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Finding Meaning in Who You Are

Why it matters that we don't confuse having meaning and being happy

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
I suspect most of us would consider a happy life to be a meaningful life, and a meaningful life a happy one, but this is not necessarily the case. This week I want to share the insights from a 2013 paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology. The authors (Roy Baumeister and colleagues) studied how people viewed the things in their life that made them happy as compared to the things that gave them a sense of meaning.

Meaning and happiness do overlap quite a bit, so where they differ is fascinating. For example, most issues related to money affect our happiness but not our sense of meaning. In fact, money scarcity has twenty times the impact on happiness than it does on meaning. Most of us just don’t find money to give us a sense of purpose in life.

The same pattern holds for other things like good or bad health, positive or negative emotions, and whether or not life is easy or hard for us. These directly affect our happiness but have no substantial effect on how meaningful we find our lives.

In relationships, the differences are even more interesting. Both happiness and meaning are deeply connected to the people in our lives, but they differ dramatically in the direction of those connections. The researchers found that happiness mostly correlates with the benefits we receive from our relationships, while meaning correlates with the benefits we offer to the other people in our lives. In fact, when controlling for meaningfulness, helping others actually has a negative affect on happiness. But when we find meaning in helping others, it increases our happiness.

The study explored many other connections, but the larger theme is this: the things we consider meaningful tend to connect best with the way we see ourselves. Identity and meaning are deeply related. A keen sense of self—and choices that align with it—are the things that help us feel like we are living a meaningful life. It’s not selfishness, though, that gives us meaning; quite the opposite, according to the research. Meaning comes from finding the way our selves fit in with the people and the world around us.

The authors conclude with this insight:
Although it is hard to dispute the appeal of happiness, recent work has begun to suggest downsides of valuing and pursuing happiness…Clearly happiness is not all that people seek, and indeed, the meaningful but unhappy life is in some ways more admirable than the happy but meaningless one.

How can you discover more meaning by finding how you fit with the people and the world around you?

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