Pursuing Happiness or Meaning in a Career


The things that make you happy (friends! good health! sex!) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals.). I think about the difference by comparing the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy) vs. the effect of training really hard for a marathon and then completing it has on you (meaning).

Robin Hanson has a round up of the distinction. Consider a few excerpts from him, drawn from the research.

What a happy life is:

People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry … [and] is associated with selfish behavior.

What a meaningful life is:

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. … Having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. … They also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life, … but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents. …

Just the other day, Adam Alter wondered in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich:

Happiness, after all, doesn’t explain the popularity of ultramarathons, mountaineering, and Tough Mudder events—or the sacrifices parents must make to raise children. Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.

When contemplating this happiness/meaning distinction in the context of career strategy, I have a few reactions.

First, entrepreneurship tends to increase meaning but not necessarily happiness. The day-to-day of an entrepreneurial journey — or any long-term project — can be crazy stressful. Most 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 will create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.

Second, I wonder if there’s a viable career strategy that emphasizes either concept at different times in life. For example, there are stages in life when you consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life perhaps you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a low-stress job.

Third, if you had to pick just one path, 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 are the subject of most of commentary on the happiness topic.

4 comments on “Pursuing Happiness or Meaning in a Career
  • Ben,

    Is meaningful-ness here being conflated with “long-term satisfaction”? Then it’s just a different form of happiness, i.e., happiness in reflection vs happiness in the now.

    But they both are necessary to maximize the overall happiness metric.

    • I think meaningfulness refers more to how you feel about your past, present, and future — especially past and future — all at once. It’s certainly a more “reflective” variant of happiness. The traditional definition of happiness is a very present metric.

  • Thanks for the post.

    I’m not convinced about the distinction – because it seems to trivialize happiness. Maybe I’m giving the word happiness too much weight because I wouldn’t define it as a satisfaction of impulsive desires, as the examples would suggest (money, sex, etc).

    That’s not what makes you happy – meaning is one of criteria for happiness – the foundation of it.

    Is there a better word we can use instead of happiness to draw the distinction or do I need to redefine happiness for myself?

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