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Happiness, meaning and well-being

If someone were to ask you what you want from life, how would you reply? Plausible answers might include: ‘to be happy’, ‘to be successful’, ‘to make a difference’, or perhaps ‘to experience as much as possible’. Whatever these aspirations mean in their detail, they capture various implicit assessments of what we think it means to live a life that is good for us. A recent psychological study presents interesting data that suggests that two of the things we might want in our lives – happiness and meaning – sometimes do not go together. In fact, some of the things that lead to a life being happy are negatively associated with it being meaningful and some of the things that seem to confer meaning detract from happiness. If this occasional incompatibility is in fact the case, does this mean that we must sometimes make a decision about which to pursue?

Many philosophers have tried to formulate metrics by which to assess how well a person’s life is going for her. The concept often invoked in this debate is that of well-being: if we can determine the person’s level of well-being (perhaps averaged over her life so far), then we can see how well her life is going for her. Philosophers tend to agree that the things that improve a person’s wellbeing (e.g. circumstances, experiences) are things that are ultimately good for that person. Being ‘ultimately good’ means that they are valuable just because they pertain, not because of (or even despite) any further effects.

However, how we are to assess what actually contributes to our well-being is a topic of some debate. There are three main broad theories of well-being; ‘hedonism’ holds that in order to increase a person’s well-being, one need only maximize that person’s experiences of pleasure and minimize her experiences of pain or suffering. On this sort of theory, a person’s life is going well for her if she has lots of pleasure and little pain. The second sort of theory – ‘desire-satisfaction’ theories – holds that having one’s desires satisfied is integral to well-being. On this sort of theory, the extent of a person’s well-being will depend on the extent to which that person has satisfied her desires.

Whilst these two types of theory make the routes to increased well-being contingent on what the person finds pleasurable or on what the person desires respectively, the third theory is objective, contending that the routes to accruing well-being are the same for everyone, regardless of what they actually like or care about. Known as objective list theories, the idea here is that there are certain things – like friendship, knowledge, health, and creative activity – which are good for people regardless of what they think of them. On these sorts of theory, a person’s well-being depends on their achieving certain items on this objective list.

The data from the psychological study suggest that following a hedonistic approach to life – if we understand this roughly as maximizing happiness – may not only be conceptually at odds with the alternative conceptions of well-being, but might in some cases actually detract from well-being, if well-being turns out to be dependent on one’s life being maximally or at least sufficiently meaningful. Let’s take a look at some of the results from the study.

In general, meaningfulness and happiness were positively correlated, so they are somewhat related phenomena. There are many factors that make a life both meaningful and happy, which is probably not surprising. For example, feeling connected to others, feeling productive and not being bored contributed to a life being assessed as both happy and meaningful.

However, the data revealed that there are also some substantial differences in the correlates of happiness (corrected for meaning) and meaningfulness (corrected for happiness). The researchers summarise:

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase ones stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness.

They conclude that it is possible to have a highly meaningful but unhappy life. A person may not desire to have the negative experiences she has, and may have her goals frustrated, but these unpleasant, undesired aspects of life can, it seems, ultimately confer meaning.

So what do these findings suggest for theories of well-being? If our intuitions are that meaning matters (although this would, of course, be up for debate) then the findings seems to count against a purely hedonistic account. Moreover, given that some of the correlates of meaning – such as stress and anxiety and dwelling on the past – are often associated with unfulfilled desires and frustrated goals, the findings also do not fit neatly with a desire satisfaction theory; having said this though, it should be acknowledged that the process of fulfilling desires can sometimes have negative by- products which are not themselves desired. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to claim that at least some correlates of meaning will be associated with frustrated desires, rather than being by-products of a desire’s fulfillment.

Does this mean that if we think meaning matters for well-being, then we must accept an objective list account? After all, many of the items commonly given as plausible examples for the list seem to have a natural relationship to meaning: acquiring knowledge, building friendships, creative activity etc. However, although this conclusion seems compelling, it is not necessarily warranted by the psychological data analysed here alone. One reason why it is not warranted is a result of the fact that participants in the study were rating the level of meaning in their lives themselves. This is important because people may well implicitly have their own lists of what makes a life meaningful, and these may or may not correlate with what objective list theorists include on their lists. This raises the question of whether meaningfulness ought to be understood as an objective aspect of well-being, or whether the quest for meaning is more appropriately understood as being more like an attempt to fulfill a particular sort of desire for meaning, whose content is subjectively determined. It would be interesting to follow up this study with questions asking participants about their actual understanding of, and desire for, meaningfulness, as this would allow us to attain a better insight into what these findings imply for philosophical theories of well-being more generally.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you for your interesting post, Hannah.
    I wonder whether ANY psychological experiment could help us find the answers to the (very old) questions that you raise on happiness and the meaning of life.
    What results from the further study you recommend could determine whether or not meaningfulness ought to be understood as an objective aspect of well-being, rather than being subjectively determined ?
    Let us imagine that all the subjects reveal that they have a common view of meaningfulness, ie they all agree on what constitutes a meaningful life. This would be a fact about them (but let us not forget that the results would only hold for that group, and not necessarily for all humanity).
    So we might conclude that we know what a certain group actually wants from life.
    But does this help me answer what I want from life ? Or how I should try to bring up my children ?

  2. Thanks for this, Hannah. I think it would also be interesting to ask people what they think the relation is between meaningfulness and well-being. I suspect that many think that meaning has to do with one’s life ‘mattering’ in some sense — perhaps, as Sidgwick might put it, ‘from the point of view of the universe’; whereas happiness is to do with what is good *for* a person. Norman Malcolm, because Wittgenstein was so unhappy, was puzzled by Wittgenstein’s last words: ‘Tell them I had a wonderful life’. But perhaps Wittgenstein meant that he had a meaningful life.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    I can’t help feeling, Roger, that if Sedgwick would have put it like that, he would have been placing an impossibly high standard for “meaningfulness” ! Very few of us could dream to have such an impact. But I guess that many of us can still construct meaning in our lives, nonetheless.

    Thank you for your last point : I’ll content myself with imagining what meaning Wittgenstein would have given to the meaning of life – although Tractatus 4 et al suggests that his answer would be pretty short…..

  4. It seems our intuitive ideas of happiness and meaning are sometimes incompatible. If this is so do we sometimes have to choose between these two goods. I would argue we don’t.

    The basis of my argument is that meaning is generated by what we care about or love. I would suggest that in order for someone to have a meaningful life he must ‘care about’ or love something. Indeed I would further suggest that for someone, whose life is totally devoid of any caring about, that he has a life totally devoid of any meaning and as a result is not really a person at all. I would regard caring about in much the same way as Harry Frankfurt. That is, someone who ‘cares about’ or loves something identifies himself with what he cares about and makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about flourishes or is harmed. The researchers’ results showed meaningfulness involved doing things that express and reflect the self. Caring about something as defined above means someone identifying with what he cares about. Identification involves doing things that express and reflect the self. Secondly the researchers’ results showed that meaningfulness can increase someone’s stress, worries and anxiety. Caring about something makes someone vulnerable and so can also increase his stress, worries and anxiety. Lastly these results show meaningfulness integrates past, present, and future. I would suggest identification involves consistency, steadiness of behaviour, and some degree of persistence. In the light of the above it appears accepting that, meaning is imparted to someone’s life by what he cares about or loves concurs very well with the researchers’ results.

    Let us now return to the original question. I would suggest the question is meaningless because if meaning depends on what we love or ‘care about’ we cannot make such a decision. We cannot make such a decision because we cannot make a decision to love. Love and hence meaning is not something under our conscious control. This conclusion has important consequences for any pursuit of happiness. This pursuit is limited. This limitation means that whilst we may of course seek to modify our life in order to be happier, that these modifications cannot be based on attempting to alter or lessen the meaning in our lives. I have slightly expanded on this at wooler.scottus.

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