Sunday, 6 January 2013

Happiness versus Meaningfulness

Take a moment and consider your understanding of the terms happiness and meaningful. Do they convey the same meaning? Are they different for you? Think of a memorable experience or relationship -- did that/ does it make you happy or you find it meaningful or both?

In recent years, often an existential dilemma that I faced pertained to choice-making between 'doing something meaningful' versus 'doing something that makes me happy'.  Leave alone choice-making, I often lacked the clarity to distinguish between the two. I am not sure I can always distinguish between the two.  Do you see these two being different?

In retrospect, not always did I find happy moments providing meaning or the meaningful moves increasing the happiness quotient.  I am beginning to appreciate the difference between the two; thanks to my colleague Neha, who shared a research paper from Stanford Graduate School of Business titled Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life (

Though significant overlaps exists between 'happiness' and 'meaningfulness'.  According to the research carried out by the authors of this paper - happiness is largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. Happiness is linked to being a taker, whereas meaningfulness connotes being a giver. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety appear to be linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contribute to meaning but not happiness.

As I begin to internalize the significance of this research, I am in touch with the moments that have provided me both.  Example - a coaching session for which I got paid (deriving happiness) and I could play a catalytic role in someone's life (contributing meaningfully).  There are also moments when only one of these was evident.  Once, I took a decision to extend probation period of a newly joined manager working in my team who displayed scant regard for the organizational discipline.  He was so upset that within two weeks he quit; that made me very unhappy.  Unhappiness emanated from my guilt of having hit someone below-the-belt at his prime stage of his career.  At the same time I found it meaningful to set an example of organizational discipline.  For years' on after this incident I continued to harbor two emotions unhappiness (displaying lack of patience) and pride (having lived up to my belief about organizational discipline).  But for bumping into him accidentally I would have carried that unhappy memory for ever; until, he shared how grateful he felt at that action having triggered a sense of discipline leading to success in his profession.

But do all the existential dilemmas get resolved? Not for me certainly.  Every time I reprimand my child or every time in a relationship I'm on a tight-rope I chose one over the other.  As I write this I realize that my quest is for accomplishing both -- happiness and meaningfulness. I am conscious of a few relationships I enjoy where the shared purpose is so binding that the happiness of the moment integrates with meaningfulness spanning the multiple time horizons.  Mapping on a two by two box, these are the events/ certain relationships that put me in the green box.  I find myself gravitating in the direction # 4.   As I conclude this I'm also reflective about how do I tend to make a choice between a 2 or 3?   For that matter, what helps me to cope with situations putting me in box 1? 

What's your experience? Keen to learn --- do share your experience and take on this.


  1. Congratulations Harish, hope you persist. Will look forward to your blogs!
    Reading the mentioned article & your blog has been an a-ha moment for me. I have personally always tilted towards things which were/are meaningful & I believe that happiness in my life comes through those meaningful activities. Even when things are painful & tough I can persist knowing the end result is what i would value. i have typically looked at the difference as short term & long term objectives. But one wish i have is that i begin to enjoy the journey & not just reaching the destination, so about time i start focusing on happiness just a wee bit more :)

  2. Reading this takes me back to a project that I was engaged in for a short while 10 years ago…It is one that I remember or have quoted every time when questions such as ‘ which has been an unforgettable experience? or cherished professional contribution? ’’ etc etc.. Am happy to share the experience…

    A ten day (2hrs each session) set of workshops called Job Plus – facilitating young graduates to figure out a vocation to pursue and know how to go about it with the help of defined tools. Those who enrolled, primarily vernacular medium, had limited exposure to the possibilities and guidance. As the course began….i witnessed a transformation from day 1 to day ten that could be seen in the body language , on their faces…. A participant was hesitant to continue after day 1, believing it isn’t going to help him. On some persuasion…he stayed on and at the end of the 10th day said--- ‘ Thank God I didnt leave the course and continued as I know what I want to pursue’ . Another individual couldn’t speak English too well and had low confidence to speak up in class. Post the sessions…his NIIT course teacher (where the course was being conducted) was pleased and shocked at how he had begun to communicate with confidence and more frequently.

    The purposefulness of those moments was immeasurable. The meaningfulness and happiness didn’t come as much from the thought that ‘I’ am making a difference than –the knowledge that 'they' felt and were being supported… So fully agree with the statement ‘Meaningfulness connotes being the giver’…

    Would like to widen the definition to include –doing something that is in alignment with the being or soul is where meaningfulness of that moment/task surfaces.(Box4 . Finally yes…Meaningfulness gets etched in memory whereas happiness is transient.

    Thank you for this blog…as it does connect me to my desire for creating more moments of this nature…