Happiness Is Not Enough: Why a Life Without Meaning Will Make You Sick

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happinessWhen I wrote a recent post for Buffer titled 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, I didn’t even consider the possibility that striving for happiness might not be in our best interests. Who wouldn’t want to be happier?

Happiness isn’t necessarily bad for us, but I did find out recently that happiness alone isn’t enough for us to feel fulfilled. Sadly, chasing happiness is really common these days, and most of us don’t realize why being happy isn’t enough for us to be satisfied with life.

Happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

First of all, let’s look at the state of things as they are. We tend to pursue happiness as if it’s something attainable, something we should be aiming to achieve. In America and similar cultures, we’re pushed fairly insistently toward happiness from an abundance of self-help books, happiness coaches and marketing campaigns.

However, even living in a “happy focused” culture like America doesn’t mean we’re more likely to be satisfied with our lives. In fact, 4 out of 10 Americans “either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose.”

viktor frankl, happinessFamous psychologist Victor Frankl said that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’” He also said that our constant search for happiness is a problem:

It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.

A recent study actually proved this by showing that the greater emphasis it’s participants put on happiness, the less happy they actually were:

People putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms.

The thing about happiness is that it’s such an overused phrase and under-examined concept that we all have an idea of what it is and how it works, but this can lead us astray. We can see how dangerous our pursuit of happiness can be (as opposed to happiness itself, which isn’t necessarily bad for us) by looking at how scientists define it and how it affects us.

The difference between happiness and meaning

Heres the crux of this whole issue: happiness and meaning are different, and happiness without meaning really doesn’t lead to a great life.

Being happy is about feeling good. Meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. source

So here’s what happiness is really like, according to some recent research: it’s about being a “taker” rather than a “giver.” It’s about satisfying your needs and wants, so people who are happy are usually in good physical shape and can afford to buy the things they need and want. They usually also have lower levels of stress and worry in their lives.

So essentially, we’re happy when we get what we want.

This is a problem only when our happiness outweighs the meaning in our lives:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. (source)

Scientists measure self-reported happiness by asking questions like, “How often did you feel satisfied?” And “How often did you feel interested in life?”

happy, happiness

Meaning, on the other hand, is quite different. It’s focused outward, on others, rather than inward, on ourselves.

Researcher Roy Baumeister explained it like this:

Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.

Scientists test whether participants feel their lives have meaning with questions like “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?” and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group?”

Apart from just thinking about others more, we also feel more like our lives have meaning when we think more about the past and future, whereas happiness pertains to the present:

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. (source)

Researchers found that people who focus on the present are generally happier, but those who spend more time contemplating the future or their past are more likely to feel meaning in their lives.

How pleasure related happiness can make you sick

So now that we know the difference between happiness and meaning, we can explore how they affect us biologically and what our optimal state is for both physical and emotional health.

Our bodies are good at protecting us from all the possible illnesses we could pick up each day. What’s interesting about the way this works is that our emotional state can push our immune system into two different kinds of preparation: one prepares to fight bacterial infections, the other, viruses.

Of course, this is a horribly simplified explanation of the immune system and how it works, but for our purposes we’re just looking at a small part of this that’s affected by the amount if happiness and meaning in our lives.

So what happens is periods of adversity when we feel that things like stress, grief or loneliness can trigger “the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.” (source)

Essentially, your body is preparing to fight either bacterial infections or viruses. Bacterial infections are a bigger risk when we face long periods of adversity, whereas viruses are more common when we’re feeling well and interacting with lots of people. Our bodies take clues from the levels of happiness and meaning in our lives as to which kind of threat to prepare for.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole found that people who are happy but lack meaning in their lives show the same gene expression patterns as those who are struggling with prolonged adversity—their bodies are preparing to fight off bacterial infections. The problem with this is that if it continues in a prolonged state, it can increase the risks of major illnesses like cancer and heart disease, because the body is in a constant state of inflammation.

Frederickson said that the problem isn’t with being happy but with meaningfulness being outweighed by happiness. This is when we risk affecting our immune systems in detrimental ways.

And sadly, this is a fairly common state. People with high happiness scores and low meaningfulness scores formed 75% of the study’s participants. And only 25% actually had more meaning in their lives than happiness.

Clearly the optimal state we should aim for is a balance between the two. Without enough meaning in our lives, we can being ill, not to mention lacking in purpose and direction. Without enough happiness, however, we’ll become, well, unhappy. And who wants that?

Since happiness is more common of the two and the easiest to achieve (after all, it’s really just a matter of satisfying our needs and desires, remember?), let’s take a look at some ways we can add meaning to our lives.

Where to look for meaning in your life

I’m going to call on the work and words of Viktor Frankl to help us out here, since he really is one of the expert’s in finding meaning in one’s life.

In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor detailed his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp and his secret to surviving the camp despite losing all of the family members he was imprisoned with. The secret was finding meaning in even the most horrific circumstances, which he said made him more resilient to suffering.

Viktor suggests three ways for finding meaning in our lives:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

1. Create work or do a deed

When Viktor worked as a therapist in the concentration camps, he helped inmates to find meaning in their lives and bear their suffering. One example in his book is of two suicidal inmates who had lost all hope and could no longer find meaning in their lives. Viktor wrote that in both case he simply helped them to realize that “life was still expecting something from them.”

For one of the men, who was a scientist, he had a series of books to finish. This was what the future expected of him, and where he found the meaning to help him suffer through the camp.

2. Experience something or encounter someone

The second man had a young child who was living abroad in a foreign country during the war. This was what Viktor helped him realize would provide meaning to his life.

Viktor wrote that understanding how we are each impossible to replace will allow us to realize that we are fully responsible for our lives, and for continuing them.

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.” (source)

3. Choose the attitude you take toward unavoidable suffering

Unavoidable suffering is as it sounds: inescapable. We have to approach it one way or another, and the way we choose to do so can improve how meaningful our lives feel.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor wrote the following:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (source)

He also offered this example of finding meaning in suffering:

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, ”What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?“ ”Oh,“ he said, ”for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!“ Whereupon I replied, ”You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office. (source)

None of these suggestions are easy, but then the benefits of living a life full of meaning are unlikely to come from actions that are easy. We’ve got to put in the hard yards if we want our lives to be full of both happiness and meaning.

What do you think about this research? Have you found meaning in your life in other ways? Let us know in the comments.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might like 8 Common Thinking Mistakes Our Brains Make Every Day and How to Prevent Them and 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science.

  • John

    What if the past hurts? You have to force yourself to think about it in order to have meaning? Sounds then like you cannot have both happiness and meaning, unless you have nothing to regret in life, which is something rare, I think.

    • Belle

      I don’t like that idea either, John, but the studies did show that people who had struggled through hard times felt more meaning in their lives (thought they weren’t any happier because of it). I think, like most of the things I write about in terms of psychology and life-hacking, it’s really about achieving a balance between the two, if possible.

  • Michael Bering Smith

    Belle, thanks for another great engaging post. I’ve always found your work thought-provoking and moving, especially your story about changing your name. Thanks for always putting out great content. I really liked your Frankl quote, “he knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”

    I noticed especially how he says, “the” instead of “a” why. To that end, do you think there is any one “the” meaning to one’s life? As in, objective meaning outside of the self? Or is meaning only what we make it? I would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Belle

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks for reading! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog :)

      That was my favorite quote from Frankl, as well! I loved that.

      Interesting point about him saying “the why” instead of “a why.” I’m not sure I could say either way… I guess it’s up to each of to decide whether meaning is what we make it or not :)

  • Tim Smith

    We have 5 happy girls!!! Which intern makes me very happy

  • Valentino Aluigi

    Thanks Belle for the effort of facing such a tough topic.

    But I feel like now you should change your avatar, as you look much more happy in that picture than fulfilled.
    Just kidding! ; )

    I think a lot of the confusion we have is about words.
    If you try to replace “happiness” with “short-term happiness” and meaning with “long-term happiness” or “authentic happiness” then I find it all makes more sense.

    Martin Sellgman, one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology, in its homonymous book decided to called this optimal state: “well-being”, “authentic happiness”, or simply, to flourish.

    • Belle

      Great point, Valentino—the word happiness has been so overused recently that I think we all have trouble working out exactly what it is and how to get it (and if that’s what we want, anyway).

  • Josh

    Great post! It again highlights the difference between happiness and, for lack of a better term, joy. Joy can be had no matter where you are in life. Serving others is a big part of it. But happiness can be empty. Joy, not so much.

    I just downloaded Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. I’d never heard of the book before, but the 1000+ good reviews on Amazon is good enough for me. Thanks for the info!

    • Belle

      Glad you liked the post, Josh! Hope you enjoy the book as well :)

      • http://joshdthompson.com/ Josh

        Just checking in. I read the book. It’s instantly a top-five book. I’ve recommended it to at least a dozen people. Thanks for sharing!

        • Belle

          Wow, that’s great Josh! Thanks for sharing your feedback on this.

  • http://www.laptoplifelisa.com/ Lisa-Marie Cabrelli

    This is why is it’s absolutely vital to understand your Ultimate Whys. Even goals become useless without meaning attached.

    • Belle

      Great point Lisa-Marie. Goals without meaning can be very difficult to achieve sometimes, as well.

  • Cris Guintu

    Thanks again Belle, another great post from the Buffer Team, your posts never fail to inspire and also always seem very timely in my life :)

    Thanks again.

    • Belle

      Thanks Cris! So glad you’re enjoying the blog :)

  • Clara Bellino

    Thank you for a thought provoking text. My last single is called “This IS Happiness”. I’m soon launching a happiness related project. I love a quote by Apollinaire who says: “In the pursuit of Happiness we might want to pause and just be happy”. To me happiness is has always been linked to having what I consider a meaningful life, but it is also inherent in very simple pleasures.

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com/ Deb Mills-Scofield

    Belle – another fabulous post. I’ve always viewed happiness as extrinsic and dependent upon others – a ‘taker’ mentality as you state which means you can never be satisfied and the ante keeps getting upped and upped. That’s why I prefer the concept of Joy, which to me is intrinsic, based upon a belief system in something other than yourself (what Martin Buber called “I-Thou” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-Thou) – so very Thou-centered. Joy is outwardly faced – it’s about what you can do for others which is pretty unlimited and usually pretty darn satisfying…and more permanent. So much of what’s wrong with our western society is this ‘happiness’ stuff which leads to entitlement. I also love Frankl’s perspective. Most of my family was killed at Auschwitz and my aunt, who survived, had a very similar attitude – instilled in those of us who spent time around her.

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com/ Deb Mills-Scofield

    Belle – another fabulous post. I’ve always viewed happiness as extrinsic and dependent upon others – a ‘taker’ mentality as you state which means you can never be satisfied and the ante keeps getting upped and upped. That’s why I prefer the concept of Joy, which to me is intrinsic, based upon a belief system in something other than yourself (what Martin Buber called “I-Thou” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-Thou) – so very Thou-centered. Joy is outwardly faced – it’s about what you can do for others which is pretty unlimited and usually pretty darn satisfying…and more permanent. So much of what’s wrong with our western society is this ‘happiness’ stuff which leads to entitlement. I also love Frankl’s perspective. Most of my family was killed at Auschwitz and my aunt, who survived, had a very similar attitude – instilled in those of us who spent time around her.

  • http://www.mills-scofield.com/ Deb Mills-Scofield

    Belle – another fabulous post. I’ve always viewed happiness as
    extrinsic and dependent upon others – a ‘taker’ mentality as you state which
    means you can never be satisfied and the ante keeps getting upped and upped.
    That’s why I prefer the concept of Joy, which to me is intrinsic, based upon a
    belief system in something other than yourself (what Martin Buber called
    “I-Thou” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I-Thou) – so very
    Thou-centered. Joy is outwardly faced – it’s about what you can do for others
    which is pretty unlimited and usually pretty darn satisfying…and more
    permanent. So much of what’s wrong with our western society is this ‘happiness’
    stuff which leads to entitlement. I also love Frankl’s perspective. Most of my
    family was killed at Auschwitz and my aunt, who survived, had a very similar
    attitude – instilled in those of us who spent time around her.

    • Belle

      Hi Deb,
      Thanks for your comment—that’s an awesome story about your Aunt and how her attitude can rub off on those around her.

  • http://niel.delarouviere.com NielDLR

    Amazing post Belle. Wow, really makes one think.

    I really like the quote: “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue”. I’ve always found that the times where I’m truly happy was when I realized I was in a moment that really meant a lot. And these moments just happen.

    An example, which I’ve been feeling a lot of recently: I live in Taipei, far away from home and many times I glance over the city and realize just how privileged I am to witness this and have the opportunity to live here. I become introspective and just think about all the beauty and greatness in life and how grateful I am. Then happiness ensues.

    Another example, which is more personal: The first time I met my girlfriend’s mom was when we went to stay at their humble beach home in a small coastal town in South Africa. One evening I was sitting on the veranda barbecuing some delicious meat and the night was silent. My girlfriend and her mom were sitting there just being and enjoying their drinks, then a ton of emotion came welling up inside. I realized that this moment was meaningful. There are a lot a bad stuff in the world, but here I was enjoying an intimate moment with the person I love and that’s all that I needed. Then happiness ensued.

    I’ll never forget that, because it made me realize, that when you find the pure beautiful things in life, they provide meaning when you notice them. Sure, meaning is different to each person, but that to me is what makes life beautiful.

    Amazing post Belle. I’ll take this to heart.

  • http://niel.delarouviere.com NielDLR

    Amazing post Belle. Wow, really makes one think.

    I really like the quote: “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue”. I’ve always found that the times where I’m truly happy was when I realized I was in a moment that really meant a lot. And these moments just happen.

    An example, which I’ve been feeling a lot of recently: I live in Taipei, far away from home and many times I glance over the city and realize just how privileged I am to witness this and have the opportunity to live here. I become introspective and just think about all the beauty and greatness in life and how grateful I am. Then happiness ensues.

    Another example, which is more personal: The first time I met my girlfriend’s mom was when we went to stay at their humble beach home in a small coastal town in South Africa. One evening I was sitting on the veranda barbecuing some delicious meat and the night was silent. My girlfriend and her mom were sitting there just being and enjoying their drinks, then a ton of emotion came welling up inside. I realized that this moment was meaningful. There are a lot a bad stuff in the world, but here I was enjoying an intimate moment with the person I love and that’s all that I needed. Then happiness ensued.

    I’ll never forget that, because it made me realize, that when you find the pure beautiful things in life, they provide meaning when you notice them. Sure, meaning is different to each person, but that to me is what makes life beautiful.

    Amazing post Belle. I’ll take this to heart.

    • Belle

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Niel! Great examples about how meaning can sometimes be all around us, and we just need to take notice of it.

      I definitely identify with your first example—I’ve felt that many times here in Melbourne :)

  • Adam Muller

    This is a ground-breaking post Belle Beth. This will open some new doors for the blogging world. It’s inspiring to see (and read!). They may even have to change the name of one of the job descriptions at Buffer! Meaning Hero, here we come…. :)

    • Belle

      haha! Thanks Adam :)

  • Dubem Menakaya

    Excellent post as usual Beth and absolutely spot on. I have experienced this in my life – I was kicked out of University and I was depressed and I used to get sick all the time. As I begin to discover my passion and meaning, I became more active and now I rarely get even the flu, if I do I maintain a positive attitude and it soon subsides. It’s stunning how this basic discovery is not highlighted by more people because it would have a tremendous impact on the world.

    Oh and that book sounds so interesting, it’s on my list!

  • http://www.donloper.com/ Joshua Steimle

    Great stuff once I got past the semantic issue of wanting to argue over the definition of “happiness.” :)

  • http://lukemcg.com/ Luke McGrath

    Thanks Beth, added this book to my wishlist. Really enjoying your series of posts at the moment, keep it up!

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com/ David Rupert

    This is a powerful article that if applied, could turn around a self-absorbed culture. When we have marriages dissolving because “you have a right to happiness” and every moral standard teetering on the happiness quotient, we are in deep trouble. Thanks for bringing this up.
    http://www.RedLetterBelievers.com

  • Daniel Boune Landry

    Very nice write up.

  • donnyooh

    Life equations

    Despair=Suffering-Meaning……..where suffering is a constant.

    Increase meaing to reduce despair

    source:http://bigthink.com/videos/emotional-equations-2

  • Ohnmar

    All mental phenomena have mind as their fore-runner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made.
    If one thinks, speaks or acts with an evil mind, misery follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofs of the ox that
    draws the cart.
    If one thinks, speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves him.

  • loretta

    Happiness does not mean that we do not have problems. It is overcoming adversity and challenges that makes our lives meaningful. I may be suffering ( all of us are at one time or another) but deep down I know I can get through it and overcome it. This is also known as Changing Poison into Medicine, See SGI.org

  • Dessy Pavlova

    Love this! Thanks so much, I know a lot of people that will benefit from understanding the difference between meaning and happiness. This is exactly what I strive for in my organizations and endeavors — creating overall meaning to life by contributing to society and to others in various ways, which in return seems to make you happy. “Being happy is about feeling good. Meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way.”

  • Peter henderson

    May I use you in my paper. I would like to Cite you but can not find one…..anyone know how to cite her?

  • Chris Thompson

    Thank you for this post….. It is helping me to sort out a lot of things in my life and put some things into perspective.

  • Farewell God

    Ask me anything. I’m answering questions about the meaning of life

    http://downdeepquestions.blogspot.com/

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BVY9EU6

  • Rudy U Martinka

    You may be interested in King Solomon on Meaning of Life for an added perspective to this article.

    http://rudymartinka.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/king-solomon-on-meaning-of-life/

    Regards and good will blogging.

  • Leo-47

    So deep. This article is spot on. The quote’s really bring the piece together.