Parents often say: ‘I just want my children to be happy.’ It is unusual to hear: ‘I just want my children’s lives to be meaningful,’ yet that’s what most of us seem to want for ourselves. We fear meaninglessness. We fret about the ‘nihilism’ of this or that aspect of our culture. When we lose a sense of meaning, we get depressed. What is this thing we call meaning, and why might we need it so badly?
Let’s start with the last question. To be sure, happiness and meaningfulness frequently overlap. Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness, a necessary but insufficient condition. If that were the case, people might pursue meaning for purely instrumental reasons, as a step on the road towards happiness. But then, is there any reason to want meaning for its own sake? And if there isn’t, why would people ever choose lives that are more meaningful than happy, as they sometimes do?
The difference between meaningfulness and happiness was the focus of an investigation I worked on with my fellow social psychologists Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology this August. We carried out a survey of nearly 400 US citizens, ranging in age from 18 to 78. The survey posed questions about the extent to which people thought their lives were happy and the extent to which they thought they were meaningful. We did not supply a definition of happiness or meaning, so our subjects responded using their own understanding of those words. By asking a large number of other questions, we were able to see which factors went with happiness and which went with meaningfulness.
As you might expect, the two states turned out to overlap substantially. Almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. Nevertheless, using statistical controls we were able to tease two apart, isolating the ‘pure’ effects of each one that were not based on the other. We narrowed our search to look for factors that had opposite effects on happiness and meaning, or at least, factors that had a positive correlation with one and not even a hint of a positive correlation with the other (negative or zero correlations were fine). Using this method, we found five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness, five areas where different versions of the good life parted company.
The first had to do with getting what you want and need. Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. But it had nothing — maybe even less than nothing — to add to a sense of meaning. People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult. Happy people say they have enough money to buy the things they want and the things they need. Good health is a factor that contributes to happiness but not to meaningfulness. Healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning. The more often people feel good — a feeling that can arise from getting what one wants or needs — the happier they are. The less often they feel bad, the happier they are. But the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.
The second set of differences involved time frame. Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness (as was worry, which I’ll come to later). Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. Misery is often focused on the present, too, but people are happy more often than they are miserable. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.
This begins to suggest a theory for why it is we care so much about meaning. Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. Despite these realities, people experience happiness as something that is felt here and now, and that cannot be counted on to last. By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning.
Social life was the locus of our third set of differences. As you might expect, connections to other people turned out to be important both for meaning and for happiness. Being alone in the world is linked to low levels of happiness and meaningfulness, as is feeling lonely. Nevertheless, it was the particular character of one’s social connections that determined which state they helped to bring about. Simply put, meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you. This runs counter to some conventional wisdom: it is widely assumed that helping other people makes you happy. Well, to the extent that it does, the effect depends entirely on the overlap between meaning and happiness. Helping others had a big positive contribution to meaningfulness independent of happiness, but there was no sign that it boosted happiness independently of meaning. If anything, the effect was in the opposite direction: once we correct for the boost it gives to meaning, helping others can actually detract from one’s own happiness.
We found echoes of this phenomenon when we asked our subjects how much time they spent taking care of children. For non-parents, childcare contributed nothing to happiness or meaningfulness. Taking care of other people’s children is apparently neither very pleasant nor very unpleasant, and it doesn’t feel meaningful either. For parents, on the other hand, caring for children was a substantial source of meaning, though it still seemed irrelevant to happiness, probably because children are sometimes delightful and sometimes stressful and annoying, so it balances out.
Our survey had people rate themselves as ‘givers’ or as ‘takers’. Regarding oneself as a giving person strongly predicted more meaningfulness and less happiness. The effects for being a taker were weaker, possibly because people are reluctant to admit that they are takers. Even so, it was fairly clear that being a taker (or at least, considering oneself to be one) boosted happiness but reduced meaning.
The depth of social ties can also make a difference in how social life contributes to happiness and meaning. Spending time with friends was linked to higher happiness but it was irrelevant to meaning. Having a few beers with buddies or enjoying a nice lunch conversation with friends might be a source of pleasure but, on the whole, it appears not to be very important to a meaningful life. By comparison, spending more time with loved ones was linked to higher meaning and was irrelevant to happiness. The difference, presumably, is in the depth of the relationship. Time with friends is often devoted to simple pleasures, without much at stake, so it may foster good feelings while doing little to increase meaning. If your friends are grumpy or tiresome, you can just move on. Time with loved ones is not so uniformly pleasant. Sometimes one has to pay bills, deal with illnesses or repairs, and do other unsatisfying chores. And of course, loved ones can be difficult too, in which case you generally have to work on the relationship and hash it out. It is probably no coincidence that arguing was itself associated with more meaning and less happiness.
If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself
A fourth category of differences had to do with struggles, problems, stresses and the like. In general, these went with lower happiness and higher meaningfulness. We asked how many positive and negative events people had recently experienced. Having lots of good things happen turned out to be helpful for both meaning and happiness. No surprise there. But bad things were a different story. Highly meaningful lives encounter plenty of negative events, which of course reduce happiness. Indeed, stress and negative life events were two powerful blows to happiness, despite their significant positive association with a meaningful life. We begin to get a sense of what the happy but not very meaningful life would be like. Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles — all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life. The transition to retirement illustrates this difference: with the cessation of work demands and stresses, happiness goes up but meaningfulness drops.
Do people go out looking for stress in order to add meaning to their lives? It seems more likely that they seek meaning by pursuing projects that are difficult and uncertain. One tries to accomplish things in the world: this brings both ups and downs, so the net gain to happiness might be small, but the process contributes to meaningfulness either way. To use an example close to home, conducting research adds immensely to the sense of a meaningful life (what could be meaningful than working to increase the store of human knowledge?), but projects rarely go exactly as planned, and the many failures and frustrations along the way can suck some of the joy out of the process.
The final category of differences had to do with the self and personal identity. Activities that express the self are an important source of meaning but are mostly irrelevant to happiness. Of the 37 items on our list that asked people to rate whether some activity (such as working, exercising or meditating) was an expression or reflection of the self, 25 yielded significant positive correlations with a meaningful life and none was negative. Only two of the 37 items (socialising, and partying without alcohol) were positively linked to happiness, and some even had a significant negative relationship. The worst was worry: if you think of yourself as a worrier, that seems to be quite a downer.
If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself. Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness. This might seem almost paradoxical: happiness is selfish, in the sense that it is about getting what you want and having other people do things that benefit you, and yet the self is more tied to meaning than happiness. Expressing yourself, defining yourself, building a good reputation and other self-oriented activities are more about meaning than happiness.
Does all of this really tell us anything about the meaning of life? A ‘yes’ answer depends on some debatable assumptions, not least the idea that people will tell the truth about whether their lives are meaningful. Another assumption is that we are even capable of giving a true answer. Can we know whether our lives are meaningful? Wouldn’t we have to be able to say exactly what that meaning is? Recall that my colleagues and I did not give our study respondents a definition of meaning, and we didn’t ask them to define it themselves. We just asked them to rate their level of agreement with statements such as: ‘In general, I consider my life to be meaningful.’ To look deeper into the meaning of life, it might help to clarify some basic principles.
First of all, what is life? One answer supplies the title to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), Anthony Marra’s moving novel about Chechnya following the two recent wars. A character is stranded in her apartment with nothing to do and starts reading her sister’s Soviet-era medical dictionary. It offers her little in the way of useful or even comprehensible information — except for its definition of life, which she circles in red: ‘Life: a constellation of vital phenomena — organisation, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’ That, in a sense, is what ‘life’ means. I should add that we now know it is a special kind of physical process: not atoms or chemicals themselves, but the highly organised dance they perform. The chemicals in a body are pretty much the same from the moment before death to the moment after. Death doesn’t alter this or that substance: the entire dynamic state of the system changes. Nonetheless, life is a purely physical reality.
The meaning of ‘meaning’ is more complicated. Words and sentences have meaning, as do lives. Is it the same kind of thing in both cases? In one sense, the ‘meaning’ of ‘life’ could be a simple dictionary definition, something like the one I gave in the previous paragraph. But that’s not what people want when they ask about the meaning of life, any more than it would help someone who was suffering from an identity crisis to read the name on their driver’s licence. One important difference between linguistic meaning and what I’ll call the meaningfulness of a human life is that the second seems to entail a value judgment, or a cluster of them, which in turn implies a certain kind of emotion. Your mathematics homework is full of meaning in the sense that it consists entirely of a network of concepts — meanings, in other words. But in most cases there is not much emotion linked to doing sums, and so people tend not to regard it as very meaningful in the sense in which we are interested. (In fact, some people loathe doing mathematics, or have anxiety about it, but those reactions hardly seem conducive to viewing the subject as a source of meaning in life.)
Questions about life’s meaning are really about meaningfulness. We don’t simply want to know the dictionary definition of our lives, if they have such a thing. We want our lives to have value, to fit into some kind of intelligible context. Yet these existential concerns do seem to touch on the merely linguistic sense of the word ‘meaning’ because they invoke understanding and mental associations. It is remarkable how many synonyms for meaningfulness also refer to merely verbal content: we talk, for instance, about the point of life, or its significance, or whether or not it makes sense. If we want to understand the meaning of life, it seems as though we need to grapple with the nature of meaning in this less exalted sense.
A bear can walk down the hill and get a drink, as can a person, but only a person thinks the words ‘I’m going to go down and get a drink’
Linguistic meaning is a kind of non-physical connection. Two things can be connected physically, for example when they are nailed together, or when one of them exerts a gravitational or magnetic pull on the other. But they can also be connected symbolically. The connection between a flag and the country it represents is not a physical connection, molecule to molecule. It remains the same even if the country and the flag are on opposite sides of the planet, making direct physical connection impossible.
The human mind has evolved to use meaning to understand things. This is part of the human way of being social: we talk about what we do and experience. Most of what we know we learn from others, not from direct experience. Our very survival depends on learning language, co-operating with others, following moral and legal rules and so on. Language is the tool with which humans manipulate meaning. Anthropologists love to find exceptions to any rule, but so far they have failed to find any culture that dispenses with language. It is a human universal. But there’s an important distinction to make here. Although language as a whole is universal, particular languages are invented: they vary by culture. Meaning is universal, too, but we don’t invent it. It is discovered. Think back to the maths homework: the symbols are arbitrary human inventions, but the idea expressed by 5 x 8 = 43 is inherently false and that’s not something that human beings made up or can change.
The neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara, coined the term ‘left-brain interpreter’ to refer to a section in one side of the brain that seems almost entirely dedicated to verbalising everything that happens to it. The left-brain interpreter’s account is not always correct, as Gazzaniga has demonstrated. People quickly devise an explanation for whatever they do or experience, fudging the details to fit their story. Their mistakes have led Gazzaniga to question whether this process has any value at all, but perhaps his disappointment is coloured by the scientist’s natural assumption that the purpose of thinking is to figure out the truth (this, after all, is what scientists themselves supposedly do). On the contrary, I suggest that a big part of the purpose of thinking is to help one talk to other people. Minds make mistakes but, when we talk about them, other people can spot the errors and correct them. By and large, humankind approaches the truth collectively, by discussing and arguing, rather than by thinking things through alone.
Many writers, especially those with experience of meditation and Zen, remark on how the human mind seems to prattle on all day. When you try to meditate, your mind overflows with thoughts, sometimes called the ‘inner monologue’. Why does it do this? William James, author of The Principles of Psychology (1890), said that thinking is for doing, but in fact a lot of thinking seems irrelevant to doing. Putting our thoughts into words is, however, vital preparation for communicating those thoughts to other people. Talking is important: it is how the human creature connects to its group and participates in it — and that is how we solve the eternal biological problems of survival and reproduction. Humans evolved minds that chatter all day because chattering aloud is how we survive. Talking requires people to take what they do and put it into words. A bear can walk down the hill and get a drink, as can a person, but only a person thinks the words ‘I’m going to go down and get a drink.’ In fact, the human might not just think those words but also say them aloud, and then others can come along for the trip — or perhaps offer a warning not to go after all, because someone saw a bear at the waterside. By talking, the human being shares information and connects with others, which is what we as a species are all about.
Studies on children support the idea that the human mind is naturally programmed to put things into words. Children go through stages of saying aloud the names of everything they encounter and of wanting to bestow names on all sorts of individual things, such as shirts, animals, even their own bowel movements. (For a time, our little daughter was naming hers after various relatives, seemingly without any animosity or disrespect, though we encouraged her not to inform the namesakes.) This kind of talk is not directly useful for solving problems or any of the familiar pragmatic uses of thinking, but it does help to translate the physical events of one’s life into speech so that they can be shared and discussed with others. The human mind evolved to join the collective discourse, the social narrative. Our relentless efforts to make sense of things start small, with individual items and events. Very gradually, we work towards bigger, more integrated frameworks. In a sense, we climb the ladder of meaning — from single words and concepts to simple combinations (sentences), and then on to the grand narrative, sweeping visions, or cosmic theories.
Democracy provides a revealing example of how we use meaning. It does not exist in nature. Every year, countless human groups conduct elections, but so far nobody has observed even a single one in any other species. Was democracy invented or discovered? It probably emerged independently in many different places, but the underlying similarities suggest that the idea was out there, ready to be found. The specific practices for implementing it (how votes are taken, for example) are invented. All the same, it seems as though the idea of democracy was just waiting for people to stumble upon it and put it to use.
Wondering about the meaning of life indicates that one has climbed a long way up the ladder. To understand the meaning of some newly encountered item, people might ask why it was made, how it got there or what it is useful for. When they come to the question of life’s meaning, similar questions arise: why or for what purpose was life created? How did this life get here? What is the right or best way to make use of it? It is natural to expect and assume that these questions have answers. A child learns what a banana is: it comes from the store and, before that, from a tree. It’s good to eat, which you do by (very important) first removing the outer peel to get at the soft, sweet inside. It’s natural to assume that life could be understood in the same way. Just figure out (or learn from others) what it’s about and what to do with it. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids? Sure thing. There is, moreover, a good reason to want to get all this straight. If you had a banana and failed to understand it, you might not get the benefit of eating it. In the same way, if your life had a purpose and you didn’t know it, you might end up wasting it. How sad to miss out on the meaning of life, if there is one.
Marriage is a good example of how meaning pins down the world and increases stability
We begin to see how the notion of a meaning of life puts two quite different things together. Life is a physical and chemical process. Meaning is non-physical connection, something that exists in networks of symbols and contexts. Because it is not purely physical, it can leap across great distances to connect through space and time. Remember our findings about the different time frames of happiness and meaning. Happiness can be close to physical reality, because it occurs right here in the present. In an important sense, animals can probably be happy without much in the way of meaning. Meaning, by contrast, links past, present and future in ways that go beyond physical connection. When modern Jews celebrate Passover, or when Christians celebrate communion by symbolically drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their god, their actions are guided by symbolic connections to events in the distant past (indeed, events whose very reality is disputed). The link from the past to the present is not a physical one, the way a row of dominoes falls, but rather a mental connection that leaps across the centuries.
Questions about life’s meaning are prompted by more than mere idle curiosity or fear of missing out. Meaning is a powerful tool in human life. To understand what that tool is used for, it helps to appreciate something else about life as a process of ongoing change. A living thing might always be in flux, but life cannot be at peace with endless change. Living things yearn for stability, seeking to establish harmonious relationships with their environment. They want to know how to get food, water, shelter and the like. They find or create places where they can rest and be safe. They might keep the same home for years. Life, in other words, is change accompanied by a constant striving to slow or stop the process of change, which leads ultimately to death. If only change could stop, especially at some perfect point: that was the theme of the profound story of Faust’s bet with the devil. Faust lost his soul because he could not resist the wish that a wonderful moment would last forever. Such dreams are futile. Life cannot stop changing until it ends. But living things work hard to establish some degree of stability, reducing the chaos of constant change to a somewhat stable status quo.
By contrast, meaning is largely fixed. Language is possible only insofar as words have the same meaning for everyone, and the same meaning tomorrow as today. (Languages do change, but slowly and somewhat reluctantly, relative stability being essential to their function.) Meaning therefore presents itself as an important tool by which the human animal might impose stability on its world. By recognising the steady rotation of the seasons, people can plan for future years. By establishing enduring property rights, we can develop farms to grow food.
Crucially, the human being works with others to impose its meanings. Language has to be shared, for private languages are not real languages. By communicating and working together, we create a predictable, reliable, trustworthy world, one in which you can take the bus or plane to get somewhere, trust that food can be purchased next Tuesday, know you won’t have to sleep out in the rain or snow but can count on a warm dry bed, and so forth.
Marriage is a good example of how meaning pins down the world and increases stability. Most animals mate, and some do so for long periods or even for life, but only humans marry. My colleagues who study close relationships will tell you that relationships continue to evolve and change, even after many years of marriage. However, the fact of marriage is constant. You are either married or not, and that does not fluctuate from day to day, even though your feelings and actions toward your spouse might change considerably. Marriage smooths out these bumps and helps to stabilise the relationship. That’s one reason that people are more likely to stay together if they are married than if not. Tracking all your feelings toward your romantic partner over time would be difficult, complicated and probably always incomplete. But knowing when you made the transition from not married to married is easy, as it occurred on a precise occasion that was officially recorded. Meaning is more stable than emotion, and so living things use meaning as part of their never-ending quest to achieve stability.
The Austrian psychoanalytic thinker Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) tried to update Freudian theory by adding a universal desire for meaningfulness to Freud’s other drives. He emphasised a sense of purpose, which is undoubtedly one aspect but perhaps not the full story. My own efforts to understand how people find meaning in life eventually settled on a list of four ‘needs for meaning’, and in the subsequent years that list has held up reasonably well.
The point of this list is that you will find life meaningful to the extent that you have something that addresses each of these four needs. Conversely, people who fail to satisfy one or more of these needs are likely to find life less than adequately meaningful. Changes with regard to any of these needs should also affect how meaningful the person finds his or her life.
The first need is, indeed, for purpose. Frankl was right: without purpose, life lacks meaning. A purpose is a future event or state that lends structure to the present, thus linking different times into a single story. Purposes can be sorted into two broad categories. One might strive toward a particular goal (to win a championship, become vice president or raise healthy children) or toward a condition of fulfilment (happiness, spiritual salvation, financial security, wisdom).
People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer
Life goals come from three sources, so in a sense every human life has three basic sources of purpose. One is nature. It built you for a particular purpose, which is to sustain life by surviving and reproducing. Nature doesn’t care whether you’re happy, much as people wish to be happy. We are descended from people who were good at reproducing and at surviving long enough to do so. Nature’s purpose for you is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t care what you do on a Sunday afternoon as long as you manage to survive and, sooner or later, reproduce.
The second source of purpose is culture. Culture tells you what is valuable and important. Some cultures tell you exactly what you are supposed to do: they mark you out for a particular slot (farmer, soldier, mother etc). Others offer a much wider range of options and put less pressure on you to adopt a particular one, though they certainly reward some choices more than others.
That brings us to the third source of goals: your own choices. In modern Western countries in particular, society presents you with a broad range of paths and you decide which one to take. For whatever reason — inclination, talent, inertia, high pay, good benefits — you choose one set of goals for yourself (your occupation, for example). You create the meaning of your life, fleshing out the sketch that nature and culture provided. You can even choose to defy it: many people choose not to reproduce, and some even choose not to survive. Many others resist and rebel at what their culture has chosen for them.
The second need for meaning is value. This means having a basis for knowing what is right and wrong, good and bad. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are among the first words children learn. They are some of the earliest and most culturally universal concepts, and among the few words that house pets sometimes acquire. In terms of brain reactions, the feeling that something is good or bad comes very fast, almost immediately after you recognise what it is. Solitary creatures judge good and bad by how they feel upon encountering something (does it reward them or punish them?). Humans, as social beings, can understand good and bad in loftier ways, such as their moral quality.
In practice, when it comes to making life meaningful, people need to find values that cast their lives in positive ways, justifying who they are and what they do. Justification is ultimately subject to social, consensual judgment, so one needs to have explanations that will satisfy other people in the society (especially the people who enforce the laws). Again, nature makes some values, and culture adds a truckload of additional ones. It’s not clear whether people can invent their own values, but some do originate from inside the self and become elaborated. People have strong inner desires that shape their reactions.
The third need is for efficacy. It’s not very satisfying to have goals and values if you can’t do anything about them. People like to feel that they can make a difference. Their values have to find expression in their life and work. Or, to look at it the other way around, people have to be able steer events towards positive outcomes (by their lights) and away from negative ones.
The last need is for self-worth. People with meaningful lives typically have some basis for thinking that they are good people, maybe even a little better than certain other people. At a minimum, people want to believe that they are better than they might have been had they chosen or behaved or performed badly. They have earned some degree of respect.
The meaningful life, then, has four properties. It has purposes that guide actions from present and past into the future, lending it direction. It has values that enable us to judge what is good and bad; and, in particular, that allow us to justify our actions and strivings as good. It is marked by efficacy, in which our actions make a positive contribution towards realising our goals and values. And it provides a basis for regarding ourselves in a positive light, as good and worthy people.
People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.