The things that make you happy (low stress, good health, sex) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals). Compare the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy!) versus the feeling of training really hard for a marathon and completing it (satisfying and meaningful!).
Adam Alter, in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich, noted that if happiness was all that mattered, people wouldn’t do ultramarathons or Tough Mudder events: “Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.”
According to the research, if you ask someone who’s crazy busy, sleep deprived, and anxious about the future about whether he’s happy, he might well answer no. But if you ask him to zoom out and reflect on his broader life satisfaction and ask whether he thinks he’s living a meaningful life, there’s a better chance he’ll answer yes. Especially if his busyness and stress and sacrifice is serving some greater good (or what he perceives as the greater good). That’s because having goals, sacrificing for the future, and being part of something bigger than oneself all lead to a sense of meaning.
What does this mean when thinking about your career?
1. There are certain career paths that seem to lead people to neither feel happy nor create meaning. Stereotypical lawyers and bankers fall into this camp. There’s the obvious stress that reduces happiness; you make money but don’t have time to spend it; and all the while, there’s no sense of broader aspiration or sacrifice for something bigger.
2. There are certain career paths that don’t offer much day-to-day happiness but do promise meaning. A classic example is working at an NGO or non-profit in a tough place in the world (rural Africa, for example). Many tech entrepreneurs also have low happiness, high meaning. The tech entrepreneurs I know who are striving for big world-changing outcomes are not actually happy most days. But the long term change they believe they’re enacting, and the personal legacy that it might create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.
3. Finally there are career paths that offer happiness but not meaning. An easy, low stress job — like being a highly paid social media analyst at a large company — is going to have you feeling good day-to-day, but won’t leave you feeling purposeful.
If you had to pick whether to prioritize happiness or meaning, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that’s proven to lift your mood day-to-day.
Another approach would be to embrace the fact that life is long, people evolve, and that you ought to emphasize different values at different times. For example, perhaps there are stages in life when you want to consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice and travel; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a lower-stress, family-oriented job.
Do you buy the difference between happiness and meaning? If so, which do you optimize for you in your career and in your life?