Holocaust psychiatrist and survivor Viktor Frankl once wrote: "Life never becomes unbearable by circumstances, but only by a lack of meaning and purpose." For most people, feeling happy and finding life meaningful are important and related goals.
But do happiness and meaning always go together? It seems unlikely since many of the things we choose to do regularly - from running marathons to raising children - are unlikely to increase our day-to-day happiness. Recent research suggests that while happiness and a sense of meaning often overlap, they also diverge in important and surprising ways.
Roy Baumeister and his colleagues recently published a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology that helps explain some of the main differences between a happy and a meaningful life wowessay.com actually too.
They asked nearly 400 adult Americans to complete three surveys over a period of weeks. The surveys asked people to answer a series of questions about their levels of happiness, the degree to which they viewed their lives as significant, and their lifestyle and general circumstances.
As might be expected, people's levels of happiness were positively correlated with the fact that they considered their lives significant. However, the two measures were not identical - suggesting that what makes us happy does not always make more sense, and vice versa.
To probe the differences between the two, the researchers examined items of the survey that asked detailed questions about people's feelings and moods, their relationships with others and their day-to-day activities.
Feeling happy was strongly related to seeing life as easy, pleasant and free from difficult or disturbing events. Happiness was also related to being in good health and feeling good most of the time. However, none of these things correlated with a greater sense of meaning.
Feeling good most of the time can help us feel happier, but it doesn't necessarily bring a sense of purpose to our lives.
Interestingly, his findings suggest that money, contrary to what people say, can actually buy happiness. Having enough money to buy what you need in life, as well as what you want, was also positively correlated with higher levels of happiness. However, having enough money seemed to make little difference in the direction of life.
This same disconnect was found recently in a multinational study conducted by Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener, who show that people in rich countries tend to be happier, however, they do not see their lives as more meaningful. In fact, Oishi and Diener found that people in the poorest countries tend to view their lives as more meaningful.
Although the reasons are not entirely clear, this may be related to greater religious belief, having more children, and stronger social ties among those living in poorer countries. Perhaps, instead of saying that "money does not buy happiness", we should say that "money does not buy meaning".
It is not surprising that our relationships with others are related to both how happy we are and how significant we see our lives. In Baumeister's study, feeling more connected to others improved happiness and meaning. However, the role we adopt in our relationships makes an important difference.
Study participants who were more likely to agree with the statement "I am a giver" reported less happiness than people who were more likely to agree with "I am a borrower". However, "donors" reported higher levels of meaning in their lives compared to "borrowers". Furthermore, spending more time with friends was related to greater happiness, but not more meaning.