Meaning in life

Meaning or Happiness. What'll It Be?


You walk into a bar and the bartender asks, "So what'll it be tonight? Meaning or happiness?" "I'll take both," you say.

He laughs hard. "No, come on. Meaning or happiness?"

"Both," you repeat, unamused.

He abruptly stops smiling and stares you down. "You honestly don't get it, do you? You're gonna have to pick."

Welcome to the bar called Life.

And boy have I been feeling it lately.

A Foray Into a Meaningful, Unhappy Existence

As you probably haven't noticed in the crush of your busy life, I've been largely silent over the past week or so. No blog posts. Barely any social media presence. No newsletter that is now weeks overdue.

That's because I've been positively drowning in meaningful activities lately.

And totally miserable to boot.

Between intensive care of a molar-teething, potty-training, not-sleeping toddler; shepherding a gaggle of first year students into my Psychology 101 class; advising sophomores on their choice of classes, majors, and that little thing called life; helping senior students prepare mandatory proposals for their empirical theses (due today); attending meetings to improve purposeful work and student thriving on campus; and of course being fully present and available for my amazing, making-life-changes-as-we-speak coaching clients, it's been an "interesting" couple of weeks.

Don't get me wrong:  everything I listed I have worked very hard to have in my life. They are all the product of intentional search. In fact, the list reads precisely like the vague vision I held in my mind over ten years ago when I quit my graduate program and stumbled confusedly into the woods of Maine.

In other words, every single thing I'm doing is deeply and urgently meaningful.

Then why have I been so gosh-darn unhappy recently?

The Meaning-Happiness Disconnect

As I'm wont to do, I looked to the research for an answer and, by golly, a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in August gave it to me.

The survey of 400 Americans indicates that if we want to be happy, it's likely we won't have as much meaning in our lives. If we want to pursue meaningfulness, it's likely we won't have tons of happiness.

That's because happiness and meaning arise from different sources. Which tend to be in conflict.

"Meaningfulness is associated with doing things for others. Happiness is associated with others doing things for oneself. Engagement with others that sacrifices the self or that builds relationships over time contributes to meaningfulness, but it has a negligible or negative link to happiness." - Psychologists Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky (2013)

To be fair, meaning and happiness overlap a good deal. In fact, "almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa," Baumeister writes in a recent insightful article in Aeon Magazine.

But that other half - the half that doesn't overlap - is highly telling. It hints at all of the choices and compromises we must make as we intentionally and purposefully construct our lives.

Where Meaning and Happiness Diverge

Baumeister and colleagues found five areas where happiness and meaning diverge:

  1. Getting What We Want and Need. "People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult," Baumeister writes in Aeon. On the other hand, "the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions."
  2. The Time Frame We Focus On. The old mindfulness adage about staying present to increase happiness is true. Thing is, being present-focused doesn't contribute to meaningfulness. The study showed that "the more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were."
  3. Social Life. Relationships contribute to both meaningfulness and happiness. That said, taking from social relationships increases happiness but reduces meaning, while being a giver is associated with meaning but not happiness. In fact, "helping others can actually detract from one’s own happiness." This especially seems to be the case in parenting. While parenthood has been frequently shown to reduce happiness, people still pursue and undertake the endeavor because it adds meaning to one's life.
  4. The Hard Times. Positive life events make us feel both happiness and meaning. It's the hard times of life that reveal a divide. "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," says Baumeister.
  5. Identity. On this site I repeatedly emphasize the importance of finding work that expresses who you genuinely are. This is good advice in terms of increasing meaning in your life. But happiness? Not so much. "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." So, uh, I just decreased your happiness by asking you read this article...Sorry.

Why Meaning is Still Worth Pursuing

After reading all of this, you might be thinking, "Screw meaning. I'm going with happiness." And in my present condition, I can't say I blame you.

The thing is, life is about much more than right now. Our existence is dynamic; life's unpredictable curves are liable to snatch our present pleasures at a moment's notice. Not only that, but questing after present pleasures becomes a constant search, called the hedonic treadmill, in which we adjust to what we have and always desire more.

Meaning, on the other hand, is satiable and "more stable than living things use meaning as part of their never-ending quest to achieve stability," Baumeister writes.

That's probably why meaning is associated with higher life satisfaction, better physical health, and even lower mortality rates.

Not that I'd advise living my life the way I have the past two weeks. Sleeping, eating healthy food sitting down, getting a moment or two to brush and bathe and be braindead - those things do matter. And while there not be a way to strike a genuine "balance" between meaning and happiness - as "balance" is an unattainable desire in most any domain of life - a tad of present pleasure goes a long way.

That said, in the Bar of Life, given the choice, I'd go for a thick swill of meaning any day.

"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." - Roy Baumeister, psychologist

Work and Career Are Not Synonyms (And Only One Matters)


How much time have you spent trying to find your career? How much time have you spent trying to find your work? If you think I'm asking the same question twice, think again.

Not only should these questions yield distinct answers, the ratio between them may deeply affect the quality - and length - of your life.

What is "Career?"

"Career" is the buzzword everyone wanders around searching for. It's where networking and resumes and cover letters and all those cut-and-dry, formulaic elements come into play.

"Career" is positively entangled with extrinsic rewards, most notably money and status.

Notably, career isn't defined by what happens within a person. It's defined by what happens around him.

What is "Work?"

Work has a million connotations, not all of them positive. Regardless of formulation, though, work implies a concentrated effort on some task.

"Work" encompasses far more human experiences than "career:"

  1. "Work" moves beyond a focus on pay. Think of the full-time parents or the retired guy making birdhouses in his basement to give to neighbors and community organizations. Would we call their activities "careers?" Highly unlikely. But are they "working?" Absolutely.
  2. Our circumstances don't affect our ability to work, while they may affect our ability to pursue a career. We can work when chronic illness keeps us shut in our houses. We can work when our children need us so heavily that having outside commitments is laughable. We can work when we're imprisoned, as Victor Frankl did, spurring him to recognize work as one of the three sources of meaning in life.
  3. "Work" moves beyond the obsession with full-time status that gets hooked to "career." For instance, it may be hard to make a career of waitressing, but you certainly are working when you're doing it.
  4. Our relationships with others can fall under the category of "work." We "work" on our friendships, don't we? (Or at least we do if we want to keep them...)

The Work vs. Career Search Ratio

My contention is that we spend far too much time looking for a career and far too little time looking for work.

I honestly couldn't care less what career you end up with. And I'm frankly sick of my college seniors bumrushing my office to inquire about career options.

What do you want to DO? That's the question I want you to figure out how to answer.

What do you want to BE? That's irrelevant.

This can be freeing because career is somewhat out of your control in your twenties, especially in a tight job market. You'll end up being something-or-other, at least for the next five to ten years. But you can DO anything.

You get to pick your work.

The Question That Matters

Of course work doesn't necessarily add value to our lives. There's a lot of meaningless work out there.

That said, since work is internally defined, it naturally lends itself to some other wonderful internally-defined attributes. Such as feeling meaningful and purposeful.

This is important since having meaning and purpose in life are tightly linked to quality of life and happiness. Even more remarkable, having a sense of purpose is associated with a lower mortality rate in late adulthood.

The lead researcher of the purpose-mortality study, Patricia Boyle, said when explaining her findings:

The take-home message is that people need to be thoughtful about their lives, because having that sense of meaning or purpose will make a huge difference.

So from now to the end of your life the important question is:  are you doing work that matters to  you?

If this work is unpaid, so be it. If this work is something you only engage in during the wee hours of the morning or the still, haunting moments at the end of the day, so be it. If "the world" doesn't recognize this work as a "profession" - or worse, actively criticizes it - so be it. If this work is solely centered on your relationships with others, so be it.

All that matters is that you're regularly engaging in work that gives you meaning and purpose. Then you'll have hit the jackpot of life.

Your career is beside the point.

Turning Meaningful Work Into a Meaningful Career

You might be thinking, "But I want to find meaning and purpose in the thing I make money doing."

Fair enough. Our ideal goal may indeed be to have a career full of meaningful work. It's nice to not have to worry about paying the bills with AND making time for meaningful unpaid work.

It's also true that having a misery-inducing career is sure to detract from one's meaningful work.

Assuming a level of "good-enough-ness" to one's career, though, sometimes turning meaningful work into a career isn't the goal. There are situations in which doing so kills the meaning (e.g., turning an enjoyable hobby into a hard-driving, profit-driven business.) And sometimes it's downright impossible to make meaningful work into a career (e.g., in the case of parenting.)

Even if a career filled with meaningful work is your goal - as it has long been for me - to get to that meaningful career, you almost always have to first do meaningful work that isn't part of your career. For instance, by volunteering, engaging in a hobby, taking on part-time jobs, starting a side hustle that makes $0 for years on end.

So how should you spend your time?

Identifying the work that genuinely matters to you and engaging in it regularly. 

Not chasing your next hot career.

5 Ways to Gain Well Being From Your Life Story


In the grand search for well being and happiness, our sense of identity plays a starring role. We grapple with three major questions:

  • Who am I?
  • How did I come to be?
  • Where is my life going?

The best way to take on these behemoths is by "constructing and internalizing a life story," according to eminent developmental psychologist Dan McAdams and a host of research in support of his theory.

In other words, we figure out who we are by writing a nonfiction narrative starring yours truly.

How Meaningful Life Stories Relate to Well Being

You've been naturally writing your life story since you were an adolescent, when you first became able to identify themes and causation in your personal tales:  "That guy I'm crushing on ignored me because my jeans are so Goodwill. That's just like last year, when mom made me wear those hand-me-down Keds."

As you can probably remember, adolescent stories aren't exactly meaningful.

That's why our twenties are all about figuring out who we are in a way that matters. It's no small task:  when we make meaning from our life stories, we enjoy greater psychological well being and higher self-understanding, compared to people with life stories that have little to no meaning.

"Through meaning making, people go beyond the plots and event details of their personal stories to articulate what they believe their stories say about who they are. Storytellers may suggest that the events they describe illustrate or explain a particular personality trait, tendency, goal, skill, problem, complex, or pattern in their own lives. In making meaning, the storyteller draws a semantic conclusion about the self from the episodic information that the story conveys." - McAdams and McLean

Given that making meaning from our personal narrative creates well being, the obvious question is how can we make meaning from our life stories? Here are five research-based answers.

1. Don't Just Tell Stories for Entertainment

Chevy Chase

Barstool stories are fun and definitely have their place in our lives (I, for one, wouldn't want to be around someone who is constantly trying to extract meaning from their life stories...which is perhaps why I married my opposite!). If you get hooked on only telling personal anecdotes to get a laugh instead of explaining yourself, you're less likely to create meaning and experience high well being.

Two of my friends come to mind. They always had an elaborate, hilarious anecdote to share for all gathered around, and gatherings weren't the same if they weren't there. These same people were deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with life, however, which you'd only discover if you happened to catch them alone. Perhaps this is one reason why comedians have high rates of depression.

Action Step: Balance your entertaining anecdotes with explanatory anecdotes - and make sure to cultivate friendships that let you share each.

2. Emphasize Your Ability to Control Your World

This is a biggie. If you can reconstruct your life stories to emphasize how much control you have over your world, the more well being you'll experience. In fact, studies show that rewriting your personal narrative to have more self-mastery, empowerment and achievement - aspects collectively called "agency" - is precisely what makes psychotherapy effective. I call this the "Becoming the Hero in Your Own Story" effect.

"Increases in personal agency preceded and predicted improvement in therapy. As patients told stories that increasingly emphasized their ability to control their world and make self-determined decisions, they showed corresponding decreases in symptoms and increases in mental health." - McAdams and McLean

Action Step: Consider how you're telling your life stories. Are you the victim in them, or are you active and impactful? If the former, be the editor of your life tale and rewrite that sucker. ASAP.

3. Consider Whether Friends & Family Accept Your Life Story

The following finding fascinates me:

"When important people in a person’s life agree with his or her interpretation of a personal story, he or she is likely to hold on to that story and to incorporate it into his or her more general understanding of who he or she is and how he or she came to be." - McAdams and McLean

This speaks volumes about the influence of our family, close friends, and significant others on our well being.

It also begs the question:  if the important people in your life don't agree with how we interpret our life stories, are we supposed to ditch them? Since research clearly shows that social integration is key to well being, that probably isn't the best choice. That said, I do believe in pruning friendships that consistently bring more misery than support, and friends' acceptance of your life stories may be one indicator of friendships that have run their course (or were a bad choice from the start).

Action Step: From here on out, actively choose friends and significant others who accept and confirm your interpretation of your experiences. It's your story, after all. Don't let anyone else be the author of your narrative.

Important caveat:  you do NOT want to surround yourself with people who accept your stories if they're full of "why me?" and "life is horrible" - these stories need to be challenged. But if you're telling thoughtful life stories, you shouldn't feel attacked and challenged. Period.

4. Identify the Redemption in Your Stories

Another way to create well being is to find the good in the bad. Psychologists call these a "redemption sequence" and they're important:

Redemption sequences "may sustain the hope or confidence that is needed to weather short-term setbacks while reinforcing long-term commitments to improving the lives of others." - McAdams and McLean

It may be impossible to find the "silver lining" while withstanding a hard time; in fact, feeling the full intensity of negative emotions in the moment may enhance well being. But once the moment has passed, do the hard work of making meaning, one element at a time.

Action Step: After a negative life event - such as an illness, loss or disppointment - make an effort to find the good that arose from the hard time. For instance, are you closer to your family, or know something new about yourself, or feel like you can take on different challenges in the future?

5. Find Attentive Listeners

be yourself for the sake of your well being

Finally, studies show that "attentive and responsive listeners cause tellers to narrate more personally elaborated stories compared with distracted listeners." This matches Point #2's take on psychotherapy's effectiveness.

Simply having a designated listener who reflects your feelings and asks clarifying questions can help you create meaning from your life story and find greater well being.

Action Step: Identify the friends and/or relative who consistently act as attentive listeners for your stories and make an effort to spend more time with them. You could also turn to a life coach, psychotherapist, or other professional. No matter how you find it, make sure you're being heard. It's the only way you'll hear yourself.

Now I Want to Hear From You

What do you do to create meaning from your life story? Or when have you actively changed your life story, and why did you do it?

What you have to say could make a big difference in another reader's life, so please share!


Source: McAdams, D. P, & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233-238.

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Chevy Chase was the life of the party, but behind closed doors he suffered debilitating depression. (Photo credit: Alan Light)

You'll hear yourself best with an attentive listener at your side. Photo Credit: Leonard John Matthews

Is Meaningful, Purposeful Work Reserved for the Privileged Elite?

"All of this talk about finding meaningful and purposeful work is nice and all," one of my students says as we gather around our upper-level seminar table. "But it isn't applicable outside of a small, privileged, affluent population. Most people work because they have to." I love this moment, which happens every single time I teach about meaning and purpose in work. It means at least one person in the class is thinking, engaging, and moving beyond his or her own experiences.

Garbage Man

And I hope you've asked the question yourself, in response to a post or two of mine. Like my last post - When Work and You Align - one might question whether such a convergence of self and work is a luxury accessible only by a privileged elite.

My contention is no (not a shocker, is it?). Not only should everyone be entitled to finding meaning and purpose in their work - and reap such benefits as lengthened lifespan, fewer psychological disorders, and better physical health - but I also contend that anyone can find it. If they look for it. Without having to leave their "it pays the bills" job. Even if said job involves low status, low skill, and hard labor.

Skeptical? Good, that means you're still with me.

First let me say this:  I'm sure many people in drudge jobs don't find meaning and purpose in their work.  Just as many people in high pay, white collar jobs don't.

But we only need to look to Candice Billups for proof that it's possible. A custodian in the oncology ward of a hospital, she was interviewed by the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan to discuss her work. As she talks, it becomes immediately evident that she finds deep meaning and purpose in her low status job.

Even more notable, it's clear that she actively created - and continues to create - this meaning in her work. It's not something that simply happened to her.

Perhaps the real question is this:  why do we treat meaning and purpose as some sort of mystical cloud that will waft into our lives if we're somehow fortunate and privileged enough?As Ms. Billups demonstrates, depth of feeling about our work is available to all of us, regardless of our particular job or SES or educational background. If only we work to find it. [youtube]

What do you think? Do you believe meaningful and purposeful work are reserved for the privileged elites? Or are these feelings accessible to all of us?

Exciting note:  Our new site - - will launch on Monday, June 24th! Watch for notices about signing up for our brand new email newsletter, and an announcement about our first-ever giveaway. It's time to move out of the classroom, folks, and I hope you'll be graduating with us!

Could waste collectors feel meaning and purpose in their work? Well I'd sure hate to be around if they stopped working, so... (Photo credit: dmourati)