What makes a happy or meaningful life?

My last blog post was looking at recent headlines that couples that did not have children were happier than those who did.

I wanted to follow up on the topic of happiness.  I'm always curious on how happiness is measured and the difficulty that these discussions of happiness have for people who are trying to decide whether to have children or not.   The Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley has been exploring this issue and had published an article a few years ago in their online magazine called Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? which I think gives a great overview of the issue.

Many of those looking at happiness say that how we define and measure happiness may not take into account the issue of fulfilment and 'living a meaningful life'.  At the end of this blog, I've listed 5 major differences between a happy life and a meaningful life that researcher Roy Baumeister has identified during the course of his research.

Parenting provides an interesting point of debate between researchers.  Many conventional research studies of happiness.... as I explored in my last blog post.... tend to show that parents lead less happy lives than those that are child free.  Other studies, such as Baumeisters, show that while parents are less happy, they tend to lead more meaningful lives.   While others, such as Sonja Lyubormirsky, of the University of California, say that trying to separate out a 'happy life' from a 'meaningful life' is problematic.

"In a recent study, she and her colleagues measured happiness levels and meaning in parents, both in a “global” way—having them assess their overall happiness and life satisfaction—and while engaged in their daily activities. Results showed that, in general, parents were happier and more satisfied with their lives than non-parents, and parents found both pleasure and meaning in childcare activities, even in the very moments when they were engaged in those activities.

“Being a parent leads to all of these good things: It gives you meaning in life, it gives you goals to pursue, it can make you feel more connected in your relationships,” says Lyubomirsky. “You can’t really talk about happiness without including all of them.”

Lyubomirsky feels that researchers who try to separate meaning and happiness may be on the wrong track, because meaning and happiness are inseparably intertwined.

“When you feel happy, and you take out the meaning part of happiness, it’s not really happiness,” she says."

One of my conclusions from reading the different articles and viewpoints is that it would be too simplistic to say that it is either or not having children that leads to having a more happy or meaningful life.  There are a whole host of facts at play and we can create happiness and meaning whatever we choose.

Reading Baumeisters descriptions of what helps us live happy and meaningful lives below, it is clear that we can all create circumstances for us to lead the lives we want. 

One point that all the researchers seem to be clear about:  having social connections and friendships where we both give and receive that brings happiness and meaning to our lives.   We could get this through volunteering at a care home,  assisting an older relative with chores.  being part of a choir, and spending time with friends. 


Five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful life as identified by Roy Baumeister and his research team. (published in  Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?

"Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.

Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.

Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.

Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.

Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness."


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