Although people often equate happiness and meaningfulness with a desirable life; the author’s hypothesis is that while having some areas of overlap, they are fundamentally different. A happy life may have no meaning and a meaningful life may not be happy.
As noted by the authors themselves, the research question and surveys where the first to consider the question of differences between happiness and meaningfulness. Consequently, there is yet no corroborating research that could verify the results. However, it should be noted that the authors also hoped that their findings would be a useful starting point for further research into the area and that further study will make their findings more relevant. That being said, one weakness in the method was the small sample and diversity of subjects. Even from a nationwide pool, 397 participants may not be a large enough sample to accurately reflect a general trend. Additionally, over two-thirds of the sample was made up of female participants so the findings cannot fully be recognized as being representative of male attitudes on happiness and meaningfulness.
As the authors hypothesized, the surveys showed that while many factors contribute to both happiness and meaningfulness such as having social connections, and both are thought to be an element in a desirable life, they are generally speaking, mutually exclusive. Indeed, the survey showed that happiness is generally present in situations where a person is able to satisfy their immediate wants or needs now. Accordingly having money, being healthy, being in a good mood, the absence of difficulty were all signifiers of happiness. However, none were required for a person to feel his life is meaningful. Contrastingly, the survey showed that helping others, contemplating one past and future, stress, worry and being involved with “something bigger than oneself” all were factors for people that said they lived a meaningful life. However, none played a role in happiness. In fact, some factors such as helping others, stress and worry are commonly known to decrease a person’s happiness.
Interestingly, while social connections were found to be a contributor to both happiness and meaningfulness in a person’s life; the type of connection was very different. Happy people enjoy spending time with friends whereas people who had meaningful lives enjoy spending time with loved ones.
In conclusion, the article posits that while anyone or any animal can achieve happiness, “the quest for meaning is the key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so” (Baumeister, 516).
What it tells us
While on the one hand, traditional psychology has focused on mental suffering and the depressed and on the other hand positive psychology has focused on happiness and positivity, this article suggests that there might be a middle path between the two. A path where people are willing to, in essence suffer for the greater good. To be sure, the article suggests there is a population of people that despite having to deal with a number of unpleasant situations such as dealing with stress, worry and fear; they are willing to do so if it leads in contribution to the welfare of others.
The upshot of these findings to traditional psychology is it shows that not all afflictions are bad and before a decision is made to limit or eliminate what might be considered a bad element such as anxiety, further analysis must first be done to find whether the anxiety suffered is a good kind (the kind that is exhibited in people that enjoy helping others) and what will it mean for the patient is she suffers it no more - will it lead to a decrease in the willingness to help others?
For positive psychology, the findings show that while one can’t argue against efforts to help people be happy and live happy lives, happiness needs to be qualified. As the article illustrated, happiness for happiness’ sake may lead to a very empty life. Practically speaking the article also suggests just because someone is unhappy, anxious and argumentative doesn’t mean that they are bad. Indeed, a person suffering from those afflictions may show that they are the most empathic, altruistic person one will ever meet.
Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., Aaker, J.L. & Garbinsky, E.N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. Retrieved on June 5, 2014, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2013.830764Baumeister, R.F. (2012). Self and identity: A brief overview of what they are, what they do and how they work. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1234, 48-55.Nelson, S.K., Kushlev, K., English, T. Dunn, E.W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science, 24, 3-10.
Schlegel, R.J., Hicks, J.A., King, L.A., & Arndt, J. (2011). Feeling like you know who you are: Perceived true self-knowledge and meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 745-756.
Seligman, M. (2004, February). The new era of positive psychology. TED2004. Lecture conducted from TED2004 Conference, Monterey, CA. Available at http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology/transcript