The Difference Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful One

So, do you want your life to be happy, or do you want it to be meaningful? It turns out, they are not the same thing.

A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology sorted out the difference between a happy life and a meaningful one by conducting a survey of 397 adults three times over the course of a month.

People who said that their lives were easier, healthier, more short-term oriented, had enough money to buy stuff they wanted, had more interpersonal connections, and had low stress also rated themselves as happier. These same traits weren’t associated with meaningfulness—or were negatively correlated.

Conversely, people who said that their lives were meaningful said they spent more time thinking about the future and past, did a lot more deep thinking in general, experienced more negative events in their lives, and were more stressed and anxious.

There were a few more interesting results. Connecting with friends was related to both happiness and meaningfulness, but connecting with loved once was only relevant to meaningfulness. The same was true of spending time with one’s children. Being a giver was related to meaningfulness, but being a “taker” was related to happiness. Arguing about oneself was related to meaningfulness, but not to happiness.

So, what’s the takeaway? It seems like when things go our way, we get to be happy, but when they don’t, we shrug and tell ourselves that at least our lives have meaning.

This is a test