Meaning vs. Happiness: What’s the Difference and How Do We Teach Our Kids to Live Meaningful Lives?

September 20, 2018

Recently, I ran across an article in The Atlantic titled, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” and it was so good I want to discuss it with you.

The article explains the difference between meaning and happiness and offers empirical evidence as to why a life of meaning is more worthwhile. What I learned from the article has helped me to pursue meaning with more clarity in my own life as well as parent better.

My two little girls are obsessed with things. For as long as I can remember, they’ve talked about owning a “beach mansion” as if there were no greater joy. My eldest claims to want to be a lawyer specifically so she can be rich. If I let her, my youngest would spend hours watching weird YouTube videos of squeaky voiced girls opening packages. I used to joke when people asked me what my youngest wants for her birthday, “Anything she’s seen the commercial for.” I’m constantly trying to redirect them, but I’m never really sure how. I usually end up just shaking my head and throwing out some lame platitude like, “Money isn’t everything, girls.”

After reading this article, I feel better equipped to deal with these moments. I also feel better equipped to keep fighting the good fight for meaning within myself.

The article starts off talking about Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning, published in 1946. The book was written in 9 days on the heels of his liberation from Nazi concentration camps. Frankl, a prominent psychiatrist and neurologist prior to his imprisonment, noticed in the camps that those who survived tended to be people who felt their existence had meaning. Meaning came from various circumstances. For one man, his existence was meaningful because his young child was waiting for him in a foreign country. For another man, his life was meaningful because of the series of books he intended to write once free. In any case, meaning was defined as a feeling that their existence meant something to mankind and their suffering was endurable as a result.

To explain the difference between meaning and happiness, the article cites a study by the Journal of Positive Psychology:

“Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’
‘Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,’ the authors write. How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want.”

While behaviors that resulted in happiness corresponded with drive reduction and taking, the behaviors that corresponded with meaning were giving behaviors: sharing talents, giving presents, taking care of kids and arguing for the greater good. Meaningful acts didn’t necessarily result in more happiness. In fact, they often resulted in less happiness.

“People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating and watching television.”

Meaning is also associated with transcendence of the present moment.

“While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.”

Isn’t that interesting?

It made me wonder how I am serving something greater than myself. How am I humbled and inspired? One way, is through parenthood. I feel a sense of duty to my girls for sure. That’s easy. My husband and I make our marriage work by putting the marriage before ourselves. We both love what we’re creating together and we both make sacrifices, usually of the ego type. My spiritual beliefs give me a sense of meaning. I believe our highest calling is to spread love in the world and every day we’re here is an opportunity to do that. How am I using my talents to help the world? Historically, that one has plagued me. For a long time, I wasn’t sure if my talents meant anything. Now, through this blog, I’m beginning to change that. I’m putting myself out there. It’s not easy, but I’m getting a lot out of it.

Back to that materialism thing with my kids. How did the article change how I’m going to deal with that?

Now, when the girls obsess about the beach mansion, I’ll be able to hold back the platitude. Happiness is great. After all, I want them to have happiness and meaning in their lives. It’s not an either/or situation. lnstead of being a buzz killer, I’ll enjoy the moment. Maybe I’ll even fantasize with them about how magnificent it’s going to be. Then, I’ll continue the fantasy by asking what wonderful things for society will they do to get there? When Sarah says she’s going to be a lawyer, I’ll ask her what injustices she hopes to correct with her law degree. When Sadie says she wants to be a pop star, I’ll ask her how she will use her fame to help others.

I’m going to drive them to all of those after school activities (that are expensive and they complain about) with a happier heart. After all, I’m helping them find their talents. One day, they can use those talents to serve others. Instead of letting them quit because I’m not quite sure if you should make someone do something they don’t like, I’ll be a little more of a tiger mom. Developing a talent is about service, not happiness.

Instead of picking out birthday presents for their friends, I’m going to have them do it, so they participate more fully in that act of meaning.

If you have a chance to read the article, I highly recommend it. I’d love to hear what you think. From where in your life do you derive meaning? Do you have a “clearly defined purpose?” How are you teaching your kids about meaning? Please share!

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