At first glance, you might think happiness and a sense of meaningfulness in life go hand in hand. However, numerous studies challenge this assumption – and some even suggest it’s rare for the two to co-exist.
Happiness is about getting what you want, about satisfying your needs or desires, and it’s associated with taking more than with giving. Furthermore, it’s fleeting: it comes and goes, and we have less control over it than we would like. In fact, Jonathan Schooler and colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara showed that trying to be happy may even be counter-productive.
His study asked participants to listen to a piece of classical music, instructing some simply to listen to the piece while asking others to try to feel as happy as possible while listening. When questioned afterwards, they found those participants who tried to feel happy were actually unhappier than those who had simply listened.
Meaningfulness, on the other hand, is a quality that must be created or chosen. Login George and Crystal Park at the University of Connecticut reviewed existing literature about what constitutes a meaningful life, and came up with three features. A meaningful life has a) purpose, the degree to which you feel directed by valued goals; b) comprehensiveness, the ability to make sense of your life and see it as coherent; and, c) mattering, the belief that your life has significance and is valued.
The relationship between happiness and meaningfulness attracted the attention of Roy Baumeister at Florida State University. He and his colleagues asked 394 Americans aged between 18 and 78 whether they felt their life was meaningful and/or happy, and why. Although a few scored highly on both dimensions or low on both, a significant number scored high on one dimension and low on the other.
The differences between the latter two groups were particularly notable. Those who described their lives as more happy than meaningful tended to avoid challenging situations and relationships. They described themselves as relatively self-orientated, and more often as takers than givers.
Those who didn’t rate themselves as particularly happy but who regarded their life as highly meaningful spent significant amounts of time helping others, particularly friends and family, and described themselves as givers more often than as takers.
It seems, therefore, that if you choose to imbue your life with meaning, in particular to invest effort in your relationships and work to improve the lives of other people, you may feel stressed and less happy more often than those who don’t choose to live this way. There is, however, a huge pay-off.
The Harvard Grant Study, the longest existing study of adult life, has followed the lives of 268 Harvard undergraduates and 456 Boston inner-city residents since 1938. Robert Waldinger, current director of the study, has found little association between health and longevity and happiness goals such as money or fame.
Instead, the factor most powerfully associated with keeping people happy and healthy throughout their adult life is their ability to maintain satisfying long-term relationships.
• Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist. To order her book, The Key to Calm (Hodder & Stoughton), for £12.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.