Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life

Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life
Forthcoming in Journal of Positive Psychology

Roy F. Baumeister, Florida State University
Kathleen D. Vohs, University of Minnesota
Jennifer L. Aaker, Stanford University
Emily N. Garbinsky, Stanford University

Address correspondence to R. Baumeister, Dept. of Psychology, Florida State University,
Tallahassee, FL 32306-4301. Many thanks to Melanie Rudd and Ravi Pillai for analytical insight and


Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey
revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness
(controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely
irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness
involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was
associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather
than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of
worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with
personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness. We offer brief
composite sketches of the unhappy but meaningful life and of the happy but meaningless life.


The wishes for happiness and for a meaningful life are two of the most widely held goals by
which people measure and motivate themselves. A breathtakingly broad variety of other common
goals and strivings — as examples, the desires to be healthy, to be loved, to succeed at work, to raise
children, to serve one’s religion or country — can be subsumed under either or both of those broad
wishes. The present article addresses the relationship between the two. Although undoubtedly
happiness and a...