I’ve raved several times about Happiness by Design, a book on happiness by economist Paul Dolan.
The book taught me to separate happiness and meaningfulness when thinking about human well-being.
In Visualizing the Meaning of Life: The Drip Coffee Model, I explored the idea that meaning-in-life comes from having enough meaningful activities in your life. But I didn’t explore questions like “Where does meaning come from?” or “What makes an activity meaningful?”
That’s what I want to do in this essay.
Poor = Meaningful?
One way to try and understand meaningfulness is to look at a bunch of countries and see how they differ.
The first study that does this is a 2014 paper by Oishi and Diener. The key finding? You can tell from the title: Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations.
A chart from the paper, for intuition:
It’s not just that high-meaning countries tend to be poorer, though. It also turns out that life satisfaction (happiness, in a sense) has a reverse relationship — richer countries are more satisfied than poorer countries.
This is cool, because we tend to think that happiness & meaningfulness go hand in hand.
From the authors:
“…prior research has repeatedly found that life satisfaction is substantially higher in nations with modern conveniences than in nations without modern conveniences, such as electricity, telephones, TVs, and computers (Diener, Kahneman, Tov, & Arora, 2009). Thus, life satisfaction is associated with objective living conditions… In contrast, our findings showed that meaning in life is not associated with objective living conditions.
“For instance, many residents of Niger, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Ethiopia live in difficult economic and political conditions. Indeed, residents of these nations report that their lives are far from ideal (Oishi, 2012). Yet the overwhelming majority of residents in poor nations report having an important purpose or meaning in life… “
Of course, we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion here that prosperity destroys meaning.
What are some possible explanations for this relationship? The authors share several possibilities:
- Rich countries are more individualistic, which makes life feel less meaningful (because, you know, separation)
- Rich countries are more educated, and education leads to critical thinking, which destroys meaning (not sure I know many people who think critically, but…)
- Rich countries have fewer children, and having children makes life meaningful
- Rich countries are less religious, and religion is a important source of meaning
They reach the following conclusion:
“We found that religiosity mediated the negative effect of wealth on meaning in life. As society becomes wealthier, religion becomes less central to people’s life. As religion becomes less central to people’s life, more people lose a sense of meaning in life. …religiosity remained a strong predictor of meaning in life, above and beyond education, the number of children, and individualism.”
This religion-meaning relationship holds even when you look at countries that are ‘equally rich’. If you return to the above chart and choose a “band” of similar GDP levels like so…
…you find that higher-meaning countries also have higher levels of religiosity:
“…Haiti, Yemen, and Senegal are similarly poor, yet Haitians were much less likely to report having meaning in life than people in Yemen and Senegal. Consistent with our hypothesis, results showed that Haitians are less religious than Yemeni and Senegalese (78% of Haitians say religion is important vs. 96% of Yemeni and 99% of Senegalese).”
This is also true with rich countries: higher-meaning countries like the US or the UAE are also high-religiosity, while lower-meaning countries like France, Japan and Spain are less so.
I’ll speculate on the religion-meaning connection later. For now, let’s look at one more quick finding from the paper.
There’s a worrying relationship between suicide rates and meaning in life:
It turns out that suicide has no relationship to life satisfaction but is inversely correlated with meaning in life (and -.44 is pretty high) — high-meaning countries have fewer suicides.
The non-existent relationship between suicide and life satisfaction reminds me of Jordan Peterson‘s idea that our chief goal in life should never be happiness — happiness is ephemeral, and it won’t help you overcome life’s tragic episodes.
This also reminds me of Viktor Frankl, who has that famous quote from Man’s Search for Meaning: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” (Edit: Oops! This was actually Frankl quoting Nietzsche, which makes a lot of sense. Thanks to people in the comments for pointing this out.)
Perhaps the pursuit of happiness does not give us enough of a why?
Honestly, I think about this stuff because I enjoy it, but it also leads to some serious questions about public policy. Traditionally, governments target well-being by aiming for GDP growth, but:
“This finding has important policy implications. If a government wants to increase its residents’ life satisfaction, then improving economic conditions is critical (Diener, Tay, & Oishi, 2013). In contrast, if a government wants to increase its residents’ meaning in life and prevent suicide, then improving economic prosperity does not seem to help achieve these goals.“
But enough about that… Back to the fun stuff. What the hell is meaningfulness, anyway? And how does it differ from happiness?
Happiness is for animals; Meaning is for humans
A search on Google Scholar brought me to the following paper: Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.
The head author is Roy Baumeister, who has done a bunch of high-profile work in identity, willpower, free will, and — what I was looking for — meaningfulness.
From the final paragraph of the paper:
“…happiness is natural but meaning is cultural. Although humans use money and other cultural artifacts to achieve satisfaction, the essence of happiness still consists of having needs and wants satisfied. The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity. In contrast, meaningfulness pointed to more distinctively human activities, such as expressing oneself and thinking integratively about past and future. Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.”
It’s not immediately clear what “natural” or “cultural” mean, so let’s add some layers of intuition.
Happiness is for animals
Baumeister argues that happiness is mostly about satisfying present wants. In this sense, we are a lot like a German Shepherd or a Holstein dairy cow, which has biological desires to chew on grass (or hay, if it has to, I guess), drink water from a trough, have its tits milked (do cows get uncomfortable if nobody milks them? hmm…), and so on.
You feel good when your needs are satisfied and feel bad when they are not. In this sense, humans are like animals:
“All living creatures have biological needs, which consist of things they must obtain from their environment in order to survive and reproduce. […] Human beings are animals, and their global happiness therefore may depend on whether they generally get what they want and need.”
So what about meaning?
Meaning is for humans
Baumeister argues that meaningfulness is more cultural:
“If happiness is natural, meaningfulness may depend on culture. All known cultures use language, which enables them to use meanings and communicate them. There is a large set of concepts underlying language, and these concepts are embedded in interconnected networks of meaning. These are built up over many generations, and each new person comes to learn most of these meanings from the group. Appraising the meaningfulness of one’s life thus uses culturally transmitted symbols (via language) to evaluate one’s life in relation to purposes, values, and other meanings that also are mostly learned from the culture. Meaning is thus more linked to one’s cultural identity than is happiness.”
Even after reading through the above five times, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but things clicked when I read this passage from another paper of Baumeister’s:
“Culture offers an assortment of meanings of life from which an individual can choose. Ideologies are prominent types of meaning systems presented by cultures, and a given culture can subsume an array of different ideologies. An ideology is a system of values and beliefs that inform people in how to think about, interpret, and evaluate various life events. Some cultures force a particular ideology more strongly than others. Modern western cultures are typically less forceful in that they provide a selection of ideologies. Ultimately, individuals do not create their own meaning; rather, they select and use any floating bits and pieces of meaning, and/or preassembled frameworks of meaning (e.g., ideologies) that society and culture have to offer.”
Our cultures give us a set of stories that we use to make sense of our lives.
Religions give stories, but so do secular ideologies like Communism or Liberalism. In less religious countries, I suspect you get a lot more different, and competing ideologies instead of the big ‘one’ — the story of Enlightenment progress is one of these. I guess transhumanism is another.
Happiness is a dot; Meaning is a river
This idea that stories give meaning brings us to another difference between meaningfulness and happiness — time.
Happiness seems to be more about now — presents needs, present satisfaction. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to be about the entire flow of past, present, and future:
“Our central idea behind this investigation is that happiness is about the present whereas meaning is about linking events across time, thus integrating past, present, and future. Meaning links experiences and events across time, whereas happiness is mostly in the moment and therefore largely independent of other moments. The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy.”
Stories and myths are a way of integrating the past, present, and future. We are constantly interpreting and re-interpreting our past (and editing our memories) to make sense of things, and this is an important source of meaning.
Stories/myths help impose a structure that gives the chaos of reality meaning, which is crucial in times of great hardship:
” …meaning can integrate events across time. Purpose, one important component of meaningfulness, entails that present events draw meaning from future ones. The examples listed above of meaningful but unhappy lives (e.g. oppressed political activist) all involve working toward some future goal or outcome, such that the future outcome is highly desirable even though the present activities may be unpleasant.”
Interestingly, Baumeister reports that people with high levels of stress, anxiety and worry also find life more meaningful. We feel these emotions when we think about the future, so this makes intuitive sense — thinking about the future/past is both more stressful and more meaningful.
Happiness is for me; Meaning is for you
In the beginning of this essay, we asked, “What kind of activities are meaningful?”
Well, part of this seems to be activities that are consistent with our identities:
“MacGregor and Little (1998) found that the meaningfulness of individuals’ personal projects depended on how consistent they were with core aspects of self and identity. …the human self is far more elaborate and complex than what other animals exhibit. Part of the reason is that the human self is created and structured on the basis of the cultural system (see Baumeister, 2011).”
Again, it wasn’t immediately clear to me what it means to say that the self is ‘created’ or ‘structured’. For most of us, the self just feels like something that is ‘us’ and just there.
Stories and myths are not ‘real’ in the typical sense, but they help us navigate and make sense of life. Likewise, identities are not real, but they help us make sense of ourselves, and how we fit into this really-quite-confusing-Alphabet-soup-like-thingy that we call ‘society’.
I’ll write more about identity another time, but — for now — a thought-sparking excerpt from one of Sarah Perry’s always-excellent essays, The Essence of Peopling:
“The self is not unitary and separate from others… Each persons self is spread out among many people, simulated in all their brains at varying levels of granularity. And each person has a different self for each one of the people he knows, and a different self for every social context. A teenager has a very different way of behaving, speaking and thinking around his friends from the way he behaves, speaks, and thinks around his grandparents. The self at work is different from the self at home with close friends, or in bed with a spouse. And none of these are the true self rather, the self exists in all these, and in the transitions between them. There can never be one single, public self; to collapse all these multiple selves together would be akin to social death.”
Back to religion?
Finally, and lastly, back to the question: “Why might religion make life more meaningful?”
Humans are creatures that ask, “Why?” But if you take a statement like “Don’t punch people in the face while riding the Tokyo Metro”, and try to explain why, you end up with an infinite chain of explanations.
From Sarah Perry’s Meaning as Pointing:
“If an action is difficult or undesirable, it must be justified; more general principles justify specific cases. Stop at intersections because it is part of one’s duty to drive carefully; drive carefully to avoid hitting people; avoid hitting people because injuring others through carelessness is wrong. To avoid infinite regression (and all the cognitive trouble that would go along with it), there must be some end to this process of justification: humans need values that are valuable for their own sake, ultimate values not relying on anything else for justification. A value is an end, as opposed to means to an end, and offers an end to thinking uncomfortable thoughts that have no answer.”
Religion, I guess, gives us a reliable source of these ultimate values that are taken for granted and aren’t to be challenged. Respect your elders. Don’t kill people. Whatever.
Many religions also have well-structured myths that help us make sense of the present, future, and past. We know where we came from, and where we are headed. It doesn’t matter that we never reach these things — they are ideals that help us to orient ourselves in the world.
Can we do without stories and values? I don’t think so. Can we have meaning without religion? Sure. Are secular sources of meaning better or worse? Well… now that’s a conversation worth having.
For more headache-inducing essays that offer more questions than answers, join 25,000+ readers of The Open Circle, a free weekly newsletter filled with interesting books, essays I’ve written, and more. Plus, I’ll send you 200+ pages from my private notebooks and some of my favorite books. Get it here.