The benefits of meaning

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on meaning. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

In his book Meanings of Life, Roy F. Baumeister speculates that we don’t talk or think about meaning much because it makes us uncomfortable. If we did, we might realize that we don’t know what gives our life meaning, or that the goals we’re working toward are unattainable (or won’t actually make us happy).

But not putting in the hard work to cultivate meaning means we forgo all the benefits that come along with it – which include more happiness, better health, and more productivity.

More happiness and positive emotions

People who rate their lives as more meaningful also have higher life satisfaction. According to research, having a meaningful life with a clear purpose improves mental health, self-worth, and self-confidence. People who know what they are living for and why tend to feel good about who they are and what they’re doing.

Having a sense of purpose, in particular, is very powerful. People with purpose are more likely to have a sense of control in life, exhibit solid relationship-building skills, and be involved in personal growth. They spend less time thinking about themselves and are more apt to get excited and lose track of time in their activities.

Purpose gives us short-term and long-term goals to work toward, and we already know that having goals makes us happy. People who have reached past goals have experienced more positive emotions, and people who have something absorbing, challenging, and compelling to do are happier. We get satisfaction out of striving.

“The exertion of hard and often thankless effort in service of a purpose, with little thought of personal gain, is a surer path to happiness than the eager pursuit of happiness for its own sake,” writes William Damon in The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life.

As we learned earlier, meaning also satisfies our need for value, self-worth, and efficacy – which are all linked to happiness, too. People who are confident in their basic values (the moral code by which they live) are happier, and so are people with high self-esteem.

Feeling in control of life is beneficial, perhaps because we don’t have to worry as much about bad things happening to us – whatever comes, we’ll be able to deal with it. People who feel they have many choices and options in life tend to experience more positive feelings. In fact, the happiest people have purpose and a sense of efficacy: clear goals and the confidence that they can achieve them.

In this TEDx talk, Leeds Beckett University lecturer Steve Taylor explains how purpose makes our lives flow much more easily:

Better health

One of the benefits of meaning is that we’ll be able to look back on our life in old age and be content: it will make sense and seem worthwhile. But another benefit? We might be able to do that reflection at an even older age.

Having meaning in life seems to improve our immune system and go along with better health. In a 14-year study of over 6,000 people, those with a sense of purpose had a 15% lower risk of death (no matter what age they were). In another study, the Rush University Medical Center examined the brains of 246 patients who had died. And some of them were surprising: purposeful people who had functioned perfectly well before death had brains full of the plaques and tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. It seemed that having a sense of purpose protected them from the memory and cognitive problems that would normally go along with an aging brain.    

Better coping

In the midst of a challenging situation, meaning can help us see the positives. For example, a man who gets laid off can appreciate that he now has more time to spend with his kids, if family is a source of meaning for him. If we believe personal growth is meaningful, we can see trauma as a way to test our strengths.

According to research by Bonnie Bernard, who has studied children experiencing trauma and adversity, having a sense of purpose is one of the things that resilient kids have in common. But purpose doesn’t have to be in place before trauma in order to help us heal; other research has shown that people with mental health problems or disabilities who find a purpose will have a better chance of overcoming their challenges.

In this TED talk, journalist Andrew Solomon explains how the hardest experiences of our lives can allow us to forge meaning and build a sense of identity:

Better performance

When you’re looking for employees, it’s the purposeful you want to hire: they’re less likely to burnout and quit, for example. According to a 2013 study of more than 12,000 workers, the ones who see their work as meaningful and important were three times more likely to remain with the organization as loyal employees.

According to research by Tom Rath, people who do a lot of meaningful work at work have 170% higher job satisfaction and are 250% more likely to be fully engaged. Unfortunately, in his study, only 20% of people spent a lot of time doing meaningful work the day before.

One of the reasons that purpose and meaning make us better workers is that they enable us to focus. We can say no to things that don’t really matter, and keep stress at bay because we believe in what we’re doing.

It might be hard work to build meaning in life in the first place – but once we have it, everything will become just a little smoother.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 2: How to cultivate meaning

Move on to Week 4: When it’s hard to cultivate meaning, try this

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum