When you ask people what they want out of life, they often say that they “want to be happy.” But research has shown that happiness isn’t as fulfilling as we might think it is.
Roy Baumeister and other social psychologists published a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology investigating the difference between meaningfulness and happiness.
Based on their investigation, here are three findings that they discovered.
Happiness is found in the moment, but meaning is not
We like to enjoy ourselves, and it is good to be happy. Being in the moment helps us to enjoy what’s happening in the present. But meaning goes beyond that.
Meaning comes from connecting our lives into a narrative. When we see our lives as a connected story, we can find meaning in our lives. Humans want our lives to count for something, and we have a need to have meaningful lives. We want to see how our past, present, and future converge into something that is bigger than just the moment.
While happiness is nice, it doesn’t satisfy beyond the moment. But meaning provides context that makes our lives more fulfilling.
Meaning comes from helping; happiness from receiving
Spending time with others can contribute to both happiness and meaning, but the result depends on the kind of activity.
Receiving help from others produces happiness; however helping other people contributes more to meaning. Spending time with friends may produce happiness, but it isn’t necessarily a meaningful activity. But taking care of one’s children provides considerable meaning—even if it does not contribute to one’s happiness in the moment.
The relationship we have with others provides context as to whether they make us happy or whether they provide our lives with meaning. As Jesus said, it is more blessed to give than receive.
Happiness is lack of struggle, but meaning is in the struggle
We often think that our lives would be better if we wouldn’t have so many problems and struggles. But that isn’t necessarily so.
The struggles in our lives is what provides meaning and depth to our lives. The lack of struggle may make our lives more carefree and thus happier in the moment, but it reduces the overall level of meaning in our lives. When people retire and no longer work, that may make their lives happier, it also reduces the level of meaning in their lives.
Not having problems provides a short-term benefit but may be a long-term detriment. As a result, we should not run from our problems but we should look at our problems in the context of the narrative of our lives.
Roy Baumeister and his team have given us some perspective that we can use to lead more fulfilled lives. While the “pursuit of happiness” may sound appealing to us, the happiness in the moment is not really what we’re after. The idea that we must “pursue” happiness implies that it won’t just come to us. There is something more significant that we can receive in the pursuit of that happiness—and that is a meaningful life.