Would you rather “achieve great things or be happy?” That question was asked in a YouGov survey (United States): 81 per cent said they would rather be happy; 13 per cent wanted to achieve great things; 6 per cent were uncertain.

The results were no surprise to University of London’s Nat Rutherford. “Our culture’s fixation on happiness can seem almost religious. It’s one of the only reasons for action that doesn’t stand in need of justification: happiness is good because being happy is good. But can we build our lives on that circular reasoning?”

Happiness is important, but is it the most important thing in people’s lives? Too often happiness is tied up with “I’ll be happy when…”

Psychotherapist Ilene Cohen explains it this way: “I’ll be happy when I get that job I applied for; I’ll be happy when I get that purse I’ve been saving up for; I’ll be happy when I’m in a relationship; I’ll be happy when I get that raise” and so on.

“Most of us live in a constant pursuit of happiness,” she adds. “If your basic needs are met and your life isn’t in imminent danger, you’re more than likely searching for happiness in one way or another.”

But happiness isn’t enough.

The search for a meaningful life

“A happy and a meaningful life have some differences,” says Roy Baumeister, from Florida State University. He and his colleagues surveyed 397 adults looking for “correlations between their levels of happiness, meaning and various other aspects of their lives”.

They found that “a meaningful life and a happy life often go hand-in-hand—but not always”. They emphasised the major differences they discovered between them:

Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Things like health, wealth and ease in life are related to happiness, but not to meaning.

True happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present and future—and the relationship between them. In simple terms, happiness was seen as fleeting, meaningfulness lasted much longer.

Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Social connections were found to be linked to happiness and meaning. Spending time with friends brings happiness more than meaning, while spending time with loved ones brings meaning, but not necessarily happiness.

Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. In fact, higher levels of worry, stress and anxiety brought higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. This “suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness”.

Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Expressing oneself and caring about such things as personal identity (considering oneself to be creative, for instance) and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not necessarily a happy one.

Baumeister even argues that “seeking happiness without meaning would probably be a stressful, aggravating and annoying proposition”.

Making it personal

So, how do you go about finding meaning? It’s a personal journey, explains Alicia Nortje from University of Cape Town in South Africa. “What brings me meaning might not bring you meaning.” However, she makes several suggestions:

Foster a passion. Motivation helps to get things done—washing the dishes, for instance. In contrast, passion “is the driving force for activities that have significance for us”. While there are negative passions, “positive, harmonious passions improve our behaviour and lead to optimal functioning”.

And those with passions have stronger relationships with those who share these passions.

Develop and foster social relationships. “Making connections with other individuals and maintaining these relationships are reliable ways to develop a sense of meaningfulness.”

Those with fewer social connections, or who are lonely or ostracised report a lower sense of meaningfulness. In contrast, those who share passions with like-minded individuals develop harmonious passions, which can generate a sense of meaningfulness.

Focus on relationships that increase your sense of belonging. Not all social relationships are equal. “Make sure to focus on relationships that make you feel like you ‘belong,’ where you feel like you fit in with the members of that group, and where there is group identification.”

People who feel they belong report higher rates of meaningfulness.

Monitor your mood. There’s a relationship between a positive mood and a sense of meaning. Managing your mood can be difficult, admits Nortje, but it can be done through such things as making time for interests and hobbies, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating healthily.

Take control of your environment. Routines, patterns, time blocking and clean spaces can all contribute to “an increased ability to make sense of one’s environment, which in turn can lead to an increased sense of meaningfulness”.

An ordered life helps with such things as a fixed routine, but with time for unexpected tasks and downtime for exercise and passions—and tidiness (“your desk is not the place for all those dirty coffee mugs”).

There will always be the unexpected. However, “these experiences will have less of a negative impact if you already have a sense of control over your environment”.

Finding meaning in the worst of times

Born in 1905 in Vienna, Viktor Frankl (a Jew) was a medical doctor who also worked with psychiatric patients before the Second World War. In 1942, nine months after marrying Tilly, he and his family were sent to a concentration camp where his father died. In 1944, the family was taken to Auschwitz where his mother and brother were gassed. Tilly died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.

Frankl, inmate number 119,104, spent three years in four different concentration camps.

In his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote of his experience and how everything can be taken from humans, except “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

In these camps, he found that the way the inmates accepted their fate and suffering—the way “we take up our cross”—gave opportunity “to add a deeper meaning to life. It [life] may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.” Or, in the fight for self-preservation, humans may “become no more than an animal”.

The choice was there, is there, to be made.

In a letter to friends on his return from the camps, he wrote of his strong “affirmation of life”. He added, “If I had not had this rock-solid, positive view of life—what would have become of me in these last weeks, in those months in the camp? But I now see things in a larger dimension.

“I see increasingly that life is so very meaningful, that in suffering and even in failure there must still be meaning.”

Even in his brief marriage with Tilly, “What we have experienced cannot be undone, it has been, but this having-been is perhaps the most certain form of being.”

A few days after his liberation from Auschwitz, Frankl was walking past flowering meadows near the camp. Larks were singing. “There was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the lark’s jubilation and freedom of space.” He stopped and fell to his knees.

“At that moment there was little I knew of myself or the world—I had but one sentence in mind—always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of peace’ (Psalm 118:5).” He has no idea how many times he repeated the thought, but “in that hour, my new life started”.

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meaningful life

His experience may have added, “deeper meaning to life”, but it also helped him survive the hell of concentration camps. This was something mere happiness could not do—there was little happiness in Auschwitz.

Having survived, Frankl said, “Step by step I progressed, until I became a human being.” Again.

Bruce Manners is a retired Signs of the Times Australia editor, having served in the role from 1989–2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.  A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.