Do a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life Go Hand-In-Hand?
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstance,
but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
– Viktor Frankl
(Holocaust Survivor, Psychiatrist, and Author of “Man’s Search For Meaning”)
What is the meaning of (my) life?
What is the purpose of my life?
For many of us, these compelling questions tag along either constantly or intermittently throughout our lives. Sometimes we pause to pay attention, and at other times we don’t turn around to notice the questions following quietly in our footsteps.
There is no time limit on inquiries about life’s meaning. Asking and responding can begin at any stage and awaken us at any point throughout the lifespan. We seek to know that we are significant and our presence and purpose on this earth are important.
Dr. Viktor Frankl (quoted above) did not think of seeking meaning in life as simply a smart thing to do. Even after surviving several years in Nazi concentration camps and the loss of his entire family, Frankl believed that seeking purpose and meaning are a primary focus of living fully, adaptively, and reaching toward full potential.
Contemporary positive psychologists, define meaning as “attachment to something larger than yourself” (Seligman, 2002, Authentic Happiness). The search for meaning is not a once and done milestone, but an evolving process that ebbs and flows in the wake of life stages, transitions, and events. This leads us to another question:
Do a happy life and a meaningful life go hand-in-hand?
According to research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology by Roy Baumeister, PhD, and colleagues (2013), while happiness and meaningfulness often overlap, there are major areas of difference. Here are a few concepts based on these findings:
- Connections with other people are integral to both happiness and meaning. An important difference is that happiness is typically drawn from what others give to us, whereas meaningfulness derives from doing things for others.
- Happiness primarily involves a focus on present time. This finding contrasts with meaningfulness which seems to involve integrating past, present, and future.
- The way people encounter life’s ease or difficulty readily impacts happiness, but has less effect on experiencing meaning, which can flourish in even the most difficult conditions.
- Getting what we want can be a source of happiness, but has little to do with adding a sense of meaning to life.
- Activities that express or reflect the self positively impact the experience of meaningfulness. Some of these activities can include exercise, meditation, work, praying, buying gifts for others, and reading for pleasure.
It is a human need to strive toward a sense of purpose, to renew our purpose, and to feel that we make a difference. How can we move toward experiencing greater meaning in our personal and professional lives? In his book Authentic Happiness Martin Seligman, PhD, father of positive psychology offers a strategy:
“The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness.”
– Martin Seligman, PhD
Humans seek to impose meaning on our experiences, to understand and appreciate our world and our role in it. The search for meaning makes our lives feel valued and significant. Engaging and building on our strengths (and we all have them) is a strategy from which we can move toward building greater meaning in life and work.
- Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky (2013). Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 505-516.
- Roy F. Baumeister. The Meanings of Life. Aeon’s Newsletter. Retrieved on 6/3/2017 from https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-better-a-happy-life-or-a-meaningful-one
- Viktor E. Frankl (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington Square Press, NY. (First published in Austria in 1946.)
- Martin E.P. Seligman (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Atria, NY.
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