Jean Huber, LCSW

A Happy Life vs. A Meaningful Life: The Pros and Cons of Both

We all want a happy life. After all, what could possibly be wrong with experiencing more joy?

But many of us also want to have a meaningful life. To live our lives with a sense of purpose. To know the reason we’re here and to pursue it.

Can you have a happy life and a meaningful life at the same time? Do you have to choose one or the other?

The truth about happiness and meaning is a bit more complex than you might expect.

The Science

Previous research looked at the science surrounding this exact question: what matters more, a happy life or a meaningful life? The researchers looked at people in two groups, those who pursued high levels of happiness but low levels of meaning and those who pursued great meaning but low levels of happiness. Those in the happy group focused on activities designed to increase happiness in the short term, like sleeping in, eating candy or playing games. Those in the meaningful group engaged in activities that had a longer-term payoff, such as helping someone, cheering someone up, studying or forgiving a friend.

Similarities Between Happiness and Meaning

Not surprisingly, many of the same things lead to both happiness and meaning. A different study found that feeling productive, feeling connected to others, and not feeling bored or lonely contributed to both happiness and meaning. But as you’ll see, the ways to achieve those results have different outcomes in the long run.

What’s the Difference Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life?

It seems logical that there would be a lot of overlap between happiness and meaning. And it’s true: the two share many common factors. But a happy life and a meaningful life have some key differences as well. A happy life is more self-oriented and lives in the moment. A meaningful life is more other-focused and looks at the big picture.

One of the most significant differences between a happy life and a meaningful life is that happiness tends to be fleeting. The group in the study that focused on happiness reported more positive feelings and fewer negative ones right after the study. But those results didn’t last: three months later, the positive feelings were gone. Those who pursued meaning did not report as many positive feelings at the time of the study, likely because activities that result in a sense of meaning require self-sacrifice. However, they felt more inspired and connected and had fewer negative moods three months later.

Is There a Down Side to Happiness?

Here in America, we expect non-stop happiness. Our culture promotes instant gratification, whether through spending money or getting sugary treats. There are a lot of things that give our lives more happiness, like feeling healthy, finding life easy, and being a taker rather than a giver. Not surprisingly, feeling a scarcity of money is likely to make you feel less happy.

Both happiness and meaning come down to the role our emotions play in our daily lives—more specifically, how we control them. Those who primarily pursue happiness are more likely to avoid negative emotions, which can stunt personal development. Some research even shows that over time, happiness is more likely to lead to loneliness and decreased well-being.

Those pursuing a meaningful life must manage some negative emotions in the short term. Pursuing a life of meaning is about having core values and working to make your activities align with them. It’s all about that old-fashioned word “grit”: doing the hard stuff now because it will pay off later. The studies show that this effect indeed seems to be true. Pursuing meaning builds resilience over time, values relationships over achievements, and develops a positive self-image related to the efforts one puts in.

You might think this means that a meaningful life is always better than a happy life. Not so. The real goal is to find a balance between both so that you have both joy in the present and the deep satisfaction that consistent effort and emotional control can bring. Here’s to a happy and deeply meaningful life.

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