Can Psychologists predict whether just christened George is heading for a happy or a meaningful life?
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
But are a happy life and a meaningful life the same thing? Can pursuing one lead to less of the other? The choice of God Parents to a future Monarch might reveal the parents thinking on the pursuit of happiness or meaning, in terms of future guidance for their child.
This is a question which has also just been investigated by a large psychology study entitled ‘Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life’; about to be published in the ‘Journal of Positive Psychology’.
The researchers let participants deﬁne the happy, or meaningful life. Happiness appeared linked to having needs and desires satisﬁed, and leading an existence largely free from unpleasant events.
A meaningful life, in contrast, appeared linked to some over-arching purpose. Often it meant sacrifice and being devoted more to improving the welfare of others, rather than yourself.
The authors of the new study, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, point out it is possible to have a meaningful but unhappy life (e.g. being an oppressed political activist). Attaining the ‘holy grail’ of the happy and meaningful life appeared possible, from the findings of this study, but not as straightforward as previously might have been thought.
Happiness flows from beneﬁts you receive from others. Meaningfulness, instead, is associated with the beneﬁts that others receive from you.
This new psychology research finds that while being happy and ﬁnding life meaningful overlap, there are important differences. A national sample of 397 adults were surveyed; results revealed that satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness, but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.
Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went more with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to more meaningfulness, yet lower happiness.
It might come as no surprise that the results reveal finding one’s life to be relatively easy was linked to more happiness. But considering life a struggle was positively related with meaningfulness. Some people endure highly meaningful yet not very pleasant lives, perhaps because their meaningful activities require strenuous and unpleasant effort.
The authors, from Florida State University, University of Minnesota and Stanford University, conclude finding one’s life easy or difﬁcult is a matter of happiness, but not of meaning.
Not having enough money reduced both meaningfulness and happiness, but the effect was considerably larger on happiness than meaningfulness. Monetary scarcity was 20 times more detrimental to happiness than to meaning. Having sufﬁcient money to purchase objects of desire (both necessities and luxuries) was important for happiness, but made little impact on whether life was meaningful.
The more time people devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were – and the less happy. Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future, and is much more about living for the present.
The more people thought only about the present, the happier they were.
Spending time with friends was positively related to happiness. Time spent with loved people was signiﬁcantly linked with meaning, but surprisingly irrelevant to happiness, possibly because loved ones can be difﬁcult at times. People with more meaningful lives also agreed that ‘relationships are more important than achievements’; this sentiment was unrelated to happiness.
For parents, the more time they spent taking care of children, the more meaningful their lives were, yet looking after children also reduced happiness.
The authors argue these ﬁndings illuminate the so-called ‘parenthood paradox,’ which is that most people want to be happy, and desire to become parents, but those two goals are in fact in conﬂict.
Becoming a parent has been shown by a raft of research to often reduce happiness. Roy Baumeister, the lead author of the current study, has proposed that the ‘parenthood paradox’ can be resolved by proposing that we seek not just happiness but also meaning. People become parents because the gains in meaningfulness offset any losses in happiness.
This latest research has profound implications for positive psychology, because it suggests that people will pursue meaningfulness even at the expense of happiness.
The more that people regarded arguing as something that reﬂects them, the more meaningful but the less happy their lives were. The effects of arguing were similar to those of helping others.
The authors of the study propose that meaningfulness comes in part from being involved in things one regards as important, and sometimes one has to argue for these. But the unpleasantness of arguing may contribute to lower happiness. Happy people may prefer not to argue and arguing is something they might do only reluctantly, rather than as a frequent expression of their inner self and values.
It’s again perhaps not surprising that more worrying was linked to lower happiness, but greater frequency of worrying was associated with higher levels of meaningfulness. People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.
The authors suggest worrying comes from involvement and engagement with important activities that go beyond the self, and beyond the present, and so worrying may often be an unavoidable part of a meaningful life, even though it detracts from happiness.
The psychologists offered brief composite sketches of the unhappy but meaningful life and of the happy but meaningless life – were these relevant for the future King George?
The unhappy but meaningful life is seriously involved in difﬁcult undertakings. It’s marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. These people perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others. In fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.
Although these individuals may be relatively unhappy, they could make important positive contributions to society. High meaningfulness despite low happiness was associated with being a giver rather than a taker. These people were more likely to say that taking care of children reﬂected them, as did buying gifts for others.
The highly happy but relatively meaningless life is characterised by seeming rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If these people argue, they do not feel that arguing reﬂects them.
They are takers rather than givers, and such 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.
Given the picture this latest research paints, is there a clue as to Kate’s and William’s values in their choice of God Parents?
Which life did the various adults at the christening ceremony largely pursue – the happy or the meaningful?
We can only hope that George, or any child, experiences both.