On happiness and meaning
An estimated 350 million people globally experience some type of mental disorder at some point in their life time. However, these millions still manage, for the most part, to lead relatively normal lives despite their mental state. And so the question becomes, how? Essentially, the answer is meaning. Happiness is not a necessary condition of a meaningful life; one does not have to be happy for their life to have meaning. However, finding a way to achieve meaning may help in one's journey to happiness.
Let's first start by defining terms, because at least linguistically, there's often an overlap between the terms 'happy' and 'meaningful.' Parents often say, 'I just want my children to be happy.' It is far more unusual to hear them say 'I just want my children's lives to be meaningful' – and yet, that's what most of us seem to want for ourselves. When we lose our sense of meaning, we are often thrown into a depressive state. One of the most common complaints of depressed people is that their life has no meaning, or that all and any existence is meaningless. So how do we extricate the two ideas? Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness, a necessary but insufficient condition. A study done by a collaboration of professors from Florida State University in Tallahassee, published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, attempted to assess this difference. Social psychologists Jennifer Aaker, Roy Baumeister, Emily Garbinsky, and Kathleen Vohs surveyed 400 American citizens, ranging from ages 18 to 78, about the extent to which they thought their lives were happy and meaningful, respectively.
No definitions of the terms were provided. As you might expect, the two states turned out to overlap substantially. One of the most prominent relationships illustrated in the study, however, was the connection between social life to both meaning and happiness. Emphasis on loneliness is linked to low levels of meaningfulness and happiness – but it was the character of one's social interactions that determined which state they achieved. Contrary to conventional wisdom that helping others makes you happy, the group's investigation actually shows that "meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you" (Journal of Positive Psychology). Helping others generally had a big positive contribution to meaningfulness, independent of happiness, but there was no sign that happiness levels rose independently of meaning. In fact, the exact inverse was shown: once corrected for the boost it gives to meaning, helping others often actually detracts from one's own happiness.
What this study tells us, beyond that happiness and meaning do not automatically go hand in hand, is that philanthropy may boost self-perceived levels of meaningfulness, is not beneficial towards achieving happiness. If you can live a meaningful life without sustained happiness – as some do choose to do – that is possible. But if you feel a desire or need to be happy, going out of your way to help others isn't necessarily the way to do it.
Another consideration is that the search for meaning often adds stress to an individual's life. As previously discussed, many of those suffering from depression attribute their state to a lack of meaning in their lives. This illustrates that potentially, questioning whether or not one leads a meaningful life decreases the likelihood of them being happy. The results from the study done at Florida State University also seem to suggest this is true: people who seek meaning often pursue projects that are difficult and uncertain. Conducting research on an issue one believes to be important adds immensely to the sense of a meaningful life, but often adds new stress and frustration to life. This indicates that while achieving meaning in one's life may increase levels of happiness, the search for meaning often leads to a decrease in one's levels of happiness. This also explains why religious people are, statistically, happier individuals than atheists or agnostics. They believe their life has an ultimate purpose, and their faith allows them to live comfortably in that knowledge. This conclusion is also supported by a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, done by professors at South Korean Jeonbuk University and the University of Michigan, which indicates that "the presence of self-assessed life meaning is positively correlated to happiness, while the search for meaning is associated with the opposite." This study also corroborates the notion that those who felt they have already found meaning attribute increased happiness to their own lives.
The basic gist of all this is that while meaningfulness and happiness often overlap, they are not interchangeable concepts. While achieving a sense of meaning often increases happiness, the search has the inverse effect. And, crucially, achieving happiness does not guarantee a meaningful life. Now that we've established that they’re independent, let's look at how to achieve the states. Since happiness often arises out of meaning, we can focus our efforts on how to achieve meaning in life. Philanthropy has already been established as a way to effectively boost meaningfulness levels, but has also shown to detract from one's happiness.
So, the emphasis is now placed upon finding a path to meaning that also has a positive effect on happiness levels. One classic, commonly discussed theory of achieving happiness through meaning is nihilism. Nihilists believe that life is ultimately meaningless: everyone will die, at some point the sun will explode, entropy will increase until it consumes us, and so nothing matters. As such, the only way to ever be happy is in accepting the absurdity of searching for meaning in a world that has none, and to transcend that search by waging a conscious war against it. This is the method to happiness prescribed by French philosopher Albert Camus in his text, The Myth of Sisyphus. It is also the subject of an article published in the South African Journal of Philosophy in 2014. Philosopher Anné Verhoef determines in her research that certain types of transcendence remain inextricably linked to happiness, essentially agreeing with Camus. This view, however, is grounded in the notion that our search for meaning is fundamentally absurd – and yet, still emphasizes the importance of being happy. And this essentially undoes his entire argument: claiming that happiness is possible, even feeling the need to make that argument, clearly places a desire and value on happiness. So, we can conclude that nihilism provides neither a valid path to observing meaning nor towards achieving happiness.
But there's another way of looking at mortality that is less pessimistic. Alan Blum, sociologist at the York University and Culture of Cities Centre in Toronto, argues that one must engage with their own mortality in order to achieve happiness and, consequently, find meaning. According to Blum, death is often seen as a "symptom of the self-destructiveness of the fixation on 'ultimate meaning' and its realistic pursuit in life" (Journal of Classical Sociology). Rather than view death as a potential obstacle for achieving happiness – essentially believing that since everyone's death is inevitable, nothing we do matters or has meaning – the article prescribes a way to find happiness through coming to terms with our own mortality. However, this assumes that meaning can only be viewed in terms of our legacy; that our entire worth and life value is determined by the impact we leave behind. And while that might be fine for some, it doesn't satisfy those who are also looking for happiness. We've already established, after all, that philanthropy does nothing to increase happiness.
So if grappling with our own nihilistic existence isn't a viable way to achieve both meaning and happiness, what is? Returning to the original study referenced, conducted by a collaboration of social psychologists at Florida State University, we see that both happiness and meaning are inextricably tied up with self-development. "Of the 37 items on our list that asked people to rate whether some activity was an expression or reflection of the self," the article states, "25 yielded significant positive correlations with a meaningful life and none was negative" (Journal of Positive Psychology). Only two of the 37 items, however, were positively linked to happiness, and some even had a significant negative relationship. This indicates that if happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself. This may seem paradoxical: happiness is selfish, in the sense that it is about getting what you want and having other people do things that benefit you, and yet the self is more tied to meaning than happiness (in that defining and expressing yourself are more about meaning than happiness).
This conclusion, that self-development is integral to both finding meaning and achieving happiness, has multiple practical implications. When it comes to making life meaningful, people need to find values that cast their life in positive ways, justifying who they are and what they do. A study done by professors at the York University of Psychology corroborates this: after two months of participant experimentation and observation, they concluded that a conscious, active effort to ameliorate one's condition often actually leads to an increase in both meaningfulness and happiness (Journal of Positive Psychology).
When people ask how they can become happy, they are unknowingly asking how they can achieve meaning. And when people ask what the meaning of life is, they're looking for a single answer. The issue, however, is that there isn't just one. If self-development is the method to achieving meaningful, if expressing oneself and consciously choosing values that cast our lives in positive ways is the answer, then there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to questions of purpose, value, and self-worth. It's these questions, not their answers, that endure and unify.