What does it take to have a happy and meaningful life?



Roy Baumeister (author of Willpower), Jennifer Aaker (author of the Dragonfly Effect), Kathleen Vohs and Emily Garbinsky have a new paper that explores the similarities and differences between happy and meaningful lives.

Here are some highlights from the research:

1) Happiness and meaningfulness are related, but distinct.

Happiness and meaningfulness were substantially and positively intercorrelated. As Table 1 shows, the correlations in the two surveys were .63 and .70. Thus, in this sample, being happy and regarding one’s life as meaningful are similar, related attitudes. 

2) Easy lives are happier and difficult lives are more sad. If anything, the trend seemed to be the opposite for meaningfulness. Being healthy and frequently feeling good were both connected to happiness but neither had any connection to meaning.

Finding one’s life to be relatively easy was linked to more happiness. Finding life difficult (a separate item) was linked to lower happiness. Neither variable correlated significantly with meaning, and in fact the trends were in the opposite direction for meaning as compared with happiness. Considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but approached a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness (consistent with the view that some people live highly meaningful but not very pleasant lives, perhaps because their meaningful activities require strenuous and unpleasant activities). Thus, finding one’s life easy or difficult is a matter of happiness and not of meaning. 

Good health is certainly a very basic and rather universal desire. How healthy people considered themselves to be was a positive contributor to happiness, but it was irrelevant to meaningfulness. Healthy and sick people can have equally meaningful lives, but the healthy people are happier than sick ones.

Good and bad feelings often arise from the satisfaction versus thwarting of desires. The more often people felt good, the happier they were. The more often they felt bad, the less happy they were. Neither was related to meaning. 

3) By and large, money had a big effect on happiness but had little effect on meaning.

Being able to buy the things one needs had a significant positive relationship to happiness but was irrelevant to meaning. Another item that asked about being able to buy the things one wants (as opposed to needs) yielded quite similar results. Scarcity of money reduced both meaningfulness and happiness, but the effect was considerably larger on happiness than meaningfulness. In terms of variance accounted for, monetary scarcity was twenty times more detrimental to happiness (5%) than to meaning (0.25%). Overall, then, having sufficient money to purchase objects of desire (both necessities and luxuries) was important for happiness but made little difference as to whether life was meaningful. 

4) Thinking about the present was connected to happiness. The more people thought about the past and the future, the more meaningful their lives were — but less happy.

Meaning links experiences and events across time, whereas happiness is mostly in the moment and therefore largely independent of other moments.

The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy. Table 2 reports the effects. The effects were roughly similar for thinking about the future and the past, and these items individually significantly related to happiness (the more thinking, the less happiness) but had marginal trends toward positive relations to meaning. Another item revealed that the more people reported imagining the future, the more meaningful their lives were, but the less happy. Thus, thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.

In contrast, the more time people reported thinking about the present, the happier they were, although this was weak and only marginally significant at p=.07. (The results might be weakened because many unpleasant events force an acute awareness of the present, thereby diluting the statistical effect linking happiness to focusing on the present.) Thinking about the present was irrelevant to meaningfulness. Thus, whereas meaning is found in connecting to past and future, happiness may be mainly in the present. 

5) Time spent with other people was connected to both happiness and meaningfulness. Time spent with loved ones was important to meaning but irrelevant to happiness.

Feeling connected to others was linked independently to both, as was thinking that others feel connected to oneself. Recalling hours spent alone, and predicting future hours spent alone, had significant negative correlations with both happiness and meaningfulness. Frequency of spending time with friends was positively related to happiness and fell just short of a positive correlation with meaning. Percent time spent with loved people was significant with meaning, but surprisingly irrelevant to happiness, possibly because loved ones can be difficult at times. People with more meaningful lives also agreed that “relationships are more important than achievements,” and that item was unrelated to happiness, though it was in the same positive direction and therefore the item did not meet our criteria for inclusion. 

6) Happy people are takers, people with meaning are givers.

Being a giver was positively related to meaningfulness, while being a taker was negatively related to it. Meaning is thus about being a giver rather than a taker. With happiness, the correlation trends were in the opposite direction. Although neither correlation with happiness was significant, their difference was, Z=.350, p<.001. Thus, takers may well be happier than givers. In any case, the clear and strong finding is that givers have more meaningful lives than takers.

…Thus, if anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need. But in everyday life, helping others makes the helper’s life meaningful and thereby increases happiness.

7) Are you a worrier? It’s linked to lower happiness — but higher meaning.

Consistent with intuitions, more worrying was linked to lower happiness. However, perhaps surprisingly, greater frequency of worrying was associated with higher levels of meaningfulness. People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives. Again, we think this indicates that worrying comes from involvement and engagement with important activities that go beyond the self, and beyond the present (worry is ineluctably future-oriented) and so worrying may often be an unavoidable part of a meaningful life, even though it detracts from happiness.

8) Want a quick summary?

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.

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