A Meaningful Life or a Happy Life: Which Do You Value More?

Seniors cheering in a park. (Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

The question in the headline is a good one. So before you read any further, you should think about it, too. What will it be: A meaningful life, or a happy one?

Of course, we'd all like to have both, but when you're forced to choose, it makes you look at your own life and where your energy is spent. It can help you understand what's most valuable to you.

According to the UC-Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, happiness involves being focused on the present and finding joy and contentment there, "whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present and future — and the relationship between them."

The majority of the people who answered the question on my Facebook page thought meaning was the winner. Here are some of their responses:

"Maybe I would have said happy a few years ago, but I have learned happiness is very much a 'now' thing whereas meaningful comes from long periods of work (not meaning the paid kind exclusively)," wrote Bill Colacicco, a father of two from Westchester, New York.

"I used to pursue happiness and now that I am happy, I am choosing a meaningful [life]. I know I can always create a happy life on my own, but making a meaningful one is more challenging," wrote Neiva Sukmawati, a freelance writer.

One concept leads to the other

flowers along a garden path
Identifying the simple things that make you happy — like wandering down a garden path with a glass of wine — can help you identify meaning. (Photo: Del Boy/Shutterstock)

Because of its ephemeral nature, happiness might seem to be a bad investment — but finding joy and fully experiencing your current state is also the key to mindfulness, which studies have shown positively affects your physical and mental health. But should you trade momentary joys for the deeper, more long-term feelings that bring meaning?

Maybe — because figuring out what brings you happiness can help you figure out what's meaningful to you. Joyful, contented feelings are a short-term feedback mechanism pointing you towards what you might find meaning in. For example, it makes me happy to drink wine while walking through a garden. It seems fairly common and not all that meaningful, but if I look at the act more closely, it's because the sipping of the wine and its intoxicating effects make it easier for me to get lost in the details of beautiful flowers or appreciate the way the garden paths were designed. That gives me the clue that I find the beauty of the natural world very meaningful. Other things that make me happy in the moment include trying new foods, or hiking to a hidden beach or forest I've never been to — and writing about them. That happiness tells me that ultimately, exploring and loving new and unusual things, and sharing them with other people who are interested is also meaningful to me.

Finding my happiness pointed me in the direction of what I find meaningful. Lauri Lyons, the publisher of Nomads magazine, also found real value in finding her day-to-day joy. She wrote: "I think happiness may be overall more important, because it requires you to be conscious of the present and it is recognizable. Feeling good has great value and is a great motivation for living your day-to-day life. Meaningfulness is very important, but people are often harsh critics of their past and burdened with boxed-in expectations of their future, so they miss the peace of now."

It's a question we've been pondering for a long time

A new book by journalist Emily Esfahani Smith, "The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters," takes a look at happiness vs. a life of meaning. She dug through both studies from modern social science, psychology and ancient philosophical (Aristotle and Kant) and religious texts to crowdsource her answer over time and in consideration of different viewpoints. Smith, who talks about simple ways to find meaning in the video above, told the Greater Good project that she found "a lot of overlap between what the science said and what these ancient sources of wisdom said."

That's reassuring, proving that people have been asking — and answering — this question for a long time.

Smith found there are four pillars that make up a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. "The first three made sense to me and I had personal experiences with them that were meaningful, but storytelling was different, and it made me realize that we are all storytellers. We all have the ability to make a narrative out of our own lives. It gives us clarity ... and gives us a framework that goes beyond the day-to-day and basically helps us make sense of our experiences."

So for some of us, finding our happiness might make that part of Smith's four pillars more clear — identifying when in our younger lives we were happiest can show us where meaning lies for us, and also help us tell our personal stories. In other words, we understand the whole better by figuring out the parts.

If you're not sure about your own answer, you're not alone — and it can change over your lifetime. It makes sense that it can take time for some people to find their life's meaning; those people focusing on happiness when they are younger are partway there, and it can help them find the meaning. Other people know what's meaningful to them from a young age, and can pursue it, but might struggle with finding more day-to-day happiness. There are more than a few war correspondents, doctors and activists who focus almost exclusively on their incredibly important work until midlife, then realize they have forgotten to find their own happiness in life.

Like my grandmother always said, finding balance in life is a challenge, but questions like this can help us find our footing. As James Mister, who supports U.S. tech companies entering the German market, wrote in answer to my question: "Why not both? I'm having difficulty conceiving of how a happy life would lack meaning or vice versa?"