Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life - Baumeister e.a. - Article

What is this article about?

Two of the most widely held goals by which people measure and motivate themselves are happiness and a meaningful life. In this article, the relationship between these two goals is discussed. More specifically, although there certainly is (much) overlap between these two, the focus here is on the differences.

How can happiness be defined?

Happiness generally refers to a state of subjective well-being. Happiness be may narrowly or broadly focused: one can be happy to have found a lost key, but one can also be happy that the war has ended. Happiness is conceptualized and measured by researcher in at least two different manners. The first one concerns affect balance, which suggests that happiness is an aggregate of how one feels at different moment. Happiness is then defined as having more pleasant than unpleasant emotional states. The second one concerns life satisfaction, which goes beyond momentary feelings. It refers to an integrative, evaluative assessment of one's entire life. Generally, assessing both of these provides a useful index of subjective well-being.

How can a meaningful life be defined?

Meaningfulness is considered to concern both a cognitive and emotional assessment of whether one's life has purpose and value.

What is the central theorem of the theory that is being proposed in this article?

The authors suggest that the simpler form of happiness (affect balance instead of life satisfaction), at least, is rooted in nature. Every living creature has biological needs, such as wanting to survive and reproduce. Basic motivations make one to pursue and enjoy those needs. Affect balance then depends to a certain degree on whether these basic needs are being satisfied.

While happiness is natural, meaningfulness may depend on culture. In every culture language is being used as a means to use and communicate meanings. Meaningfulness, thus, makes use of culturally transmitted symbols (via language) as a means to evaluate one's life in relation to purposes, values, and other meanings that are also frequently learned from the culture. Thus, meaning is more associated with one's culture than happiness is. An important feature of meaning is that it is not limited to immediately present stimuli (as happiness is). Instead, meaningfulness refers to thoughts about past, future, and spatially distant realities and possibilities. Moreover, meaning allows to integrate events across time. Researchers found that higher levels of meaning were consistently associated with longer time frames. Vice versa, when people shift toward more concrete and less meaningful thought about their actions, they became more focused on the present, thus on the here and now.

In sum, the authors of this article propose a theory. The central theorem is: happiness is natural, meaning is cultural.

What are the differences between happiness and a meaningful life?

To study the differentiation between happiness and a meaningful life, the authors used empirical investigations, consisting of a series of surveys and a follow-up experiment. These were used to test the hypothesis that basic needs can be satisfied in a selfish fashion, whereas meaningfulness tends to invoke symbolic relations and is thus more a matter of meaning than happiness.

Three surveys were conducted using a national sample of 397 adults (68% female, mean age = 35.5 years old). Two follow-up surveys were conducted, one week and one month after the initial survey. Both happiness and meaningfulness were measured using three items with a 7-point rating scale.

To examine whether meaning and happiness can be differentiated, the authors computed correlations of both concepts with the other measures, each controlling for the author. Then, they identified pairs of opposite findings (thus when a variable correlated significantly positively with one, but significantly negatively with the other). Cases in which there was an opposite correlation, yet not significant for both, were also considered, because these indicate target variables that are solely associated with one of the two concepts. Cases in which both correlations were in the same direction were ignored.

The results turned out as follows. First, happiness and meaningfulness are substantially and positively inter-correlated. The correlations in the two surveys were respectively 0.63 and 0.70 which means that being happy and considered one's life to be meaningful are strongly related attitudes. Many factors contribute similar to both, such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored. 

However, while meaning and happiness are inter-correlated, they do have some substantially different roots. Some variables contribute to both, but others are clearly differentiating and specific. For instance, basic needs such as good health clearly contribute to happiness, but are irrelevant to meaningfulness. The same holds for money (able to buy what one needs). While money is a product of culture rather than nature, people use money commonly to satisfy many of their most basic and natural desired.

The results confirmed the idea that meaningfulness incorporates the past, present, and future, whereas happiness is about the present. For instance, the more time people reported having devoted to thinking about past and future, the more meaningful their lives were, yet the less happy they reported to be. On the opposite, they more time people reported thinking about the present, the happier they reported to be. It should be noted however that the correlation was only marginally significant at p = .07).

To conclude, the findings of this study confirm the idea that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, whereas meaningfulness is associated with doing things that express and reflect the self and doing positive things for others.

Year of article

Summary of the article: Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life - Baumeister e.a. - 2013

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