Meaning vs. Happiness: The Ultimate Showdown

The more I read about happiness, the more unhappy I get. “Happiness is being in the moment.   Happiness is living your life’s purpose.  Happiness is having a meaningful life.” 

Screw them all.

I’m pretty sure happiness can’t be described in six words like a fortune cookie or a pick-up line.  Yes, I want happiness, but I want the hard to get happiness, the happiness that takes at least as long as it takes to reform healthcare or find my keys.  I want the ass-kicking, fun-loving, I don’t really care what you think about me I’m really happy happiness.

But, one cannot thrive on cotton candy, puppy cuddles, and dance parties alone. We crave fulfillment. But what is it that fills us fully? Is it happiness or meaning? Which is better? Which is more important?

Many of us have been taught that a meaningful life is a happy life. I can assure you this is not the case. My last job before founding Aligned Holistics was at a non-profit that supported young girls who were victims of sex-trafficking. It was a recipe ripe for burnout. Fulfillment wasn’t enough to counter the struggles, stress, and sleepless nights. But the opposite life, focused on happiness alone, would be devoid of any content or meaning (champagne brunch on a Tuesday, anyone?) And I knew that would soon turn me into an overweight sad sack of organic brownies.

I recently read a Stanford study that looked at happiness and meaning as they relate to relationships. While having a social network contributed to both meaning and happiness, the type of relationship created a distinct difference. For example, spending time with loved ones created meaning, but not happiness while spending time with friends created happiness, with little meaning.

I found that hilarious.

“Loved ones,” like family, are people we don’t choose. And often, “quality time” can feel like walking a tightrope over shark-infested waters. I love my family, but I never think “Gee, I could really use a fun day of frolicking, let me call my dad!” In fact, I usually call them in the aftermath of actual fun, when I’m feeling tired, down, and/or slightly hungover. The point is, loved ones are distinctly different than friends whom we choose based on pleasure.

Speaking of family, in an effort to “pursue happiness” many of my friends engage in the “parent paradox,” believing that kids are a means to happiness. But if you’re a parent (or around one,) it won’t surprise you to hear that the Stanford study linked parenthood with high stress and reduced happiness. While that does discourage me from procreating, their lives do rank higher in meaning. (You’re welcome, mom!)

Fulfillment also requires taking action, as demonstrated in this acrostic. Which, as an aside, totally makes me want to write a post purely in stick-poem form. Note to self.

Ultimately, we all want to be happy. And while meaning does not consistently correlate, it’s a powerful driver of human behavior. And happiness without meaning is, well, meaningless. While it’s possible to create happiness by focusing on meaning, you cannot create meaning by focusing on happiness alone.

So which is more important to fulfillment? Who cares, they both matter! But if I had to choose, I’d go for meaning. It’s richness and depth puts you in a better position to find happiness. And, if all else fails, find a 6 word phrase that floats your boat.