What Is A Meaningful Life?

When I went through my life coach training last year, we were encouraged to choose a niche for our coaching services.

I struggled with this idea.

Partially it’s because I have a wide range of interests and the idea of just working in one niche sounded boring to me.

But there was another reason as well.

I came up with several ideas for potential coaching niches that interested me. And deep down I knew that there was a common thread among these niches.

But whenever I tried to articulate what that common thread was, I couldn’t do it.

The words to express what I wanted to say, what I wanted to offer to the world, simply weren’t there.

Once my coaching classes were finished, I still hadn’t nailed down my niche.

But I plowed forward anyway.

At first, I tried offering three different niches. Later, I decided to focus on just one of them.

Still, in my heart and soul, I knew something was missing.

I knew that I wasn’t properly articulating what I wanted to offer.

Having read a lot of books on positive psychology and on happiness, I knew that helping people lead happier lives was a component of what I was looking for.

But it wasn’t the whole thing.

I don’t remember having an epiphany.

But somewhere along the way, what I had been struggling to articulate for over a year, crystallized in my thoughts and my words.

What I wanted to do was help people lead more meaningful lives.

Lives that mattered. Lives that felt significant. Lives that were connected to their most important values.

This, though, left some important questions unanswered.

What exactly is a meaningful life? And how is it similar and how is it different from a happy life? Those are the questions I want to attempt to answer in this post.

Fortunately, for my purposes, there have been a few recent studies that have focused directly on these questions.

What Is A Happy Life?

A happy life is generally focused on pleasure, on feeling good, on subjective well-being.

Happy people tend to have more pleasant than unpleasant emotions and have a positive overall assessment of their lives.

Research shows that happiness is strongly associated with seeing life as easy, pleasant, and free from difficult or troubling events.

Happiness is also associated with being in good health and feeling well most of the time.

What Is A Meaningful Life?

A meaningful life, on the other hand, is generally tied to something bigger than oneself, whether making a contribution to society, belonging to a community or social group, or cultivating deep relationships.

People who lead meaningful lives feel that their life has purpose and value and a sense of direction.

What Are Some Important Differences Between Happy Lives And Meaningful Lives?

Obviously, many people who lead meaningful lives also feel happy.

Similarly, many people who lead happy lives also feel that their life has meaning.

That being said, researchers have identified some interesting differences between happy and meaningful lives.

  • Time Orientation: Happiness is generally a present oriented experience. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, involves focusing on the relationship between the past, the present, and the future.
  • Giving vs. Taking: Happy people were more likely to identify themselves as “takers” whereas “givers” reported higher levels of meaning in their lives.
  • Relationships: Spending time with friends tends to be linked more with happiness whereas spending time with loved ones and cultivating deep relationships is related to experiencing more meaning in life.
  • Self-Expression: Engaging in activities that allow for self-expression tends to be strongly associated with meaning, but not with happiness.
  • Satisfying Needs and Wants: Health, wealth, ease in life are all associated with happiness, but not with meaning. Interestingly, people from wealthier countries tend to be happier whereas people from poorer countries tend to experience more meaning in their lives.
  • Stress: Meaningful lives tend to be more stressful than happy lives because meaningfulness often involves pursuing engaging and challenging goals.
  • Duration: Happiness tends to be fleeting whereas a sense of meaning tends to last longer.

Can One Be Happy Without Meaning And Vice Versa?

Despite these differences, many people are able to lead lives that are filled with both meaning and happiness. Researchers have, however, identified subgroups of people who have one without the other.

People who are happy, but lack meaning in their lives, lead relatively shallow, self-oriented lives, in which needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult situations are avoided.

On the other hand, pursuing a life of meaning is no guarantee of happiness, likely because a meaningful life can be characterized by stress, struggle, and difficult undertakings.

For example, being a parent can be an incredibly meaningful and rewarding experience while also producing stress, frustration, and other negative emotions.

Finally, there are some interesting health benefits to leading a meaningful life.

Having a meaning level equal to or greater than your happiness level is associated with a stronger immune system function, less reactivity to stress, less insulin resistance, higher HDL/good cholesterol levels, better sleep, and brain activity patterns that are linked to decreased levels of depression.

On the other hand, people who have happiness without meaning have been found to have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.


In the end, you probably can have BOTH happiness and meaningfulness in your life.

But if you’re going to pursue just one, I’d suggest that pursuing a meaningful life should be your focus.

Meaningfulness lasts longer, has clear health benefits, and is more rewarding.

Plus, in my humble opinion, the world really needs more people who are focused on something greater than themselves.

(NOTE: If you or someone you know needs help in building more meaning into your life, feel free to contact me. And remember that my coaching services always start with a free consultation.)

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