In the last several years, we’ve seen some some ink out there on who is happier – parents or those with no kids. I’ve lamented about the problems with some of the research in this area. This is why I was pleased to read the piece, “The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life” by Scott Barry Kaufman on Scientific American‘s site. It goes into some of the latest research with no mention of the determining factor being parenthood or not. Here are a few highlights:

On Happiness and Meaning

There is one point about parenthood, but it is not in contrast to having no kids. Kaufman makes the point that:

Happiness and meaning are strongly correlated with each other, and often feed off each other. The more meaning we find in life, the more happy we typically feel, and the more happy we feel, the more we often feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose.

But not always.

An increasing body of research suggests that that there can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life. Consider, for instance, the ‘parenthood paradox’: parents often report that they are very happy they had children, but parents who are living with children usually score very low on measures of happiness. It seems that raising children can decrease happiness but increase meaning.

And a host of other experiences highlight the differences between happiness and meaning. Kaufman sums up research by saying, “It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good, whereas meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences.”

For both happiness and meaning, there is no one formula. Having your needs satisfied means something different to different people. So does getting what we want. It’s definitely true for finding one’s personal identity, our unique expression of self, and how we integrate the experiences in our lives. In the end, one thing happiness and meaning have in common is – we each have our own definition of what each really means to us.

I love how Kaufman describes the larger picture of putting the two together – how knowing more about how happiness and meaning can help us understand the “sweet-spot of well-being: that seemingly magical combination of happiness and meaning that sets off the virtuous cycle that can ultimately lead to a life well lived.”

How would you describe your “sweet spot of well-being”?

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