The Value of Meaning Over Happiness

If you had to characterize it one way or another, would you say your life is more about happiness or meaning?

According to a recent piece from The Atlantic, there could be a significant difference between primarily pursuing one as opposed to the other. A handful of quotes from the article:

  • Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
  • Researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

  • What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.
  • Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose.
  • Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

A few things to consider in light of the above:

1. It should come as no surprise to anyone who takes the Bible seriously to find out that human beings experience increased satisfaction when they experience meaning. We aren’t cosmic accidents stumbling through a purposeless universe. We’ve been created with the desire for meaning because meaning actually exists to satisfy it. To put it another way: in God’s grand narrative, we have a purpose, a genuinely important role to play (see, e.g., Gen. 1:26-28; Col. 1:16-17).

2. The article also echoes biblical truth in another important respect: by noting that difficult circumstances may bring about real benefits in our lives. For example, trials can encourage us to become receptive to life changing truth, or confirm and even strengthen our faith (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:7-10; James 1:2-3).

3. “Happiness” is a term that can be variously defined, which complicates this kind of discussion. For the purposes of the article, it apparently has a connotation of self-focus and refers to the experience of gratifying our more immediate desires. In the biblical context, however, happiness might overlap with blessedness or joy, something that is often found on the far side of things like service, sacrifice, obedience, and delayed gratification. (Perhaps this overlaps what the article mentions in terms of “life satisfaction” or “the good life.”) One thing I think is sure: no one will ultimately regret following Christ. When all is said and done, those who do will be the most joyful and satisfied.

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