The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life - Deepstash
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The Pursuit Of Happiness Vs Finding Meaning In Life

The Pursuit Of Happiness Vs Finding Meaning In Life

The pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life. A wealth of research in positive psychology suggests that happiness and meaning are, in fact, essential elements of well-being. Happiness and meaning are strongly correlated with each other, and often feed off each other. The more meaning we find in life, the more happy we typically feel, and the more happy we feel, the more we often feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose. 


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Parenthood Paradox

Parenthood Paradox

Parents often report that they are very happy they had children, but parents who are living with children usually score very low on measures of happiness. It seems that raising children can decrease happiness but increase meaning.

Similarly, revolutionaries often suffer through years of violence and discord for a larger purpose, which ultimately brings great satisfaction and meaning to their lives and the lives of others.


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Differences Between Happiness And Meaning

Differences Between Happiness And Meaning

In recent years, a number of studies have further supported the differences between happiness and meaning.  Quite predictably, factors such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contributed to both happiness and meaning.

Some differences:

  • Finding one’s life easy or difficult was related to happiness, but not meaning.
  • Feeling healthy was related to happiness, but not meaning.
  • Feeling good was related to happiness, not meaning.
  • Scarcity of money reduced happiness more than meaning.
  • Relationships are more important than achievements.


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Happiness Is Fleeting

Happiness Is Fleeting

It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good, whereas meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences. 


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The Two Components Of Meaning

The Two Components Of Meaning

Meaning has at least two major components: the cognitive processing component involves making sense and integrating experiences, and a purpose component, which is more motivational and involves actively pursuing long-term goals that reflect one’s identity and transcend narrow self-interests. 

An extensive study found that the frequency of positive emotions was only weakly related to measures of adaptive functioning at follow-up (which ranged from half a year to 7 years). In fact, positive emotionality was negatively related to optimism and positively related to emotion suppression at follow-up.


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The Downside Of Happiness

The Downside Of Happiness

 While happiness may make us feel good in the moment, the avoidance of negative thoughts and feelings may stunt personal development over time. After all, personal development often requires experiencing a full range of emotions. There is also emerging research that over time, happiness is associated with an increased sense of loneliness and a decreased sense of well-being.


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Become A Detached Witness To Life

Become A Detached Witness To Life

The two measures of meaning (cognitive processing and purpose) were positively associated with most of the measures of adaptation. In particular, cognitive processing was very strongly related to grit (passion and perseverance for long-term goals), and self-distancing was robustly related to gratitude and well-being, and negatively related to emotion suppression.

The interaction between cognitive processing and self-distancing was additionally associated with measures of adaptation.

Meaning-making is particularly adaptive if one can maintain a self-detached third-person perspective.


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A Life Well-Lived

A Life Well-Lived

Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and virtuous activities.

A further investigation of the similarities and differences between happiness and meaning can contribute substantially to our understanding of this ‘sweet-spot’ of well-being: that seemingly magical combination of happiness and meaning that sets off the virtuous cycle that can ultimately lead to a life well-lived.


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