On Being (Un)Happy and the Meaning of Life

What is happiness? How do you define it? Generally, happiness is defined as subjective prosperity. Happiness can be narrowly or widely focused. A person may experience happiness by finding their lost phone, or because the war is over, or simply happy to have a good life. Researchers have conceptualised and measured happiness in at least two different ways. One is affect balance, indicating having more pleasant than unpleasant emotional states, which is essentially a blend of how one feels at certain moments. The other, life satisfaction, refers to an integrative evaluative assessment of life as whole (Baumeister et al. 2013)

Now let’s talk about the semantics of meaning, because meaning can be a purely symbolic or a linguistic reality. We could therefore argue that the question of life’s meaning thus applies symbolic ideas to an organic reality. Meaningfulness becomes both a perceptive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value. What I mean is that people may feel that life is meaningful if they find it steadily rewarding in some way, even if they cannot explain why.

According to Baumeister et al. (2013), the simpler form of happiness is rooted in nature. Us living creatures have biological needs, which mainly consist of things we must obtain from our environment in order to survive and reproduce. These basic motivations require us to pursue and enjoy these needs, resulting in satisfaction and thus positive feelings. However, negative feelings can arise when those needs are hindered. This will affect the balance depending to some degree on whether basic needs are being satisfied or not. We must keep in mind that us human beings are animals, therefore our happiness will largely depend on whether we are getting what we want and need.

So if happiness is natural, meaningfulness may then depend on culture. All known cultures use language to communicate. This enables them to use meanings and communicate them. Evaluating the meaningfulness of one’s life consequently uses culturally transmitted symbols (i.e. language) to appraise one’s life in terms of purpose, values, and other meanings that are primarily learned from culture. It’s safe to say that the meaning of life is more linked to one’s cultural identity than is happiness.

Meaningful thought allows people to think about past, present, and future. Therefore meaning can integrate events across time. One of the components of meaningfulness is purpose. Purpose implies that present events extract meaning from future ones. Thus a meaningful but not happy life could potentially mean working toward a future goal in a way that the future outcome is highly desirable, even though the present activities may be unpleasant (e.g., oppressed political activist).

We human beings are constantly evaluating happiness, Often, happiness in the form of life satisfaction may integrate the past into the present to some extent. Yet we constantly evaluate the past from the point of view of the present. We can probably argue at this point that many people would not report high life satisfaction based on the fact that they had a really good past, but are currently unhappy.

Baumeister (1991) noted that life is in constant change but yet always aiming at security. One could argue that meaning is a significant tool for inflicting safety on the inconstancy of life. Let’s take marriage as an example, the feelings and behaviours that two partners have toward each other will most likely very from day to day, but culturally endorsed meanings like marriage define the relationship as something constant and stable. Situations like these will unquestionably play a significant role when it comes to the meaningfulness of life.

Seeing that happiness is about having one’s needs satisfied, interpersonal relationships that benefit the self should improve happiness. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, may derive from making positive contributions to other people.

MacGregor & Little (1998) found that among humans, goal satisfaction generally brings positive feelings, and happiness has been linked to how successful people are at their different undertakings.

Among the variables used to measure happiness in their study, Baumeister et al. (2013) examined whether one’s needs were being satisfied by asking people if they considered their lives to be easy or difficult. Their results showed that finding one’s life to be relatively easy was associated with more happiness. In contrast, finding life difficult was associated with lower happiness. Surprisingly enough (or not), neither variable correlated significantly with meaning. Furthermore, considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but it did border on a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness. This, of course, goes hand in hand with what I talked about earlier, some people live highly meaningful but not exactly pleasant lives.

Then we have good health, a very basic and fairly universal desire. The variable of good health scored high and was thus a positive contributor to happiness, but it was not relevant to meaningfulness. In every day jargon this means that healthy and sick people can have equally meaningful lives, but the healthy people are happier than sick ones.

The results of the study also showed that the more often people felt good, the happier they were. The more often they felt bad the unhappier they were (2013: 7). These findings support the theory I talked about earlier about affect balance: Feeling good rather than bad was a consistent factor in predicting overall happiness.

One of the central hypotheses of the study was that happiness is about the present, but meaning is more about linking events across time, thereby integrating past, present and future. The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were- and the less happy (2013: 8). The researchers asserted that, whereas meaning is found in connecting past and future, happiness may be mainly found in the present.

Another important hypothesis was to uncover the “parenthood paradox”., which is that most people want to be happy and want to become parents, but those goals are in conflict insofar as becoming a parent often reduces happiness (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster: 2003). Especially because parenthood requires devoting oneself to caring for the children (and thus downplaying oneself). The findings showed that for non-parents, taking care of children had no correlation to either happiness or meaningfulness, but for parents, the more time they spent taking care of children, the more meaningful their lives were. These findings go as far as to suggest that people will pursue meaningfulness even at the expense of happiness.

The study’s findings provided a statistical sketch of a life that is highly meaningful but relatively low on happiness, and vice versa. This helped to illuminate some key differences between happiness and meaningfulness. People who sacrifice their happiness in order to partake constructively in society may potentially make sizeable contributions. The findings portray the unhappy but meaningful life as a series of difficult projects. People who lead such lives spend much time thinking about past and future. They mostly do a lot of thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past endeavours and challenges. High meaningfulness despite low happiness was associated with being a giver rather than a taker ( Baumeister et al. 2013: 15). These people were likely to say that taking care of children reflected them, as did buying gifts for others.

From the findings one can also depict the highly happy but relatively meaningless life. People with such lives seem quite carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. On a personal level, they are the takers, and they give little thought to past and future. One could argue that these patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterises a relatively shallow, or even self-absorbed life. Things generally go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied and difficult confrontations are usually avoided.

With the growing interest in positive psychology, it would be interesting to see more focus on understanding meaningfulness, especially what differentiates it from happiness. Clearly happiness is not all that people seek, and indeed one can assert that the meaningful but unhappy life is in some ways more admirable than the happy but meaningless one.

So there you have it. The notion that happiness is natural but meaning is cultural. The essence of happiness is still found in having needs and wants satisfied. On the one hand, the happy person arguably resembles an animal but with more complexity. On the other hand, meaningfulness is directly related with human activities, such as expressing oneself and letting the past and future play a central role in one’s present activities. It is, therefore, not the quest for happiness that makes us human, but the quest for meaning.

Food for thought.


Baumeister, R.F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.

MacGregor, I., & Little, B.R. (1998). Personal projects, happiness, and meaning: On doing well and being yourself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 494-512.

Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K., & Foster, C.A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 65, 574-583.

Picture courtesy of Disjointed Thinking.

One thought on “On Being (Un)Happy and the Meaning of Life

  1. dinky22 says:

    Super interesting article!! Id say meaning is ( like mostly anything) purely subjective, its what one enjoys most in life (passion) and gets (positive) energy from which then can be shared with others , creating a feeling of giving and being loved, and having a balanced life of love (often children contribute greatly in the feeling of being loved and giving love) and work/passion. Balance and love is what all require, some more than others. Lack of these can lead to unnatural ( and often negative) behavior. Love and the living of life is an art ( according to Erich Fromm), and these can be easily practiced once there is an environment fitting for it to blossom, but often negative emotions and exterior factors make it difficult to practice these arts in their fullest.


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