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Happy life or a meaningful life: Can you have both?

June 27, 2022 - 18 min read


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What does it mean to live a meaningful life?

What does it mean to live a happy life?

What are the differences between a meaningful life and a happy one?

6 similarities between a meaningful life and a happy one

4 characteristics of a meaningful life with no happiness

4 characteristics of a happy life with no meaning

How to have both

Balance is key

If someone asked you if you have a happy life, what would you say? 

What if they asked if you have a meaningful life? Would you have a different answer?

It makes you think twice, or even three times. These two terms often get lumped in together. But in reality, we can spot key differences between a happy life vs. a meaningful life. 

Finding a life with meaning and joy is entirely possible, and many have done this before you. Having a happy and meaningful life means you’re well-being is taken care of, your basic needs are met, and you enjoy your daily activities.

But sometimes, you might find that you’re not fulfilling your life’s purpose. Or, you might find that fulfilling your life’s purpose had led to emotional drainage.

And emotional drainage isn’t uncommon. In 2020, Americans were the unhappiest they’d ever been. The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found only 14% of Americans reported being happy. (Since 1972, the lowest number the NORC has reported is 29%).

That same year, 29% of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said their jobs gave their lives little to no meaning. Even optimism decreased across the country.

But don’t worry. The United States improved from the 19th to 16th happiest country in the world, according to the 2022 World Happiness Report. The same report saw “acts of kindness” exceed pre-pandemic levels by almost 25%.

And a BetterUp study found that 70% of employees value meaningful work. Employees reported that they’d be willing to sacrifice 23% of their income for more meaningful work. 

Our task is to better understand the differences and similarities between both terms and learn how we can work towards achieving both.

What does it mean to live a meaningful life?

Living a meaningful life means that you challenge yourself. To have a sense of meaning, you must slow down, think deeply about all areas of your life, and be deliberate with your actions.

We can often feel a sense of meaning when we give our time or resources to other people. Forming solid relationships is more important than awards or other achievements since spending time with people you care about gives you more satisfaction. This could mean caring directly for one of your loved ones or giving back to your community.

While there are ways to find meaning in life outside of your work, having a job that feels meaningful will increase job satisfaction and lower employee turnover. We can find seven sources of meaning in our work:

  1. Personal growth
  2. Professional growth
  3. Shared purpose
  4. Service
  5. Balance
  6. Inspiration
  7. Honesty 

Your meaning of life will differ from your friends, coworkers, or family. What you think is a meaningless life could hold a lot of importance and value to someone else. 

Chasing down your life’s purpose also means that you probably spend time planning out your life to ensure that everything you do has value. Your life plan will revolve around fulfilling your potential, whatever that is.

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What does it mean to live a happy life?

What it means to live a happy life has stumped philosophers and researchers. Generally, a happy life is about living in the present and taking care of your needs at that moment. Your goals and desires are more short-term, and it’s all about your feelings in that given time. 

Some researchers have connected happiness to subjective well-being, which ties into overall life satisfaction. Others acknowledge that levels of happiness can’t be constant since our emotions change daily. 

The pursuit of satisfaction can be quick. We can feel satisfied — even happy — after eating our favorite food or watching a movie. Happiness can ebb and flow throughout our lives, especially as we encounter new challenges or experiences. For example, you can live a happy life but still experience a spectrum of emotions

But true happiness comes from a balanced life and dedication to focusing on the positives

What are the differences between a meaningful life and a happy one?

Since these two terms correlate and can be easily confused, we need to understand that a happy life is different from a meaningful one. 


Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes professor of psychology at Florida State University, teamed up with researchers at Stanford and the University of Minnesota to publish a study that found five key differences between a meaningful life and a happy life. While they found that both relate, here are some important differences between a happy life and a meaningful life:

  • Happiness is more concerned with yourself and your feelings in the present, whereas meaningfulness is focused on others for the present and the future
  • Happiness has less negative emotions and acknowledges fewer challenges than a sense of meaning
  • A meaningful life is more predictable and has a routine, but a happy life can fluctuate as experiences and circumstances change
  • Happy people will satisfy their needs right away, even if it doesn’t serve them much purpose in the future, whereas people who live meaningful lives will put in more sustained efforts toward their goals that’ll help them long-term
  • People with meaningful lives are linked with higher levels of stress and worry since they challenge themselves more often

If you’re struggling to find where to add joy or meaning to your life, consider one-on-one coaching. With BetterUp, you can gain deeper insight into who you are as a person.

By getting to know yourself and what makes you tick, you can determine the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life for you. From there, you can develop the skills you need to take care of your well-being and live a purposeful life.

6 similarities between a meaningful life and a happy one

Now for the similarities. Both concepts aim to take care of our mental health and give us a sense of purpose in life.

Here are six similarities between a good life vs. a happy life

  1. You experience positive events that make you feel good
  2. You feel less bored and like your time is being wasted
  3. You’re motivated to have a better work-life balance to enjoy life more
  4. In your personal and professional life, you’re more productive
  5. You feel a connection with those around you
  6. You engage and pursue things that stimulate you 


4 characteristics of a meaningful life with no happiness

Have you ever considered that you can live a meaningful life without happiness? It sounds a little strange, but it can happen. 

Here are four characteristics of life with only meaning:

  1. Meditating and mindfulness practices
  2. Prioritizing relationships with others 
  3. Being a giver, not a taker
  4. Thinking deeply and extensively about future plans 

4 characteristics of a happy life with no meaning

As you can live a meaningful life with no happiness, you can do the same and vice versa. 

Here are four characteristics of life with only happiness:

  1. Mainly feeling positive emotions, not bad ones
  2. Focusing on the present and not thinking of the future
  3. Doing things that make you feel good for a fleeting moment
  4. Failing to consider multiple factors of your life and once

How to have both

Even though Baumeister says these two terms are unique, it’s possible and healthy to have both in your life. Happy life vs. meaningful life activities are similar and help you work toward the same goal. 

This isn’t advice from Baumeister, but these tips can still help you achieve a healthy balance. Here are eight tips for living a life that’s full of meaning and happiness:

1. Practice emotional regulation to keep your thoughts collected and clear

It’s healthy to express your feelings. You’ll feel calmer, and your emotions will feel collected rather than scattered.


2. Deepen your relationships with people you care about and who care about you

Take the time to have uncomfortable or difficult conversations. Resolve any underlying conflict so that you can move forward in your relationships. It’s a way for you to learn how you can best support them and how they can best support you. 

3. Establish boundaries that make you feel comfortable

Each of our relationships has different boundaries. Building healthy boundaries in relationships is critical to a happy and meaningful life. Whatever they might be, they should make you feel comfortable, not guarded or threatened. 

4. Listen and learn from those around you and hear how they manage meaningfulness and happiness

Your friends or coworkers might already have the balance you crave. Take the time to listen to their experiences and any advice they give you. This could be your opportunity to learn new things or deepen your insight into what kind of life you want to live.

5. Create a personal vision statement to help guide you

As you start to work toward a meaningful and happy life, you might need some clarity on how to achieve that. A vision statement can help you narrow down what lifestyle you want and how you plan to accomplish it. This is a great way to make sure that your plans align with your life’s purpose.

6. Journal your thoughts to keep track of your actions and feelings

Progress is important to keep in mind. You need to see where you started and how you’re carrying along. Are you moving closer to your goal, or are you in a lull? A journal can help you keep track of your challenges and solutions to issues you’ve faced.


7. Learn how to change the pace of your life, like doing things quickly and taking your time with other things

You can’t live your life on fast-forward, and you can’t live on a slower speed either. But why not enjoy both? See what it’s like to have quicker deadlines or experiment with a more relaxed pace. 

8. Accept your challenges, but know that you can overcome them with resilience and effort

Issues are going to pop up in any stage of life you enter. Some are avoidable, but sometimes you have to face them head on. But don’t fret, because with resilience and determination, you can overcome them. It just takes effort.

9. Build mental fitness

Your mental fitness plan should be uniquely catered to you and your needs. Work with your coach to design a mental fitness strategy that works for you. Of the people who start out “stuck”, 77% will significantly improve their well-being state by 3-4 months with BetterUp. 

Balance is key

We don’t have to be at odds with living a happy life vs. a meaningful life. You shouldn’t have to make trade-offs or feel that you have to pick sides. You should be striving toward an equal balance of both. 

Putting all of your energy into living only a meaningful life can cause you to burn out. It can be exhausting to think only about the future. Not thinking about long-term goals can make your life happy for now, but it isn’t sustainable.

A good balance between the two would look like this: You aren’t hyper-focused on the future that you become disconnected from things that you can enjoy in the present, like spending time with your family or completing your education.

You’re conscious of your actions, but you don’t plan your life out down to the second. As you work on your sense of meaning and happiness, never forget that you deserve both at the same time.

Find someone who helps you stay inspired as you stay on your journey of finding a balance between meaning and happiness in life. With BetterUp, you’ll experience the benefits that coaching can offer as you develop the skills you need to reach your goals. Start working with a coach today to help unlock your full potential

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Published June 27, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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