus of research within the positive psychology field.

Traditionally, research on the study of well-being has fallen into two approaches, hedonic well-being, which is characterised by positive feelings, emotions and pleasures of the mind and body [3][7] and eudaimonic wellbeing which deals with human potential including character, achievements and the presence of meaning in one's life[7]. Although these two approaches are still prevalent in the current research, more recent research into this field has extended these distinctions further. These concepts are now typically referred to in the academic literature as subjective well-being and psychological well-being. While extending the fields of study further than their predecessors, these two research traditions have been closely linked to the hedonic (subjective well-being) and eudaimonic (psychological well-being) approaches to understanding happiness[3].

Subjective well-being[edit | edit source]

The study of subjective well-being emerged in the late 1950s, while researchers were attempting to outline useful indicators of quality of life[8]. Subjective well-being is the view that life satisfaction and happiness are the core components of quality of life. Such researchers would suggest that it is the evaluation of life in terms of both a cognitive component (life satisfaction) and the balance between two affective components (positive and negative affect) that comprises subjective wellbeing[8]. Life satisfaction reflects an individual's perceived distance from their current life situation compared to their aspirational goals.  Overall happiness in this context refers to the balance between positive affect and negative affect[8].

When looking at our example, if Jane feels that her life closely matches what she would like for her life to be like, and her positive feelings and emotions generally outweigh her negative feelings and emotions, she would be said to have higher subjective well-being than if these were reversed.

Similar to the subjective nature of the experience of happiness, the judgments made about an individual's life when determining subjective well-being are different across individuals and contexts. The focus of satisfaction judgments, for instance, can be at the global level, or could include more specific judgments about particular life domains such as relationships, work, and play[9]. It is important to note that, from this perspective, it is not one's life circumstances, but rather how the individual feels about those life circumstances that determines their subjective well-being.

If Jane expects that at this time in her career she is required to put in long hours, and believing that in the longer term this will help her career and life aspirations, she might interpret these long hours as a positive, experiencing more positive affect and feeling closer to her aspirational goals. Thus, her subjective well-being would be improved. If, however, she were to believe that she is being unfairly targeted for overtime, and would prefer to be spending time establishing her family, she would interpret the longer working hours as more negative, she would experience more negative affect, feel further from her aspirational goals, and subsequently have lower subjective well-being.

Psychological well-being[edit | edit source]

Whereas the subjective wellbeing tradition formulates well-being in terms of overall life satisfaction and happiness, the psychological well-being tradition draws heavily on formulations of human development and existential challenges of life[8]. This was originally formulated to challenge the prevailing hedonistic view of wellbeing within psychology[10]. Psychological wellbeing consists of six characteristics that include self-acceptance, personal growth, relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, and purpose in life[10]. Further information about this six factor model can be found here.

Jane could be said to experience increased psychological well-being if she has a positive attitude about herself, is open to new experiences and personal development, has close relationships with friends and family though is independent of social pressures, feels as though she has control over her life situation, and has a good understanding of what her life will look like in the future.

Meaning[edit | edit source]

Meaning in life can be defined as a sense of one's life having a purpose or investing time and energy into achieving life goals[11]. More specifically, meaning is both a cognitive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value. People may feel that their life is meaningful if they find it consistently rewarding in some way[1]. When individuals describe sources of meaning in their lives, research has found that responses usually fall into specific categories relating to: involvement in interpersonal relationships; self-improvement and understanding; and behaving in ways that correspond with beliefs held by the individual (such as religion and core morals and values).[11][12]

Religion can offer those who adhere to it a larger framework of meaning in their life.

Research has outlined various ways to understand meaning, including that meaning in an individual's life can be attained through the individual aligning themselves to a larger framework of meaning such as that offered by a religion or a particular philosophy of life[11]. Similarly to a broad focus of happiness, meaning is not limited to the immediately present environment, but rather can be present when individuals consider past, future, and spatially distant realities or possibilities. One important component of meaning is that it can integrate separated events across time. This is evident when considering one important component of meaning, that of purpose. Purpose allows events that are occurring in the present time to draw meaning from future events.[1]

For Jane, an area in which she derives meaning in her life is based upon her value of family. Jane has always imagined herself having children in the future, and considers that she will have purpose as a mother and as a grandmother in later life. Jane also derives meaning from her personal relationships with her partner, family and workmates. She derives meaning from her employment, which though stressful, is something that she has worked hard to achieve and is an area of continual self improvement. Her current employment also gives meaning to her past efforts while she was studying for her future career. When unforeseen life circumstances affect Jane, she could interpret these events differently based on what she finds the most meaningful in her life. For example, imagine that Jane's employer were to make her position redundant. Had Jane considered her work to be her only purpose in life from which she derives meaning, this would be a more difficult event than if Jane considers her role as mother to be a more meaningful purpose in her life. In the latter situation, Jane would be drawing meaning from future planned events to interpret the current situation, thus the meaning would be linking situations across time.

Happy life vs meaningful life: What is the difference?[edit | edit source]

Anxiety can be a consequence of a meaningful life without happiness.

While there is a considerable research base covering both the topic of happiness and the topic of meaning, limited research thus far has examined the difference between living a happy life and living a meaningful life. In such research as that by Baumeister, Vohn, Aaker and Garbinsky, 2013 and Baumeister and Vohns 2013, the authors note that although meaning and happiness are both important factors that make up a desirable life, there are important differences between the two, and concepts that exist in isolation or overlap considerably. They note that individuals can live lives that are full of happiness or subjective well-being, but are nonetheless relatively devoid of a sense of meaning. They note that these individuals could be considered to be relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish compared to their peers, and take more from interpersonal relationships than they tend to give back. They note the more positive character traits associated with these individuals include that they tend to be carefee, relatively unburdened by worry or anxiety, have desires and needs that are easily satisfied, and are able to avoid difficult situations.[1]

If Jane were living a happy life without meaning, she might be more carefree with regard to the development of her career and family life, adapting easily to changes as they occur without significant thought about how this might affect her future. She would be less likely to dwell on past decisions (such as when she was offered a promotion that would come at the expense of her ability to be near to her family) and instead make decisions based upon what makes her happy now rather than for her future (or thought of differently, ignoring what might be meaningful to her over the course of her whole life).

On the other hand, individuals can also live a life that is full of meaning, though devoid of happiness. Such individuals, tend to be more anxious and stressed. They spend considerably more time thinking deeply about the future and reflecting on past struggles. The research suggests that they tend to get into more arguments than their happier counterparts, though are able to self-regulate well. They are more likely to say that their actions are reflections of who they are than their counterparts, and are more giving in interpersonal relationships.[1] They also rate themselves as more creative and wiser than others[13].

If Jane were living a meaningful but unhappy life, she would likely be increasingly stressed about her conflicting values of career and family. She would dwell on past decisions and imagine how these might affect her future life. If we imagine that Jane's religion were also an important source of meaning in her life, we can envisage that this could potentially also affect her happiness further, as she may have aspirational goals that she live in accordance with certain values, but in reality she finds it difficult or arduous to adhere to these, thus increasing her sense of living a meaningful life by reducing her happiness if she complies.

Interestingly, Jane’s aspiration of having a family can provide a useful illustration of the difference between happiness and meaning. Research suggests that upon reflection in later life, parents usually report that they are very glad they had children. In contrast, parents living with children typically score lower than those without children on happiness indicators. This disparity is referred to in research as the "parenthood paradox".[14]

Being a parent is associated with the "parenthood Paradox" where later in life parents rate that they are glad to have had children, though when living with children score low on indicators of happiness.

Jumping forward to when Jane has children, some of the aspects that comprise her sense of subjective well-being have been significantly impacted. While she is meeting her aspirational goal regarding having a family and thus deriving meaning from this role across her life, she is also not able to meet other aspirational goals such as those regarding her career compared to previously in her life. This, combined with the difficulties associated with parenting young children, result in Jane reporting lower subjective well-being at this time in her life, despite her life being reported as more meaningful than previously.

Jumping forward further to when Jane’s children have grown to adults, Jane has now been able to readdress the conflict between her aspirational goals of parenthood and family life with other areas (she may have resumed her career or changed her aspirations in this regard) and upon reflection, reports higher subjective well-being as the net negative affect has now decreased with the decreased stresses of parenthood. On reflection, she considers that she has led a meaningful life, and while at certain times this would have led to decreased reported well-being or happiness at times, she is glad to have made the choices that she has made.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It is clear that meaning and happiness are positively correlated and have much in common, though are distinct concepts. The literature regarding these topics suggests that there are positive and negative outcomes to the pursuit of either happiness or meaning at the expense of the other. Based upon the evidence cited, it could be considered that a pursuit of a happy life may result in short-term satisfaction of an individual's wants and needs, but result in a lack of overall meaning and direction, and reduced coherence over the course of the individual’s lifespan, as it is meaning that can link situations across context and time. Alternatively, the pursuit of meaning at the expense of happiness results in a more difficult life for the individual. 

The study of the difference between meaning and happiness is still an emerging area of research. While recent articles (such as that by Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker & Garbinsky, 2013[1]) have begun to investigate the key differences between a happy and a meaningful life, further research in this area is warranted, specifically research focused on the consequences of pursuing happiness, as well as looking at benefits of meaning without happiness.  

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology8(6), 505-516.
  2. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual review of psychology52(1), 141-166.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Wood, A. M., Osborne, G., & Hurling, R. (2009). Measuring happiness: The higher order factor structure of subjective and psychological well-being measures. Personality and Individual Differences47(8), 878-884.
  4. Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological science in the public interest5(1), 1-31.
  5. Diener, E., Wolsic, B., & Fujita, F. (1995). Physical attractiveness and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology69(1), 120.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Weiten, W. (2007). Psychology: Themes and variations: Themes and variations (8th Ed). Australia: Cengage Learning.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Schueller, S. M., & Parks, A. C. (2014). The science of self-help: Translating positive psychology research into increased individual happiness. European Psychologist19(2), 145-155. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000181
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Keyes, C. L., Shmotkin, D., & Ryff, C. D. (2002). Optimizing well-being: the empirical encounter of two traditions. Journal of personality and social psychology82(6), 1007.
  9. Kashdan, T. B., Biswas-Diener, R., & King, L. A. (2008). Reconsidering happiness: The costs of distinguishing between hedonics and eudaimonia. The Journal of Positive Psychology3(4), 219-233.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: An introduction. Journal of happiness studies9(1), 1-11.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., Krull, J. L., & Del Gaiso, A. K. (2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of personality and social psychology90(1), 179.
  12. Fave, A. D., Brdar, I., Wissing, M. P., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2013). Sources and motives for personal meaning in adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology8(6), 517-529.
  13. Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2013, January). Recent empirical findings on meaning and how it differs from happiness: A socially psychological perspective. In International Forum for Logotherapy (Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 87-94). Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy.
  14. McGregor, I., & Little, B. R. (1998). Personal projects, happiness, and meaning: on doing well and being yourself. Journal of personality and social psychology74(2), 494.

External links[edit | edit source]