Frank Flynn: What Makes a Happy vs. Meaningful Life?

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Frank Flynn: What Makes a Happy vs. Meaningful Life?

Professor Frank Flynn looks at the difference between “happiness” and “meaning” in life –– and how these two concepts relate to being prosocial.

This quarter we look at the difference between “happiness” and “meaning” in life –– and how these two concepts relate to being prosocial. In a recent article in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers find that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or through the use of money. In contrast, meaningfulness is linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and, in particular, includes doing positive things for others.

It turns out that doing meaningful things isn’t easy. Indeed, the study shows that meaningful involvements actually increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety –– which reduces happiness. Further, meaningfulness is linked to selflessness while happiness is not. To wit, happiness corresponds with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness is associated with being a giver more than a taker.

Moreover, whereas happiness is focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrates past, present, and future –– and it sometimes means feeling bad. Whereas past misfortunes reduce present happiness, they are linked to a higher sense of meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning from them.

The researchers gathered some 400 responses to a month-long series of online surveys aimed at differentiating meaningfulness and happiness. Participants were asked to rate how happy and meaningful their lives were, as well as things such as how well their basic needs and wants were being satisfied; the degree to which they thought about past, present, and future; how socially connected they felt; and how important certain kinds of activities were to them.

The researchers found that meaningfulness and happiness are indeed positively correlated, so they have much in common. Many factors, such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contribute similarly to both. Yet, when teased apart, the two reveal themselves to be distinct.

In short, the results suggest that a highly meaningful life may be a less happy one. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future. They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others. They are also more focused on others, through taking care of children, gifting, and more.

The highly happy but relatively meaningless life is characterized by a more carefree attitude. People with such lives seem lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them. Interpersonally, they are less altruistic, and they give little thought to past and future. In contrast, the research suggests that people who derive meaning are more poised to be prosocial in nature. 

The study, “Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,” by Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky, appears in Volume 8, Issue 6, 2013, of the Journal of Positive Psychology.

More groundbreaking research about prosocial behavior will come in the Spring 2014 quarter.

Research selected by Professor Frank Flynn, Professor of Organizational Behavior and The Hank McKinnell-Pfizer Inc. Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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