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Forget Happiness, Find Meaning

Happy Camper

New research shows a meaningful life is different—and healthier—than a happy one.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part one of ten (part two).

The research covered at the Greater Good Science Center is often referred to as “the science of happiness,” yet our tagline is “The Science of a Meaningful Life.” Meaning, happiness—is there a difference?

New research suggests that there is. When a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology tried to disentangle the concepts of “meaning” and “happiness” by surveying roughly 400 Americans, it found considerable overlap between the two—but also some key distinctions.

Based on those surveys, for instance, feeling good and having one’s needs met seem integral to happiness but unrelated to meaning. Happy people seem to dwell in the present moment, not the past or future, whereas meaning seems to involve linking past, present, and future. People derive meaningfulness (but not necessarily happiness) from helping others—being a “giver”—whereas people derive happiness (but not necessarily meaningfulness) from being a “taker.” And while social connections are important to meaning and happiness, the type of connection matters: Spending time with friends is important to happiness but not meaning, whereas the opposite is true for spending time with loved ones.

And other research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that these differences might have important implications for our health. When Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole compared the immune cells of people who reported being “happy” with those of people who reported “a sense of direction and meaning,” the people leading meaningful lives seemed to have stronger immune systems.

Max Strom on happiness and meaning in the digital age:

Image by Demi-Brooke, licensed under Creative Commons.