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What the heck does “meaning in life” mean, anyway?

meaning in life

Researchers at Tohoku University in Japan did a 7 year study of over 43,000 adults age 40 to 79 asking if they had ikigai (a Japanese term for meaning in life) and then tracked their health.

People with ikigai were much more likely to be alive 7 years later.

Via Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology:

Even when likely confounds were taken into account, ikigai predicted who was still alive after 7 years. Said another way, 95% of respondents who reported a sense of meaning in their lives were alive 7 years after the initial survey versus about 83% of those who reported no sense of meaning in their lives. The lack of ikigai was in particular associated with death due to cardiovascular disease (usually stroke), but not death due to cancer.

Which raises a good question: What does meaning in life really mean, anyway? It seems to be one of those know-it-when-you-see-it type of things.

One thing we do know is that it’s not the same as happiness.

Roy Baumeister (author of Willpower), Jennifer Aaker (author of the Dragonfly Effect), Kathleen Vohs and Emily Garbinsky explored the similarities and differences between happy and meaningful lives:

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.

In his TED talk, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow discussed two different types of happiness that sound very similar to the distinction between happiness and meaning.

The first is being happy in your life. It is happiness that you experience immediately and in the moment. Like the definition of happiness above.

The second is being happy about your life. It is the happiness that exists in memory when we talk about the past and the big picture. Stories are key here. Closer to the definition of meaning above.

Kahneman’s TED talk is fascinating and will really make you think:

What are you doing every day to increase your moment-to-moment happiness?

What are you doing to increase meaning?

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About Eric Barker