The short answer is yes. There are distinct differences in experiencing happiness and meaningfulness. Each involves differing aspects of how we live and how we see life. The good news is they are easily identifiable. We will look here at the differences, which is better and whether or not you can have both.
Five differences between a happy life and a meaningful life
There have been myriad studies, such as this comprehensive one, over the years to wrestle with this very idea of happiness vs meaningfulness. More recent studies have also dug into this topic with a scientific approach to finally answering the age-old debate of happy vs meaningful. One such study showed us several distinct differences between the two:
The key difference between the two is happiness is more centered on the present, on the now (more fleeting). Whereas, meaningfulness incorporates thinking about the past, present and the future and how those tie together (the big picture).
Happiness is more self-oriented and seen when satisfying one’s personal wants and needs. This may include health, wealth and ease with life. These, however were not seen as equating to meaning.
Meaningfulness is others-focused and involves giving to others. While, happiness is about what you receive yourself. Meaningfulness is seen as giving and happiness in taking.
Meaningful lives involve stress, anxiety and self-sacrifice. As meaning is typically derived from lessons from our past and how we can learn and share those experiences to benefit others, it often includes painful exploration. And, because it involves giving to others it can put their needs ahead of your own at times.
A meaningful life is seen in self-expression and self identity. Concerns with expressing your personal identity related to cultural, spiritual or even personal traits were associated with meaning and not happiness.
Which is better, happiness or meaningfulness?
One could argue for both. Happiness is certainly a pursuit worthy of obtaining in and of itself. Happiness would include enjoying the present moment, getting a sweet treat or gift, experiencing something exciting, even wealth and good health.
Happiness is seen a positive emotion or response to a specific event. The trick here would be to understand happiness is not achieved outside of yourself or dependent on others. It is something you get to choose. And, if doing so, you could experience happiness any time you would like.
Meaningfulness, however, can go hand in hand with purpose and be a driving force behind making your life worth living. Meaningfulness is often found in our tribulations and lessons we learn. It involves deep personal understanding, thinking and discovery. This is often rooted in unhappy or stressful experiences and follows that path through the self-discovery period. It is then followed by helping others in some way with what you have learned. It can be extremely rewarding, but not necessarily filled with happiness in the traditional sense.
Which is better is up to you. For me, I would choose meaning in life, for happiness I can always choose in any moment in any situation.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Can you have both happiness and meaningfulness?
This is the question to wrestle, if having meaning in life involves struggle and sacrifice, can we have both happiness and a meaningful life—essentially can we have it all? I think we can.
Happiness is something we choose in each and every moment. It is about being present in the now and deciding for yourself what perspective you will assign and how you will respond to any situation. Happiness is not given to us by someone else. It is ours to experience at any moment.
Meaning is embedded with lessons from our past experiences and what we learn and do with them. It is a more complex and thinking involved exploration. One which when lived out involves a deep sense of fulfillment.
And, we all have some type of struggle or lesson in our past or present, no matter our age or experience.For some the experience may seem more impactful, but this is not a contest. It is completely personal and up to each person to experience, recognize and assign meaning in their own lives.
Meaning can present itself in forms of deep hardship and sacrifice or in more subtle experiences. Take care giving, for example. Whether child rearing or caring for a sick loved one, both require some level of self-sacrifice and times of anxiety and stress and both can both fill one with meaning. It could be easy to compare this to someone else’s experience, such as Victor Frankl’s time in concentration camps, or victims of rape, or extreme poverty and discount your own experiences of not worthy of meaning.
Remember, it is entirely how you choose to see each situation and ultimately about taking the time for introspection, learning and growth coupled with benefiting others in some way. Each of us will encounter varying and likely multiple experiences through our lives that are infused with meaningfulness—should we choose to apply it and see it that way.
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Can you have both, yes you can.
You can endure suffering and challenges and learn and grow and share. At the same time, you can choose your response and attitude (happiness) with any given situation. You can indeed choose to live both. It will require an active choice and you can do it. In fact, a life lived with meaning is deeply fulfilling and on some level supports a level of happiness all in its own.
Happiness is something we experience. Meaning is something we assign. Purpose is something we have.