Finding meaning is more important than finding happiness

For a long time the media has been focusing on how to live a happy, but not necessarily meaningful life. The understandings of the two terms meaning and happiness often duplicate one another. This is particularly misleading in work related situations in which the difference between seeking meaning and seeking happiness can be quite big.
One of my intentions with this post is to emphasize that the focus should be on making work meaningful and also to avoid that the concept of meaning to be mistaken for happiness or job satisfaction, also known as "arbejdsglæde". (Danish word)

There is a great difference between finding meaning at work and finding happiness in what you do at work, the so-called "arbejdsglæde". The reason why I find it relevant to focus on the differences between meaning and happiness is primarily because recent research points out that it is more important to find meaning than to find happiness at work. Obviously these findings do not imply that employees should not be happy at work. They simply emphasize the fact that an employee may very well experience a period of time in which work does not seem to bring much happiness, but still can prove meaningful. The more meaning an employee finds at work, the more productive and committed he or she gets.    

A recent research from Stanford University explains the most significant differences between happiness and meaning and this post is based on these findings. The researchers surveyed 397 adults (68% female; ages 18-78; M = 35.5 years old; 48.1% were parents) through a period of one month. The aim of the research was to find out whether people perceived their lives as mostly meaningful or happy through their own perceptions of the two terms while examining their choices, beliefs and values.

A fundamental difference between happiness and meaning discovered in the research is the approach itself when trying to find meaning or happiness with what you do. When people look for joyous circumstances, the feeling is mostly approached from the outside in. This means that people are trying to find happiness in their surroundings as something they can achieve through others or by means of e.g. money, and therefore they see happiness as a factor depending on circumstances they themselves are not responsible for.

On the other hand the pursuit of meaning of life is perceived as an inside out approach. This means that meaning derives from your own thoughts and actions, for instance by offering your unlimited help and services to others which is a fundamental part of the meaningful life.

Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister describes the difference in the following way:

"Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker." 

This statement further emphasizes the fundamental difference between seeking the usually short-termed feeling of happiness and seeking the more long-lasting feeling of meaning in both personal and work-related situations.

The research concluded the following five differences between seeking happiness and seeking meaning:

Wants and needs

Satisfying your desire is a reliable source of happiness – yet it has nothing to do with meaning. For instance healthy people are generally happier than sick people, but the life of sick people rarely lacks meaning.

Past, present and future

Happiness is about what happens in your life right now whereas meaning is about connecting past, present and future with each other. A person who is spending time thinking about life as it is at this very moment is happier than a person who is thinking about past and future events. On the other hand the reduced feeling of happiness when thinking about past and future events is replaced by the feeling of a more meaningful life.

Social life

Feeling connected to other people is an important factor both when looking for happiness and when looking for meaning. The difference is to be found within the different kinds of relations. When people spend time in casual gatherings with good friends, the feeling of happiness is strengthened whereas the feeling of meaning is only slightly affected. On the other hand the feeling of a meaningful life is more intense with people who spend time with close family which often include slightly less pleasant moments such as daily challenges and problem solving.

Battles and stress

The meaningful life often faces negative events and issues which may result in dissatisfaction. For instance raising a child can on one hand be fantastic and on the other hand extremely stressful and therefore parenthood may not always be filled with happiness, but the feeling of a higher meaning in life compensates for the reduced feeling of happiness. When a person retires he or she will often experience increased happiness in life while the meaning of life decreases due to for example a lower stress level because of the circumstances.


As happiness is about finding the feeling through external resources, the feeling of meaning is about finding your purpose in life through self-reflection, and by expressing and defining yourself. A meaningful life is all about doing things that reflect your identity, e.g. by helping others which is a fundamental part in finding a higher meaning particularly at work.


The conclusion of the research is that happiness without meaning is characterized by a life in which things go well, basic wants and needs are fulfilled and challenges are avoided. Life happens in the present and speculations about past and future events are non-existent as they are highly linked to feelings of stress and anxiety.

On the other hand the meaningful life is the sum of all actions from past to present and towards the future which give you a feeling of direction as well as a perfect starting point.

Consequently a person can easily find meaning in his or her life and be unhappy all at the same time. On the contrary it is also possible to live a happy, but yet meaningless life. It all comes down to the beliefs of the individual human being as well as his or her life purpose in both personal and work-related matters.