Understanding the Difference Between Happiness and Meaning

I read a great piece in the Atlantic this weekend explaining the difference between the pursuit of happiness and meaning and wanted to summarize it here.

The piece was called, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, and a great deal of it focused on the work of Victor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist, concentration camp survivor, and author of one of the most significant works of non-fiction in history, Man’s Search For Meaning. I love Frankl, have been highly influenced by his work and encourage you to check out the article itself for a good synopsis on his life.

Man’s Search For Meaning was written in 1946. The book sought to identify the central difference between those who survived in the concentration camps and those who didn’t; namely it was the ability to identify and connect with the meaning in one’s life that helped many to survive. Frankl then surmised that it was meaning, not happiness that was at the core of a life well lived. Over 50 years later the field of positive psychology is adding new research and insight into this idea.

To dissect these two concepts, researchers surveyed 400 Americans about their attitudes and beliefs pertaining to the concepts of happiness and meaning. Interestingly enough, there is overlap, but the concepts are very different. I’ll elaborate.

SImply put, happiness is associated with “taking” while meaning is associated with “giving”. Those who are happy find life to be relatively easy, have the means to acquire the things they want and need, and are generally free of worry and stress. But overall, happiness is associated with more selfish behaviors.

While happiness is about serving the needs and desires of the self, meaning is about moving beyond the self, an act that is far more uniquely human. Meaning often comes from giving some part of ones self to others, a cause or a worthwhile pursuit. Not surprisingly, meaningful lives are often less happy ones, characterized by greater levels of stress and anxiety.

The key finding in the study, I think, is that meaning is more enduring than happiness.  While happiness, is essentially just another emotion, the pursuit of meaning has the ability to take us beyond the sensory satisfaction of the present moment into something more lasting.

All of this, in my mind, brings us back to a very central human struggle about delaying gratification. The emotional mind is constantly making demands to the rational mind, some needs, some wants.  All are ultimately distractions from our larger pursuits.  It is our ability to see the futility and endless cycle of desire and fulfillment that frees us up to see and become something greater.

Hopefully understanding this distinction, illuminated by science, helps to ease this tension.

[via The Atlantic]



  1. Another definition for happiness might be, “self-centeredindividualism as opposed to meaning being building community. Loved the blog. Thnx. Pops

  2. Evan Thomas says:

    A meaningful life is a heroic life

  3. Susan Shelly Mcgovern says:

    Jake wrote: The key finding in the study, I think, is that meaning is more enduring than happiness . . .

    From personal experience, Jake, I completely agree with that finding. Happiness is fleeting, but discovering meaning results in joy, which I assert is different from happiness. Thanks to your dad for sharing this entry. Well done.

  4. Jill Snively says:

    John Wesley, theologian responsible for the forming of the Methodist denomination in Protestantism, said we are meant to “move on towards perfection.” As humans we never reach that point completely but we are called to have perfection in sight. You have described that journey. It is a rough one at times with diversions and distractions. Thank you for the reminder to always be evaluating our course and purpose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: