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Discussing the true meaning of life and examining the nature of meaning

Support Aeon Donate now Parents often say: When we lose a sense of meaning, we get depressed. What is this thing we call meaning, and why might we need it so badly?

To be sure, happiness and meaningfulness frequently overlap. Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness, a necessary but insufficient condition. If that were the case, people might pursue meaning for purely instrumental reasons, as a step on the road towards happiness. But then, is there any reason to want meaning for its own sake?

The difference between meaningfulness and happiness was the focus of an investigation I worked on with my fellow social psychologists Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology this August. We carried out a survey of nearly 400 US citizens, ranging in age from 18 to 78.

Why Study Philosophy?

The survey posed questions about the extent to which people thought their lives were happy and the extent to which they thought they were meaningful. We did not supply a definition of happiness or meaning, so our subjects responded using their own understanding of those words. By asking a large number of other questions, we were able to see which factors went with happiness and which went with meaningfulness. As you might expect, the two states turned out to overlap substantially.

Almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. We narrowed our search to look for factors that had opposite effects on happiness and meaning, or at least, factors that had a positive correlation with one and not even a hint of a positive correlation with the other negative or zero correlations were fine. Using this method, we found five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness, five areas where different versions of the good life parted company.

The first had to do with getting what you want and need. Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult. Happy people say they have enough money to buy the things they want and the things they need.

Good health is a factor that contributes to happiness but not to meaningfulness. Healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning. The more often people feel good — a feeling that can arise from getting what one wants or needs — the happier they are. The less often they feel bad, the happier they are.

But the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions. The second set of differences involved time frame. Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time.

Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were.

Misery is often focused on the present, too, but people are happy more often than they are miserable. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied.

Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story. This begins to suggest a theory for why it is we care so much about meaning.

Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable.

  • While eudaimonic, humanistic, existential and psychodynamic perspectives on the role of the true self in psychological functioning provide a basis for hypotheses, social cognitive research and theory informed the methods we used to assess and manipulate the cognitive accessibility of the true self-concept;
  • Studies 1 and 2 were experimental.

For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time.

Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future.

It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. Despite these realities, people experience happiness as something that is felt here and now, and that cannot be counted on to last.

By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning. Social life was the locus of our third set of differences. As you might expect, connections to other people turned out to be important both for meaning and for happiness. Being alone in the world is linked to low levels of happiness and meaningfulness, as is feeling lonely.


Simply put, meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you. This runs counter to some conventional wisdom: Well, to the extent that it does, the effect depends entirely on the overlap between meaning and happiness.

Helping others had a big positive contribution to meaningfulness independent of happiness, but there was no sign that it boosted happiness independently of meaning. If anything, the effect was in the opposite direction: We found echoes of this phenomenon when we asked our subjects how much time they spent taking care of children.

The True Self in the Psychological Sciences

For non-parents, childcare contributed nothing to happiness or meaningfulness. For parents, on the other hand, caring for children was a substantial source of meaning, though it still seemed irrelevant to happiness, probably because children are sometimes delightful and sometimes stressful and annoying, so it balances out. Regarding oneself as a giving person strongly predicted more meaningfulness and less happiness. The effects for being a taker were weaker, possibly because people are reluctant to admit that they are takers.

Even so, it was fairly clear that being a taker or at least, considering oneself to be one boosted happiness but reduced meaning. The depth of social ties can also make a difference in how social life contributes to happiness and meaning. Spending time with friends was linked to higher happiness but it was irrelevant to meaning.

Having a few beers with buddies or enjoying a nice lunch conversation with friends might be a source of pleasure but, on the whole, it appears not to be very important to a meaningful life. By comparison, spending more time with loved ones was linked to higher meaning and was irrelevant to happiness. The difference, presumably, is in the depth of the relationship. Time with friends is often devoted to simple pleasures, without much at stake, so it may foster good feelings while doing little to increase meaning.

Thine Own Self: True Self-Concept Accessibility and Meaning in Life

If your friends are grumpy or tiresome, you can just move on. Time with loved ones is not so uniformly pleasant. Sometimes one has to pay bills, deal with illnesses or repairs, and do other unsatisfying chores. And of course, loved ones can be difficult too, in which case you generally have to work on the relationship and hash it out.

It is probably no coincidence that arguing was itself associated with more meaning and less happiness. If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself A fourth category of differences had to do with struggles, problems, stresses and the like. In general, these went with lower happiness and higher meaningfulness.

We asked how many positive and negative events people had recently experienced.

The meanings of life

Having lots of good things happen turned out to be helpful for both meaning and happiness. But bad things were a different story. Highly meaningful lives encounter plenty of negative events, which of course reduce happiness. Indeed, stress and negative life events were two powerful blows to happiness, despite their significant positive association with a meaningful life.

We begin to get a sense of what the happy but not very meaningful life would be like. Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles — all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life.

Epistemology as a discipline

The transition to retirement illustrates this difference: Do people go out looking for stress in order to add meaning to their lives? It seems more likely that they seek meaning by pursuing projects that are difficult and uncertain. One tries to accomplish things in the world: To use an example close to home, conducting research adds immensely to the sense of a meaningful life what could be meaningful than working to increase the store of human knowledge?

The final category of differences had to do with the self and personal identity. Activities that express the self are an important source of meaning but are mostly irrelevant to happiness. Of the 37 items on our list that asked people to rate whether some activity such as working, exercising or meditating was an expression or reflection of the self, 25 yielded significant positive correlations with a meaningful life and none was negative.

Only two of the 37 items socialising, and partying without alcohol were positively linked to happiness, and some even had a significant negative relationship. The worst was worry: If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself.

  1. Traditional Greek conceptions of the good life included the life of prosperity and the life of social position, in which case virtue would be the possession of wealth or nobility and perhaps physical beauty.
  2. But where does such knowledge come from?
  3. While eudaimonic, humanistic, existential and psychodynamic perspectives on the role of the true self in psychological functioning provide a basis for hypotheses, social cognitive research and theory informed the methods we used to assess and manipulate the cognitive accessibility of the true self-concept.
  4. Know that, in contrast, seems to denote the possession of specific pieces of information, and the person who has such knowledge generally can convey it to others.

Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness. This might seem almost paradoxical: Expressing yourself, defining yourself, building a good reputation and other self-oriented activities are more about meaning than happiness. Does all of this really tell us anything about the meaning of life?

Another assumption is that we are even capable of giving a true answer. Can we know whether our lives are meaningful? We just asked them to rate their level of agreement with statements such as: First of all, what is life? It offers her little in the way of useful or even comprehensible information — except for its definition of life, which she circles in red: I should add that we now know it is a special kind of physical process: The chemicals in a body are pretty much the same from the moment before death to the moment after.

Nonetheless, life is a purely physical reality.