By Ray Williams
May 29, 2021

For some it’s lying on a sun-drenched beach sipping sangria, for others it’s wallowing in a cozy cocoon munching on chocolate and playing video games. Many people will admit that these or other immediate indulgences are what makes them happy. And yet, even given the freedom and resources to live a life of hedonism, many of us find it’s not enough — we want to have meaning in our lives too.

Unfortunately, what we mean by “meaning” has largely been neglected by psychologists. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted an in-depth online survey with 397 adults (68 per cent female; average age 36) and a follow-up with 124 students (45 per cent female; average age 21). The research study was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

The researchers tapped the participants’ happiness levels, and their feelings of having a meaningful life, three times over a month. They also asked them a raft of other questions with the aim of identifying factors that were related to happiness but not meaningfulness, or vice versa.

Although happiness and meaningfulness tend to go together (they correlated at .63 and .70 where 1 would be a perfect match), Baumeister’s team made some thought-provoking discoveries about ways they differ. People who rated their lives as easier, who had good health, enough money to buy what they wanted, were more short-term oriented, felt connected to others, and experienced low stress and worry, also tended to rate themselves as happier. Yet these same factors had either no association with meaningfulness or the opposite association.

In contrast to the findings for happiness, people who described their lives as having more meaning tended to say: that they spent more time thinking about the past and future; that they had experienced more negative events in their lives; expected to do a lot of deep thinking; engaged in activities that were true to themselves; and they reported more stress, anxiety and worry.

Some of the results were particularly telling. Being more of a taker was related to greater happiness but less meaningfulness, whereas being more of a giver was linked with less happiness but more meaningfulness. Related to that, spending time with one’s children was linked with more meaningfulness but had no correlation with happiness. Arguing, if it was seen as reflecting oneself, was linked to less happiness but more meaningfulness. In fact, pursuing any activities that reflect the self was linked to more meaningfulness but not happiness. Feeling socially connected was linked with happiness and meaningfulness, but time spent with loved ones was only relevant to meaningfulness (perhaps, the researchers surmised, because “loved ones can be difficult at times.”)

Baumeister’s team concluded that the highly meaningful but relatively unhappy life has “received relatively little attention and even less respect” to date. “But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions,” they said. “Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.”

The researchers admitted their “tentative” study has limitations — they were not able to explore the causal roots of happiness and meaningfulness, and by studying so many possible factors there was a significant risk of associations appearing purely by chance. Also, the findings are culturally specific to North America, and they are based on the participants’ subjective interpretation of what happiness and meaningfulness mean. Nonetheless, this study certainly makes a useful starting point for discussion and future investigation. “This project was intended to generate ideas,” the researchers said, “and future work would be desirable to verify and build on them.”

Read my new book, available on Amazon:Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders,where I examine in detail the impact that toxic bosses have on employee well-being.

Ray's latest blog posts

Remembering an Unjust War–Iraq

How will we remember the Iraq War? First to make a declaration. I am a pacifist and against all wars. It’s an illusion to view them in terms of winners and losers. Everyone loses, particularly the civilians. I have had personal experience with war, as my family were...

Building Positive Character in Children and Adolescents

In recent times there has been widespread discontent and criticism of the leaders of institutions and organizations. The vast majority of the criticisms have not been about leaders’ competence or skills. They have been about their unethical and immoral/amoral...

Perfectionism Can Kill You

“Reaching for the stars, perfectionists may end up clutching at air,” famous psychologist David Burns warned.” There’s a strong probability you’re a perfectionist if you’ve ever sobbed over receiving a B+ or coming in second place....

Thanks to Our Obsession with SUVs, Pristine Nature is Crumbling

You’ve certainly seen this advertisement or social media video before: an SUV or light truck racing down a winding gravel road in the wilderness or parked right by the lake or on the beach. These kinds of vehicles are supposed to be “great” in...

The Rise of American Authoritarianism

Introduction There are disturbing signs that America’s strength as a democracy has weakened because of significant support for authoritarianism and an autocratic President Donald Trump. And while we think of autocratic states and dictatorships developing as a result...

Acts of Kindness Can Help People Suffering From Depression–Study

According to new research, those who experience depression or anxiety symptoms can aid their own recovery by helping others. In contrast to two other therapy approaches used to treat depression or anxiety, the study found that practising acts of kindness resulted in...

Join our Newsletter for a FREE copy of Breaking Bad Habits e-Book by Ray