Happiness vs Meaning: Have You Been Misled All Along?

Have you ever stopped to think—amidst your busy day, routine, or drudgery perhaps—what’s more of a priority: happiness or meaning?

On one hand, you might be thinking you’re fully happy, you could want nothing more. Perhaps you have everything you need. Perhaps you don’t have to work like many people.

On the other hand, you might be feeling a bit of the opposite—you’re not necessarily happy—in fact, you might be suffering from some sort of adversity. It could be a physical or an emotional sickness.

If the latter is true, you are inclined to look for some meaning as to why, you might wonder, some people are happy, but not you.

In this article I’ll talk about the “differences” and “similarities” between happiness and meaning. Why the quotation marks? Keep reading and you’ll know.

I’ll also explain why we need to learn about them in my hopes that you can apply them in your life.

A Brief Background

It turns out that the discussion on happiness and meaning has been around since forever.

Apparently two philosophers have discovered two different views on wellbeing, which are still being discussed to this day.

Aristippus taught about wellbeing as the state in which pleasure is maximized, and pain avoided. We’ll call this hedonic wellbeing.

Other succeeding philosophers have expounded this view. They all meant the same thing: Wellbeing is indulging ourselves in all the positive experiences we can have, while warding off the negative.

I love this view if I’m totally being honest. Who doesn’t want to be happy? This simply is common sense.

However, another dude, Aristotle, introduced to us what seems to be a state of counterintuitive position, eudaemonic wellbeing, which he said isn’t necessarily all about pleasure, but is one created by virtue.

Aristotle was the type that would chase, in our own terms today, personal development. Wellbeing is about becoming one’s best self.

In this post, I’ll have hedonic wellbeing sometimes be interchanged with hedonia, and eudaemonic wellbeing with eudaemonia.

Fast forward to 1950s…

The 50s saw the foundations of positive psychology, in which scientists started looking for ways wellbeing is improved, aside from focusing only on preventing and curing mental illnesses.

For example, they started clarifying that positive affect is not the opposite of negative affect, and wellbeing not the absence of mental disease.

The field continued to flourish. The word “happiness” began to have varying definitions in the space of psychology. Today it isn’t uncommon to come across terms like “subjective wellbeing,” “psychological wellbeing,” or simply “wellness” that mean “happiness” in general.

How about you? What is happiness to you?

Well, I’m not sure what “absolute happiness” is like, if any. Perhaps, like scientists, we simply have different definitions, too.

“Life satisfaction” is yet another term that gets substituted with “happiness.” There has been a controversy about what life satisfaction means. Majority of researchers, or close to it, claim that life satisfaction is hedonia. The other half says it’s both hedonia and eudaemonia. The minority, eudaemonia.

Consequently you’ll encounter a few paradoxes partly because of the clash. The “parental paradox” is one of the most popular. Raising kids, supposedly, doesn’t make parents happy; however, it creates meaning.

The paradox says if you want to be happier, don’t have kids. Would you believe it?

Many of the recent studies have focused on the hedonic side of wellbeing, amidst the debates. I figure that this could be the reason for the huge wave of “The Habits of All the Happy People in the World” articles we’ve ever seen.

Happiness vs Meaning: The Differences

1. Short-term and Long-term

Researchers have coined the term “affect balance”—it’s like the difference of our positive and negative feelings. For instance, if your positive feelings score 50 “happiness points,” and your negative feelings 100 points, the difference is a negative 50—you’re unhappy.

According to this metric, happiness comes and goes, because at any time the positives and the negatives can fluctuate. Happiness in this context is therefore fleeting, indeed.

Meaning, however, is more stable. There’s a lot to be said for sticking to a life direction, to a life purpose. No matter what happens—no matter how you feel—a sense of meaning is hard to be shaken if you’re committed to it.

2. Past, Present, Future

Happiness is usually linked to the present moment. Because of this, the moment can become an excuse for escape mechanisms against worry, anxiety, or other ugly feelings.

Just think mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being present. And there’s strong evidence that being mindful contributes to happiness. It adds up: Cast your worries away by focusing on what you’re doing right now.

Meaning, on the other hand, links our past and present, so that we can make plans for the future. Meaning seeks coherence. Meaning connects it all.

And because meaning does that, it evokes the ugly feelings, like worry and anxiety. Because thinking about the future makes us feel worried or anxious.

We then somewhat reverse engineer a desired future to identify what we must be doing now.

Will that necessarily make us happy? I bet not.

Working for the future means working hard. There will be inevitable struggles, disappointments, and sacrifices. If you want a huge achievement (which will give you immense happiness), you’ll have to grind now.

And anyone that says you must grind “happy” is probably lying.

3. Personal Expressiveness

Arguing with others is usually an unpleasant experience. (Unless perhaps you look for it most of the time. If you do, however, you might want to examine your values.)

But arguing is one of the most solid acts in which we can express ourselves.

Expressiveness is positively related to meaning, and it doesn’t cover arguing only. We can also express ourselves through forms of art like painting or music. They strengthen our sense of identity.

It’s as if we say, “This is who I am,” in instances like these, in which we don’t necessarily feel happy.

4. The Giver and the Taker

Happiness is associated with being the taker. It’s no surprise.

We have needs. Let’s take food for example. We miss a meal, we become hungry (there’s need for food). Eating satisfies this need.

The satisfaction of needs yields happiness.

When you have the luxury to get what you need, and more especially what you want, you can say you’re the happiest person in the world.

But note that this is all about taking.

Giving, on the other hand, can hurt. Why would you give if you have next to none? The answer is fairly simple: because someone you can relate to is in need. In interactions like this, meaning is created for the giver.

Researchers also treat this comparison as natural and cultural.

Meeting our biological needs is natural. However, doing something for others becomes cultural. We see what we can do for the community, or country, sometimes considering that it will affect future generations.

In many ways, this complements #2 (Past, Present, Future). Happiness is satisfying a need right now. Meaning is helping build a better future.

5. A Healthy Surprise

Researchers were surprised to find out that people who have high levels of happiness but have low-to-no sense of meaning have gene expression patterns like that of those who are experiencing chronic adversity. When eudaemonia can’t keep up with hedonia, we can literally get sick.

It was surprising because the hedonic approach in which good vibes are supposedly good, seemed to perform worse than the eudaemonic one wherein virtue can sometimes mean nothing but struggles.

Other studies similarly show that psychological wellbeing, which is associated with eudaemonia, is linked to better neuroendocrine regulation, lower cardiovascular risk, and better immune functioning.

Moreover, feeling a wide range of emotions is counterintuitively better for us. Emodiversity, that is, experiencing different emotions, besides happiness, can help us guard ourselves against depression.

6. Deep and Shallow Relationships

Can you tell whether your relationship with a friend is deep or shallow?

Forming relationships primarily with “happiness” in mind tends to give us shallow ones.

Think about it: If you’re only after the sensationally party-like euphoria without wanting to know more about the other person, you’ll only have them for what they are: party buddies. Where will they be when the party’s over?

On the other hand, meaningful relationships form between people who decide to stay—and that means even when they take shit they might accidentally throw at each other. They create great memories from random chances. When things go sour, the relationship rises as the important thing more than anything else.

Think your family or your best friend…or perhaps an acquaintance who didn’t leave when you needed help…even if you seldom see each other.

The people in your life with whom you have this kind of relationship stick by. They’re not afraid to tell you the truth, even when the truth will drive you mad…at least for a while.

7. Life Satisfaction and Personal Growth

Do you know of people who believe (or used to believe *cough* I’m guilty *cough* hello, self-help *cough*) that all your problems will be solved if you only try to be happy all the time?

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, research is once again here to burst bubbles: Life satisfaction (or happiness, or wellbeing, or whatever you want to call it) and personal growth are partly independent of each other.

Growth is almost impossible in a world where we have everything, or at least where nothing challenges us anymore.

We’re always tempted, even subconsciously, to look for an easier way to accomplish a task, or learn about a subject—even when there is no other way. Sometimes we waste time only to get back at square one and accept that there is only one way of doing it. The one true way.

Similarly, growth demands doing the hard stuff. Think fear of public speaking, or learning to write or code, or changing yourself rather than trying to change the other person.

We can opt to misguidedly feel “good” by avoiding to do the right thing, because the right thing is troublesome. However, if we choose the right path, no doubt there will be growth.

Interestingly, emerging research shows that over time, happiness is associated with an increased sense of loneliness and a decreased sense of well-being.

bubble people

Happiness vs Meaning: The Overlap

I want to start this portion with a disclaimer: At this point it might look like I have a bias in favor of meaning as the better priority; however, it occurred to me that meaning might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

I don’t want to live a meaningless life, but it would be hypocritical of me to say happiness doesn’t matter.

This is why I decided to also identify what happiness and meaning share in common. They might not be mutually exclusive as some people would expect.

a. Happiness and Meaning Can Not Be Pulled Apart

Happiness researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Sonja Lyubomirsky note that in the everyday context, happiness and meaning have no significant differences if they’re not pulled apart.

They share this opposing stance on that of Roy Baumeister, in which happiness and meaning are examined individually as if the other were absent.

Let’s go back to the parenting paradox.

Baumeister claims that parenting does not make one happy—if you looked at the side of happiness alone. Parenting requires sacrifice in that one would operate not for oneself, but for others—the kids. Parenting then creates meaning, but the only way it makes one “happy” is through this sense of meaning. Without meaning, Baumeister says happiness can even spiral down.

On the other hand, Dunn and Lyubomirsky say it’s pointless trying to separate the two. One can’t surely tell parenting is making one unhappy. Parenting simply makes one feel both a sense of meaning and happiness. Both feelings created by sacrifice and in knowing that the kids are well taken care of occur simultaneously. Happiness and meaning are deeply connected that way.

But, like my quick disclaimer above, Baumeister tried to separate the two in an attempt to encourage people to look for meaning whether it makes them happy or not. He agrees that the two are closely related.

In fact, another study shows that the search for meaning in life can make us inclined to imagine a happier future.

b. Gratitude

Research shows that gratitude plays a big role if we want to live a meaningful and happy life.

I believe it makes sense—count your blessings, but also count your blessings in disguise.

Think about the people and the things you already have right now—whether earned, inherited, or whatnot—and know that you can do something of value with them.

On the other hand, you can also be thankful for the struggles and challenges you carry. They are problems that need solving, and by solving them you develop critical thinking, which then makes you a better person.

The good and the bad both present an opportunity. Being grateful is a great habit to develop.

c. Vitality

This surprised me.

Research shows that both hedonia and eudaemonia are associated with vitality, and to about equal degrees.

Andrew Solomon came to mind. He said, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality…”

Now I don’t want to talk about depression here, but there seems to be a connection between an adversity-riddled pursuit of meaning, and vitality.

If we don’t think about how “unfortunate” we are to have been found by “bad luck,” but instead see it as opportunity for growth, we start living our lives as if it were a problem to solve…or a game to play.

d. Social Relationships

Both happiness and meaning require human relationships.

Someone who can understand me—on a human level—can give me joy. Our dogs won’t understand me. Besides, we are social beings.

There’s simply no way we can live a happy and purposeful life if it’s not shared with other people.

e. Rewarding Ourselves

Rewarding ourselves does not necessarily mean treating ourselves.

Rewards should be enjoyed after doing something hard, like a task—and this is precisely why rewards are linked not only to the “taker”-natured hedonia, but also to eudaemonia.

Rewarding ourselves turns out to be a healthy way for us to have a better grip on our purpose. It’s a reminder that we’re doing something worthwhile, with which we also think we become our best selves.

If you think following a life purpose must be predominantly about suffering, then you’re wrong. There’s good life for each of us—rewards prove it!

Happiness vs Meaning: What’s It All About, Then?

At this point you might be wondering, “So what should I choose first then: happiness or meaning?”

I would say choose meaning.

And to such answer, more questions could pop up like:

  • Do I always have to choose it?
  • Do I choose it 60% of the time? 60-40? 40-60? 99-1?
  • (Optional) Are you a masochist?

I would then say, “How am I supposed to know? YMMV.”

But I’ll present points that I hope may help you find the answers you’re looking for.


I believe everybody is inclined to choose happiness over meaning anytime. What does “meaning” even mean?

If I asked you: At this very moment, would you opt to be happy, or go through the same old boring drudgery for the sake of a purpose you deeply believe in?

I’d rather be happy forever…

This is why we need to strike a balance between happiness and meaning.

Because we can be hedonistic, let me warn you about ways happiness can hurt us, according to UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center.

First, too much happiness can literally endanger us. People who are feeling this tend to take uncalculated risks, that is, when too much is at stake even if gains are negligible.

Second, happiness is not suited for every situation. Seeking happiness just for the sake of feeling it can backfire.

We feel anger when injustices affect us. We feel fear in breaking free from our comfort zones.

Avoiding other sorts of emotions, especially in emergencies, not only can get us in trouble physically, but also yield dissonances that may be toxic for our mental health.

Perhaps that’s exactly what true happiness means: feeling all kinds of emotions—including the horrible ones—as long as they fit the context.

Too much happiness can also prevent us from developing deeper connections with other people.

You won’t connect with someone in grief over a lost loved one if you insist on a conversation aimed to keep the atmosphere “happy.” Not only may you appear rude. You might also waste the chance of creating what could be an intimate relationship with them.

Finally, the “pursuit of happiness.” Another one of those greatest and most evident paradoxes of life.

Studies have shown that the pursuit itself can blow our expectations out of proportion that they become unrealistic. When we don’t “catch” happiness, we become unhappy instead. Complement that with the findings that negative feelings are six times more likely to stick than positive ones.

Do you find your life purpose riddled with bad moods? Don’t worry, a bad mood can be a good thing. Consider the following:

  • A bad mood can enhance our skills of critical thinking, problem solving…skills that help us survive, basically.
  • Being in a constant state of bliss can awaken our stereotyping tendencies.
  • People can take advantage of us more easily (we consider their requests more favorably, for instance) when we’re happy.

And don’t forget: Anything in excess is simply wrong in many ways.

Hedonia can cause addiction, chronic escapism, destructive impulsivity, selfishness, antisocial behavior, greed, excessive consumerism, and the like.

On the other hand, eudaemonia can lead us to a workaholic lifestyle, exhaustion, excessive self-sacrifice, overthinking, excessive theorizing and loss of practicality, losing touch with our body, paralyzing existential angst, and so on.

Balance is in fact a common definition people give for happiness in general.

Hedonia and Eudaemonia as Complementary Psychological Functions

I used to think happiness and meaning work in a somewhat opposite fashion.

But I found that this kind of thinking can be transformed into one through an “x & y” graph in which a particular commitment can give us immense joy and a high sense of meaning—at the same time. I’ve written an in-depth article about this.

In other words, they are not opposites. They can both be of high magnitudes about a life work.

Eudaemonia Yields Hedonia, But the Opposite Isn’t Always True

Research tells us that the pursuit of meaning will always give happiness.

Can you name something you’re chasing right now that—in the long run—will not bring you happiness? Because if you can, I bet it isn’t something that means that much to you.

There’s constant happiness throughout the search for meaning, even if it means going through suffering.

However, like established above, happiness—especially the short-lived—doesn’t necessarily create meaning.

How misguided it is to chase a feeling, an object, a place, or a person simply to satiate a need of the moment!

Long-term happiness exists. We can choose to have it.

A Dose of Selfishness and Selflessness

I believe that if we faithfully anchor happiness only to things meaningful to us, happiness and meaning become inseparable.

Let’s take nightclubs, for example.

Nightclubs for sure can make us happy (the hedonic way), but you can’t say it is true happiness (the eudaemonic way) if you’re only out there for the sake of getting drunk or enjoying small tipsy talks with hot strangers.

You can achieve true happiness if for instance you go out there to test some social skills you learned, or to apply a personal development program you’re following.

The latter is an example in which happiness is anchored to meaning.

(Notice again how the word “happiness” became flexible in definition.)

In general, happiness and meaning form a cycle: We need meaning or purpose in life because this will give us ultimate happiness, while we need to be a happy person to continue doing meaningful things for the world.

And this is what we should watch out for. We shouldn’t believe that there’s only one way to wellbeing.

Hedonia can make us a bit careless. Eudaemonia can lead to burnout.

You have a purpose; there’s that one thing that means everything to you—whether you know it or not. But don’t forget that you also deserve to be happy.

Without a happy outlook it would be harder for us to face challenges, to rise again when we fall, to kill annoying demons in our head.

Happiness is the hope we can arm ourselves with in pursuing a scary but meaningful path.

Choose meaning. But make sure to savor the happiness that will follow.

I’d Like to Know What You Think

Life is short. What must be given priority: happiness or meaning? Let me know what you think in the comments!


(Image Credits: Nitin Aggarwal, Sara Biljana Gaon)

Did this post somehow push you to pursue a happy and meaningful life? I’d appreciate it if you shared it!

1 Comment

  1. Art Marr

    This article is essentially correct, as happiness and meaning cannot be pulled apart, as can be argued so from the perspective of affective neuroscience per the explanation and links below.

    Happiness and Affective Neuroscience

    Happiness is an elusive property, but it can be argued that it should meet certain objective criteria. This is the argument of the affective neuroscientists Kent Berridge and Morton Kringelbach. Per this model (linked below), happiness is a function of affective states of arousal and pleasure mediated respectively by the activation of mid brain dopamine and opioid systems. However, this analysis neglects the fact that these systems when jointly activated co-stimulate each other and provide an enhanced affective experience that is subjectively reported as ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experience. This observation can also be easily repeated procedurally, as demonstrated below.

    Simple Procedure
    Just attain and sustain a state of rest (mindfulness practice is the best way to achieve this) and simultaneously and consistently engage exclusively in meaningful or important behavior and you will feel relaxed, pleasurably aroused, and ‘intrinsically’ motivated. The more meaningful the behavior, the greater the affective response. That’s it.

    Simple Explanation
    Individuals who engage in tasks that have a consistent and high degree of ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity) naturally experience a state of high alertness and arousal (but not pleasure) that maps neurologically to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, many of these individuals also report a concurrent feeling of pleasure or bliss, but these reports are evidenced only in non-stressed situations when the covert musculature is inactive or relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid (pleasure) and dopamine (arousal) systems stimulate each other, blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that can be very easily achieved and sustained.

    I offer a more detailed theoretical explanation in pp. 47-52, and pp 82-86 of my open source book on the neuroscience of resting states, ‘The Book of Rest’, linked below.

    The Psychology of Rest

    Meditation and Rest
    from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author

    Berridge-Kringelbach on the Neuroscience of Happiness


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