As psychologists zero in on the key to a good life, it's becoming clear that there are two distinct paths.
A forthcoming paper by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky in the Journal of Positive Psychology looks at the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life. Here's the abstract:
Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.
In short, a meaningful life involves suffering for a greater cause.
The study, based on multiple surveys of 397 adults plus past research, found that people can feel both happy and meaningful — indeed the two feelings reinforce each other — but at some points you may have to choose.
The authors hope you'll choose meaningfulness:
Our data enable us to construct a statistical portrait of a life that is highly meaningful but relatively low in happiness, which illuminates the differences between happiness and meaningfulness. This sort of life has received relatively little attention and even less respect. But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions. Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.
The paper concludes: "[H]umans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so."
We've previously discussed another article by Professor Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business on the psychological benefits of awe.
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