Studies Dissecting Differences in Happiness and Meaning

Laura Carroll, Childfree Choice

Let’s broadening the happiness question from my last post to meaning and purpose in life.  I began to delve into this earlier in my career, when I had a job counseling people who had been laid off from their jobs. What I learned from this experience became the foundation for my first book.  Of late in this area we see interesting dissection of the differences between happiness and meaning. Take this new study…

Emily Esfahani Smith’s article in The Atlantic describes it:

“In a new study, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the 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.’ ”

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister did another study and found similar results – that “participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group.”

Psychologist scientist Martin E. P. Seligman adds, “in the meaningful life you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self. For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing.” (italics mine).

family argueYes, taking care of kids, as Esfahani points out, is “associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice.” But the giving of presents and arguing – I am sorry but the giving of presents is nice, generous, etc. but I can’t say that it serves as a key to meaning in my life! And arguing? Hardly.

But taking care of kids “has been famously associated with low happiness” among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.”

What brings meaning if you don’t have kids?  What are the many other ways to be a “giver”?  The list is long. In my interviews for Families of Two I found that many childfree couples were out there giving back in innumerable ways, from involvement in their communities, to engaging in national and international causes they believed in and more.

And it seems young adults today are doing more of this as well. As columnfivemedia states, “more young adults (ages 20-28) are now actively supporting the causes they care about. They are going beyond staying informed or talking about social issues with their friends; they’re taking real action in ways that companies and organizations should take note of.”

But here’s the next question – wouldn’t experiencing meaning make you happy too? I like Jezebel‘s Tracy Moore’s point: “Perhaps this distinction between happiness and meaning is merely a semantic argument.”

She goes on: “…what if the idea that you can only have one or the other is simply too limited? What if being happy is what gives life meaning for some people? …What if the happy person who most values getting things they want and not stressing out all that much is, for all intents and purposes, even if it’s just lazy contentment, actually happy, and that is what gives their life ultimate meaning? What I mean to say is, if you feel happy, what would motivate you to also look for some additional meaning anyway? And then, would your existence not be optimal to you, anyway? ….And what if, …you can have both? What if finding meaning in your work, in your usefulness, in reaching your full potential as an artist or a teacher or a person, is both meaningful and happy? Especially since it no doubt enhances your contribution to the greater good, which enhances meaning in one’s life? Happy and meaningful, together again? Happimeaningness?

What do you think? See as the relationship between happiness and meaning?

Kids/no kids, give/take, I am left with finding purpose, meaning and happiness are all up to each of us to define for ourselves.  Me, not having parenthood be the central focus of my life has allowed me find what purpose and meaning mean to me – and that makes me very happy.

3 thoughts on “Studies Dissecting Differences in Happiness and Meaning

  1. One of many factors to consider in these studies is the generational factor. If you interview people from the ages of 18 to 78 about parenthood, you’re interviewing people who raised kids in different generations. Raising kids in the 1970’s is NOT going to be the same experience as raising kids in the 2010’s. It’s comparing apples and applesauce. I know some parents only enjoy parenthood once they have grandchildren — before that, they were often miserable or indifferent.

    I doubt there is a universal, ahistorical constant about the connection between happiness and being a parent. I’m sort of agnostic on the question, actually. I can imagine that being a parent in one historical context or generation would be more enjoyable than in another generation. There are different stresses and expectations in different decades. Theoretically, if I had been born in a different time period I might have found parenthood more appealing. That doesn’t mean parenthood always makes everyone happier!

    1. Hi Scott, Thanks for your thoughts as always. I think connecting parenthood and happiness has a lot to do with the onset of pronatalism in history as a form of social control. Power structures that wanted population to grow pushed mindsets that glorified pregnancy and childbirth so people would want to have children in a time when it did come without risks. Myths, or what Leta Hollingsworth called “social devices for impelling women to have children” created the idea that motherhood, parenthood, was the greatest thing that could happen to you in your life. It would give you great happiness. Before this time, people had children with no great expectation, except more as a practical matter (e.g., in times of new territory settlement), one that brought economic benefit to the family. Now it is just the opposite – the cost of raising kids is a big economic challenge! I talk a lot about this phenom in The Baby Matrix.

  2. You’re right. I think the industrial revolution was a major factor in shifting people’s mindset from seeing children as “hands to work” to seeing them as “mouths to feed.” The cost of raising a child has been going up steadily since the start of industrialization — one BIG reason why industrialized societies have fewer and fewer kids.

    I wanted to note that I said I *might* have found parenthood more appealing in other periods of history. No guarantee, though….

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