A Psychologist Makes An Important Distinction Between Happiness And Meaningfulness
The road to life meaning may be long, but never lonely.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 30, 2022
A new study published in PLOS ONE explains that the quest for finding meaning in life can be an arduous path full of sacrifice – with the ultimate goal of helping others.
"Through reading existential and religious philosophers, I became interested in the hypothesis that we fundamentally achieve a sense of meaning in life through positive, helpful relations to others," explains Brodie Dakin of the University of Queensland. "Specifically, we hypothesized that people searching for meaning might be more attracted to performing 'costly,' or difficult, prosocial behaviors, as these behaviors are seen as the most meaningful."
Dakin's study defined 'meaning in life' as the aggregate of one's sense of purpose, significance, and coherence. Of these three elements, Dakin viewed significance as most critical to his hypothesis, as people may feel that their own life is significant to the extent that it makes a positive difference in the lives of others.
To test the validity of this hypothesis, Dakin explored people's behavior in a series of experiments that involved pain, effort, and/or resource expenditure performed to enhance the well-being of others.
The results showed that meaning-seeking was clearly associated with the will to improve the well-being of others. And, the more difficult or painstaking tasks were, the more likely people were to find meaning in them.
"When we look at the most meaningful endeavors that exist cross-culturally – heroism, parenthood, educational and occupational achievement, cultural rituals, etc. – they almost always involve clear elements of costliness, be it pain, expenditure of energy, time, or resources, or some other kind of sacrifice," says Dakin.
Dakin adds that costly and effortful prosocial behaviors may also be meaningful because they are more likely to lead to a sense of competence and pride if completed.
Another reason could be that undergoing difficult endeavors with other people necessarily builds strong social bonding, which is also a powerful source of meaning.
Dakin makes an important distinction between happiness and meaning in life which are concepts that can be confused.
"Happiness is the experience of positive emotions (e.g., joy, pleasure) and absence or near absence of negative emotions (stress, sadness, etc.)," he explains.
This is not the same as life meaning, for two reasons, according to Dakin:
- First, striving for meaning may orient one outwards toward concern for others while searching for happiness may involve more self-focus
- Second, a lot of research shows that pursuing happiness too intently may ironically lead to less happiness. However, the pursuit of meaning is more hopeful because it orients people to do things to improve the world and the lives of others.
For anyone struggling with finding or creating meaning in their life, Dakin has the following advice:
"The key to finding meaning in life may ironically come from spending less time and energy concerned with oneself and spending more time actively contributing to the lives of others through prosocial actions," he concludes. "Actions which are difficult and call for personal sacrifice may be the most meaningful and worth enacting."
A full interview with psychologist Brodie Dakin discussing his research can be found here: The hardest things we do in life might bring us the most meaning