With the New Year here, many of us are reflecting on our lives and wondering how we can improve them in the months ahead.
Usually, this means taking active steps to find more happiness. One of the most popular New Years resolution, according to Nielsen, is to “enjoy life to the fullest.”
But should happiness really be our goal this New Year? I would argue that instead of focusing on how we can be happier in 2017, we should focus instead on how we can lead meaningful lives. Though we sometimes use the terms “meaning” and “happiness” interchangeably, they actually are two distinct forms of well-being. In a piece that I co-wrote with Stanford’s Jennifer Aaker for New York Magazine, we outline this difference:
The distinction between happiness and meaningfulness has a long history in philosophy, which for thousands of years has recognized two forms of well-being — hedonia, or the ancient Greek word for what behavioral scientists often call happiness, and eudaimonia, or what they call meaningfulness.
The happy life is defined by seeking pleasure and enjoyment, whereas the meaningful life is bigger. In a new book that will be published next month, one of us (Emily) reviewed hundreds of empirical papers from the growing body of research on meaningfulness — as well as the writings of great thinkers from Aristotle to Tolstoy to Camus — and found that the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, which could be your family, your work, nature, or God.
The reason the distinction between happiness and meaning matters is that we can choose which one to pursue—and that choice will have consequences on our long-term well-being. Consider the results of one study:
In one study, college students were asked to pursue either meaning or happiness over ten days by doing at least one thing each day to increase meaning or happiness, respectively. Some of the most popular activities reported by people in the meaning group included forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. Those in the happiness group listed activities like sleeping in, playing games, and eating candy.
Although the students in the happiness group experienced more positive feelings and fewer negative ones immediately after the study, three months later their mood boost had faded. The students focused on meaning, meanwhile, did not feel as happy right after the experiment, which makes sense: meaningful pursuits, like helping a friend, require sacrifice and effort, and can even be painful in the moment. Yet three months later, the picture was different. The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning was more deeply satisfying than chasing happiness.
If you’re wondering what specifically you can do to lead a more meaningful life, I would recommend asking yourself: What’s one thing I can do today to make one person’s life better? After all, meaning lies in connecting and contributing—which is something we can all do to find fulfillment in our own lives, and to enrich the lives of others, too. Ben Franklin understood this and he himself began every day asking “What good shall I do this day?”
Emily Esfahani Smith, who co-wrote the New York Magazine article, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.