While happiness and meaningfulness often overlap, the two are distinct states of being. A Stanford project looked into the lives of various people inline between the two and found some key differences based on how people choose spend their time and what experiences they cultivate. The findings may surprise some of you, while others will choose to dismiss them. After all, a study about “life” is far from being conclusive – in this case, there’s no such thing as a right answer.
Their conclusions suggest that happy people tend to live in the present moment and are classed as takers, whereas meaningfulness is associated with givers. The researchers studied the answers of 397 people surveyed over a month-long period, examining whether people thought their lives were meaningful or happy, as well as their choices, beliefs and values. According to the Stanford researchers, there are five key differences between living a happy and meaningful life:
Getting what you want and need: While satisfying desires was a reliable source of happiness, it had nothing to do with a sense of meaning. For example, healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning.
• Past, present and future: Happiness is about the present, and meaning is about linking the past, present and future. When people spend time thinking about the future or past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives become. On the other hand, if people think about the here and now, they are happier.
• Social life: Connections to other people are important both for meaning and happiness. But the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships – such as family – increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning. Time with loved ones involves hashing out problems or challenges, while time with friends may simply foster good feelings without much responsibility.
• Struggles and stresses: Highly meaningful lives encounter lots of negative events and issues, which can result in unhappiness. Raising children can be joyful but it is also connected to high stress – thus meaningfulness – and not always happiness. While the lack of stress may make one happier – like when people retire and no longer have the pressure of work demands – meaningfulness drops.
• Self and personal identity: If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community.
So, does this mean that living a meaningful life automatically makes you miserable? Not necessarily, it does mean however that one can find meaning in life, even though experiencing unhappiness. It seems people who seek and experience a meaningful life meet struggles,challenges and stress. Yet, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society. Examples of highly meaningful, but not necessarily happy, lives may include nursing, social work or even activism.
“People have strong inner desires that shape their lives with purpose and focus – qualities that ultimately make for a uniquely human experience,” said Jennifer Aaker Stanford Graduate School of Business.