The Road Worth Traveling: Happiness vs. Meaning

Should we be chasing happiness? While lives filled with meaning and happiness overlap, some researchers argue they are distinctly different.

If you ask anyone, most will say they want to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is part of our culture and is even written in the Delcaration of Independence.


But we don’t critically think about the concept of happiness itself. 

Happy people appreciate who they are as individuals and are optimistic. A lot of being happy is based on genetic factors too.

Happiness is also a fleeting emotion. It’s present-oriented. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, involves integrating the past, present and future.

Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University, and other colleagues surveyed 397 people and looked for correlations between their levels of happiness, meaning and other various aspects of their lives.

They found some key differences between meaningfulness and happiness:

Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seemed pretty irrelevant to a meaningful life. Health, money and ease of life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.

Social connections are linked to both happiness and meaning, but the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships (such as family or those close to it) increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning. Time with loved ones may involve hashing out problems, while time with “party friends” as I like to call it may simply promote good feelings “without much responsibility,” a Standford article explains.

Meaningful lives involve stress. “Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that being in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.”

So… should we seek both?

“Having a meaningful life contributes to being happy and being happy may also contribute to finding life more meaningful,” he says, which seems like a given.

But if you are only seeking a life of “hedonic well-being” (aka the idea that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness), you may be on the wrong path to finding it because, well, pain is inevitable.

What it comes down to: If you want to live a good life, it might be wise to pursue things you find meaningful.

“Work toward long-term goals; do things that society holds in high regard—for achievement or moral reasons,” Baumeister says. “You draw meaning from a larger context, so you need to look beyond yourself to find the purpose in what you’re doing.”

I’m not suggesting quitting your day job to join the Peace Corps, but instead aim for solid relationships, altruism, purposeful self-expression — rather than seeking pleasure alone.

(And you should still take that all-inclusive trip to Mexico because hell yes)

treat yo self 3

Chances are you’ll also find the elusive happiness along the way.

What do you think? Does happiness lie in feeling good, or in doing good?

Or is it both?

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Add yours →

  1. As you process through this, and have a few life experiences of your own, you will begin to see them as one in the same.
    When someone close to you does something that takes away your happiness, you’ll find that the meaning has a tendency to go with it.
    My blessings be with you… and this amazing journey you’re on.


  2. I think both. While I agree with you that happiness is fleeting, I find that meaning…being kind, doing for others, setting positive examples, exhibiting empathy, enjoying the happiness of others (all of which can be a stretch and challenging at times)… gives purpose and meaning to my life. Therefore, my fleeting moments of happiness become much more abundant…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just tweeted this post in hopes that someone would give me an answer. I have no idea which I’d prefer. I’d like to say purposeful altruism, but if you offered me an all-expense paid vacay with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and drink, that might tipped the scales the other way.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Kelly Marie Taylor

    The quest and the meaning of happiness is the topic of my traveling documentary, I’m currently in LA till wednesday if you want to meet up, I would love to share some insight 🙂
    Sorry didn’t find your email to PM.


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