Sunday 6 January 2013

Happiness versus Meaningfulness

Consider this! What is your understanding of the terms happiness and meaningful? Do they mean the same or different? Think of a memorable experience or a relationship -- was that happy or a meaningful experience or both?

In recent years, an existential dilemma that I have repeatedly faced pertains to making a choice between 'doing something meaningful' versus 'doing something that makes me happy'.  Leave alone choice-making, I have 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, I realize happy moments did not always provide meaning or the meaningful moves did not necessarily increase the happiness quotient.  I am now beginning to appreciate the difference between the two; thanks to my colleague Neha, who shared a research paper titled Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life from Stanford Graduate School of Business.  According to this research - 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 with both.  Example - a paid coaching session where I contributed meaningfully to add value to someone's life.  The experience was a happy meaningful one.  But there are moments when only one of these was evident.  Once, I decided to extend the probation period of a new manager working in my team who displayed scant regard for the organizational discipline.  Upset at my decision, he quit within two weeks and I was unhappy at the outcome.  Though guilty for hitting him below-the-belt at the prime stage of his career, I had to set an example of organizational discipline.  I continued to harbor two emotions, unhappiness  and pride  for years after the incident, till I bumped into him accidentally.  As we met, he said how grateful he was at me for triggering a sense of discipline in him which he attributes to his success today.

But do all existential dilemmas get resolved? At least not for me.  I have always found myself choosing one emotion over the other, be it reprimanding my child or dealing with relationship.  It is always choosing one over the other.  As I write this, I realize that my quest is towards 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 my experiences on a two by two box, I find myself gravitating towards direction # 4.   As I conclude, I also reflect on what drives my choice between a 2 or 3?   For that matter, what helps me to cope with situations that put me in box 1?

What's your experience? Keen to learn!


  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…