Pursue Meaning Instead of Happiness

Pursue Meaning Instead of Happiness

By Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer Aaker

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, to be published in January by Crown. Jennifer Aaker is the General Atlantic Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

What would you rather have: a happy life or a meaningful life?

You can both be happy and lead a meaningful life, of course. But most of us, consciously or not, choose the pursuit of happiness over the pursuit of meaning. “Happy holidays,” we wish each other; “Happy New Year,” we say. If you’re like 45 percent of Americans, you are setting New Year’s resolutions with the aim of leading a happier life: One of the most popular, according to Nielsen, is to “enjoy life to the fullest.” In surveys, most people list happiness as their top value, and self-help books and life coaches make up part of a multibillion-dollar industry.

But should happiness really be the only goal that motivates us?

Research by the two of us shows that the happy life and the meaningful life differ — and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life. Psychologists have started to look more closely at how seeking happiness affects people, and unearthed some unsettling trends. The pursuit of happiness, it turns out, negatively affects our well-being.

In one study by the behavioral scientists Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein, participants listened to a piece of emotionally ambiguous music, Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The researchers told some participants to try to feel as happy as possible while listening; the others were simply asked to listen. The people who tried to feel happy ended up unhappier after the experiment than those who listened without trying to boost their mood. In another recent study, Iris Mauss of Berkeley and her colleagues found that people who highly value happiness — as measured by their endorsement of statements like “Feeling happy is very important to me” — reported feeling lonelier on a daily basis, as assessed in diary entries over two weeks. By contrast, the pursuit of meaning leads to a deeper and more lasting form of well-being.

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