In her wonderful book,The Power of Misfits: How to Find Your Place in a World You Don’t Fit In, Anna LeMind references a study by Roy F. Baumeister on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness. In some cases, the two experiences may overlap, but they aren’t always synonymous.
It turns out that human beings crave both happiness and meaningfulness. The Buddha tells us that all sentient creatures want to feel happiness and avoid pain, and we share that drive with the birds and the bees, the turtles and the spiders. Bring on the happiness, baby, and take away that pain. That’s an old blues song, I think.
Where we differ from most of the animal world (we believe) is that we also need to have a sense of meaning in our lives. Having a lot of orgasms may make us extremely happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring any meaningfulness into our existence. If we’re lying on our death beds reviewing our lives, we’re not likely to say, “Man, I had 20,000 orgasms. Now that’s a life well lived. My life really meant something.”
According to this study, it’s actually pretty easy to define what makes us happy. Being happy involves three major components:
- – having our needs satisfied. That’s a pretty simple one. If we’re hungry, it makes us happy to eat. If we’re cold, it makes us happy to get warmed up. If we’re horny, it makes us happy to have sex.
- – having the sense that we can obtain what we need and want. In other words, not just eating when we’re hungry but knowing that we have the powers and abilities to get out there and get that food all on our own.
- – feeling good most of the time. That’s kind of a no-brainer, but it’s true. People who mostly feel good are mostly happy and people who feel lousy are mostly unhappy.
None of those three factors necessarily make us feel that our lives are meaningful, though. Feeling good, for instance, is very strongly associated with being happy, but not necessarily with feeling meaningful. People who are very healthy tend to be happier than people who are sick, but both healthy and sick people have an equal shot at leading a meaningful life.
Having the powers and abilities to get what we need and want is another one that may make us happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring meaningfulness along with it. In our society, having the power to get what we need and want usually means having money. If you really, really, really need and want that new computer, you have to have the dough-ray-me to pay for it, right?
But even money has a very strange relationship with meaningfulness. In the Tarot, the suit of pentacles represents material possessions and money. In the Four of Pentacles, we see a guy who’s really having a love affair with money. He’s got his feet resting on money, he’s got his arms wrapped around money, and he’s got money sitting on his head. What a happy guy!
The study found that people who have plenty of money tend to be happier people, BUT they don’t necessarily report living a life that’s more meaningful. On the other hand, NOT having enough money makes people less happy and their lives feel less meaningful. So it’s not really the money that counts, it’s the lack of it.
Here’s another interesting little snippet of information that’s about life being easy versus life being hard. We’ve all known people who appeared to be unbelievably lucky. It’s like anything they want just seems to fall into their laps with little or no effort on their parts.
And we’ve also known people who seem to be unbelievably unlucky. No matter how hard they work, no matter how much they struggle and strive, life consistently turns into a shit sandwich for them and their desires and goals slip away like vapors in the wind.
Unsurprisingly, having an easy life makes people very happy. And having a hard life makes people unhappy. But neither one of those is linked in ANY way to a sense of meaningfulness. You can have the easiest life in the world and still feel like it doesn’t mean anything.
There’s another fascinating element with meaningfulness and happiness, which is TIME.
We know how the mindfulness meditation people are constantly hammering at us about, “Stay in the present moment! There’s no unhappiness in the present moment.”
It turns out they’re right! Happiness is very highly correlated with living in the NOW, in the present moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
But, unfortunately, it’s also inversely correlated with having a sense of meaning. The more you live in the present moment, the happier you’ll be, but you also sacrifice a sense of your life having any overall meaning.
Why? Because meaningfulness is a function of time. The greater the span of time in your life that you’re contemplating, the greater a sense of meaningfulness you’ll have. If you think about what yesterday and today meant, the odds are that they didn’t mean very much, unless something extraordinary happened. On the other hand, if you think about what the last ten or twenty years of your life meant, you’re much more likely to see patterns and meaning.
And the same thing applies to the future. The future gives the present moment meaning because it involves us in taking purposeful actions meant to create that future. What we’re doing today is meaningful because it has a purpose – making the future.
So we have this odd conundrum. The more we stay in the present moment, the happier we’ll be, but the less meaning we’ll derive from our lives. The more we dwell on the future and the past, the less happy we’ll be, but the more our lives will feel meaningful.
The study also found an oddity in our perceptions of happiness and meaningfulness. People tend to view happiness as being relatively fleeting, something we feel momentarily and then it gets away from us. And they feel that meaningfulness is more permanent, something that will last long after happiness has disappeared. Which is just not true. Both meaningfulness and happiness tend to be fairly stable and long lasting. We probably just feel that happiness passes quickly because it’s so intimately related to the present moment, which is always appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing, shazam!
Which brings us to the probable reason for why meaningfulness is so important to human beings. The author concluded that MEANINGFULNESS IS AN ATTEMPT TO IMPOSE ORDER ON FLUX. Life is chaotic, man. Life is constantly changing, constantly transforming, constantly shazamming from one thing into another and then another and then another.
And it drives us nuts. We need a sense of stability, of orderly progression, of the past moving logically into the present which will then move logically into the future. We need to be able to connect the past, present and future of our lives in a MEANINGFUL way. Otherwise it feels like life is something that just happened to us, rather than something we lived.
If all of this sounds very complex, it’s because IT IS. We are very complex. To seek happiness is to be alive. Every single animal on the earth seeks happiness. But to seek meaning is distinctively human. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. Meaningfulness is not necessarily the same thing as happiness, but it’s just as important.