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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.June 28, 20223 min read

What Do Meaning and Purpose Have to Do with Happiness?

Happiness is more than just a positive emotional state, of feeling good at the moment, or being upbeat, or optimistic. The broadest term in use today is subjective well-being. Examined by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (c. 340 BCE) as “eudaimonia” or thriving, Aristotle linked this concept to virtues or traits that enable one to live an optimal life or of achieving one’s true potential.

In our time, human flourishing has been examined by well crafted scientific studies, and we know now that happiness or well-being is indeed linked to one’s health, relationships, and even income. 

Currently, the components of well-being are under scrutiny by researchers especially in the field of Positive Psychology. Originally known as the Authentic Happiness Model, Dr. Seligman’s model is only one of many theories of happiness and well-being, but it is probably the most recognizable. In this model, there are five building blocks identified by the acronym PERMA: Pleasure, Engagement (Flow), Relationship, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

According to Seligman, Meaning (M) can be different for each person, but searching for meaning and feeling a sense of value or self-worth is an intrinsic human quality. He posits that one’s sense of meaning is related to serving something “greater than ourselves.” According to his theory:

Having a purpose in life helps individuals focus on what is really important in the face of significant challenges or adversity.

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Meaning and purpose in earlier studies

Before the emergence of positive psychology, however, happiness or well-being was being examined using verified instruments–but without a consistent theoretical underpinning. In a study in 1989, Dr. Carol Ryff tracked the history of positive and negative affect in these various constructs and concluded that focusing on affect provided a limited view of psychological well-being.

In her analysis of multiple well-being models, she identified six shared characteristics: self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. Testing over 300 participants using existing measures, she verified that her alternative model yielded significant results. Ryff’s theory-derived definition of “purpose in life” consisted of the following:

Thus, one who functions positively has goals, intentions, and a sense of direction, all of which contribute to the feeling that life is meaningful.

Meaning and purpose in the pursuit of goals

So not only has meaning and purpose found a place in early and current theories of well-being, other studies have identified it as a crucial factor in the pursuit of goals that require “non-enjoyable” activities. In a recent study, a team from the highly regarded Erasmus University, Netherlands, examined interventions they call “life crafting.”  In this intervention, participants are led through a series of steps to help them identify their own life purpose. These include:

(1) discovering values and passion, (2) reflecting on current and desired competencies and habits, (3) reflecting on present and future social life, (4) reflecting on a possible future career, (5) writing about the ideal future, (6) writing down specific goal attainment and “if-then” plans, and (7) making public commitments to the goals set.

In the “meaning” literature, one finds distinctions between meaning and purpose, but it is not the intention to examine these here. It is perhaps sufficient to recognize that having a sense of purpose and finding meaning play a significant role in the life and health of the human person.

In the next post, we will take a look at the likely adaptive role that positive emotions played in human development.

“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.” – Stephen Hawking’s advice to his children