Do you have a happy life or a meaningful life? And why you should even care

youdefineyourfreedomJust last month, I was coaching one of my Adventure Mastermind clients in a Hot Seat during our Mexico retreat. One of the things that came up was a struggle between wanting to fully enjoy an amazing life of travel and adventures and fun…and also wanting to feel a deeper sense of usefulness or contribution. Would it be OK to “just” live an amazingly joyful life? Would that be enough? Would she be enough? Or is true happiness requiring us to also contribute to others/society? Or is being happy enough of a contribution to this world? She had manifested a pretty amazing life for herself, yet something seemed like it was still missing.

(BTW, this is a most excellent topic of discussion, and one I highly recommend to have at your next dinner party)

I won’t go into the details of that session, and to be honest, I don’t even want to imply that what follows has anything to do with it…but I will say that the session sparked me to reflect on a hot topic of debate in the field of positive psychology. This debate lies around the concept that a happy life could possibly be different than a meaningful life, and that you could feasibly have one without the other. Others disagree and say that to remove meaningfulness from happiness screws the whole thing up since they are inextricably intertwined.

This pushes all kinds of buttons with people – “But how can you be happy doing something that isn’t meaningful?” “Isn’t being happy meaningful in and of itself?” “So are you saying that I can’t be truly happy unless I volunteer and hand out clothes to homeless people?” “Why would you want to live a happy life that wasn’t meaningful?”

Do you have a happy life or a meaningful life?

Why is all this even important?

Well, mental masturbation is always fun for people like me, and I love pondering these things.

But a more important reason is that we are all starting to become aware of the benefits of happiness – you live longer, are healthier, more successful and creative, you earn more money…the benefits go on and on! So, we need to get really clear about what exactly happiness is so we don’t get led down the wrong path, wasting precious time, money, and energy on the wrong things – at least if happiness and its bennies is what you’re aiming for.

Let’s get real – we all only have a limited amount of time, so given say, one hour to help your life be extraordinary, it would be good to know exactly what would best do that. Should you go do something “meaningful” like volunteer at a soup kitchen, play with your kids, or bring a sick friend some food? Or get a “happy” fix and take a sauna, hang out with friends at the tasting room, watch a funny movie, or read a book on a beach in Bali … or maybe even a little of both?!

There’s a provocative study by Dr. Roy Baumeister and his buddies that suggests “meaning” (separate from happiness) is not connected with whether one is healthy, has enough money, or feels comfortable in life.

(Well isn’t that interesting!?)

The flip side is that “happiness” (separate from meaning) absolutely is connected to those things.

So what exactly does this mean for us folks trying to live a happy and meaningful life?

In the study I mentioned above, the researchers identified five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful one (note: the italicized excerpts are from the article on the Greater Good Science Center’s website).

  • Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.
To me, this explains how a total asshole can appear relatively happy and believe that he truly is happy himself.
  • Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.

This could be why the aforementioned asshole isn’t necessarily happy for very long.

  • Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.

Well ain’t that the shizzle?! So being walked all over and giving without receiving doesn’t lead to happiness! We all knew that though, right?

  • Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.

To me, this doesn’t meant that we need to avoid challenging situations that expand our comfort zones. Rather, this means that we also need to engage in practices that boost our happiness – and it’s associated benefits. I am sure we all know at least one person – and perhaps that person is ourselves – that is constantly doing things for others and putting themselves into hardship for the sake of other people. This needs to be balanced with happiness-provoking activities! At least if you want to live longer, be healthier, have success and whatnot.

  • Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness.

When your identity is how you create meaning in your life, usually there’s a few – ahem – issues that come up. Like suffering. Especially whenever someone has a different identity from yours and challenges that your identity isn’t the right one. Which would happen, like, every day because we’re all different…unless of course you lived on a freaky commune and drank the Kool-Aid.

OK, so i get where this Baumeister guy is getting at. But something doesn’t sit right with me yet…like, I want to know what are the benefits of leading a meaningful life? What bennies come to those who lead meaningful, yet not necessarily happy, lives?

And I’m also wary of this whole ability to separate our meaningfulness from happiness. I’m a huge fan of the Dalai Lama’s quote:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Some suggest what Baumeister was studying was more “hedonistic pleasure” than happiness. This is the case for people who believe meaningfulness is an integral part of true happiness, such as Dr. Lyubomirsky from UC Riverside. She feels that researchers who try to separate meaning and happiness may be on the wrong track: “When you feel happy, and you take out the meaning part of happiness, it’s not really happiness.” And there are even more studies coming out that meaningful happiness has more benefits that purely hedonistic types of happiness.

I’m leaning towards Lyubormisky and the proponents of meaningful happiness on this one.

So what’s a Freedom Junkie to do?

After reading a bunch of articles on this topic, I feel this way (today, at least): I say live a happy life, and make sure you have activities that are meaningful to you as well. That way, in true Freedom Junkie form, you get to have your cake and eat it too. Yeah, I know…seems like a cop out. But I really believe you can’t just do one or the other!

This means that not everything you do needs to have deep meaning, but that you also have something in your life that you associate with deep meaning – as defined by YOU. This is why for some parents, caring for kids seems like a pain in the ass and a duty, while for others it is an act of service and connection. Same action, different meaning, different happiness results.

There’s a reason why, as a coach, I help people discover the real meaning behind their goals, the big “Why” behind their actions, their true soul-motive for things. I have found that when people don’t understand the meaningfulness behind their goals or actions, they flake. They procrastinate. They get distracted. They come up with excuses. They change their mind. A lot.

Personally, I truly believe that you can’t be genuinely happy (the sustainable, puts-lines-in-your-face-from-smiling-too-much kind of happiness), without meaning in your life. The thing is, what that meaning is is totally up to you.

You – and only you – define your freedom. You – and only you – define the meaning behind all your actions. (tweet it, yo!)

So, if you find meaning in living an outrageously epic life of freedom and adventure because you know it inspires others, then go the hell out and do just that! But if you don’t believe in that meaning, then you won’t truly be happy, no matter how many days you spend on the road traveling the world and going skydiving. You will need to find another meaning to support your actions if you want true happiness.

The point is that is isn’t what you’re doing per se that’s important, but rather the meaning behind it. What’s your big WHY? And if you can add into the mix the activities we learn about that add to happiness (gratitude, hanging with friends, savoring, etc), do those too so that you can live longer and be healthier and vital and rock your mission while you’re at it!

Are you struggling with living a meaningful life right now? Share with me below – I read every comment and respond to each one! Here are some additional resources as well:

Here’s a great video by Simon Sinek and his popular Ted Talk on “The Big Why

Here’s Baumeister’s article I mentioned about about a happy vs meaningful life

Here’s a great article on two kinds of happiness – it supports the idea that a happiness based in meaning has more benefits than a purely hedonistic happiness


If you want to join a tribe of people that will help you navigate this wild and precious life, come check out Freedom School – for rebels like you. It’s not just personal growth for rebels. It’s Jedi training for the new world.