In conversation with Rebecca Mcguire-Snieckus
- what is optimism - is it good for you? A lecturer in Psychology
at Bath Spa University, she talks about a recent paper Rebecca has
published in Psychiatric Bulletin on the Psychology of
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Parents, friends, relatives and God Parents gather for a
christening - which like a wedding and other religious rituals is
associated not just with happiness, but also imbued with
But are a happy life and a meaningful life the same thing? Can
pursuing one lead to less of the other? The choice of God Parents
to a future Monarch might reveal the parents thinking on the
pursuit of happiness or meaning, in terms of future guidance for
This is a question which has also just been investigated by a large
psychology study entitled 'Some key differences between a happy
life and a meaningful life'; about to be published in the 'Journal
of Positive Psychology'.
The researchers let participants deﬁne the happy, or meaningful
life. Happiness appeared linked to having needs and desires
satisﬁed, and leading an existence largely free from unpleasant
A meaningful life, in contrast, appeared linked to some
over-arching purpose. Often it meant sacrifice and being devoted
more to improving the welfare of others, rather than
The authors of the new study, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs,
Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, point out it is possible to
have a meaningful but unhappy life (e.g. being an oppressed
political activist). Attaining the 'holy grail' of the happy and
meaningful life appeared possible, from the findings of this study,
but not as straightforward as previously might have been
Happiness flows from beneﬁts you receive from others.
Meaningfulness, instead, is associated with the beneﬁts that others
receive from you.
This new psychology research finds that while being happy and
ﬁnding life meaningful overlap, there are important differences. A
national sample of 397 adults were surveyed; results revealed that
satisfying one's needs and wants increased happiness, but was
largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.
Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas
meaningfulness went more with being a giver rather than a taker.
Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to more
meaningfulness, yet lower happiness.
It might come as no surprise that the results reveal finding one's
life to be relatively easy was linked to more happiness. But
considering life a struggle was positively related with
meaningfulness. Some people endure highly meaningful yet not very
pleasant lives, perhaps because their meaningful activities require
strenuous and unpleasant effort.
The authors, from Florida State University, University of Minnesota
and Stanford University, conclude finding one's life easy or
difﬁcult is a matter of happiness, but not of meaning.
Not having enough money reduced both meaningfulness and happiness,
but the effect was considerably larger on happiness than
meaningfulness. Monetary scarcity was 20 times more detrimental to
happiness than to meaning. Having sufﬁcient money to purchase
objects of desire (both necessities and luxuries) was important for
happiness, but made little impact on whether life was
The more time people devoted to thinking about the past and future,
the more meaningful their lives were - and the less happy. Thinking
beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of
the relatively meaningful but unhappy life. Happiness is not
generally found in contemplating the past or future, and is much
more about living for the present.
The more people thought only about the present, the happier they
Spending time with friends was positively related to happiness.
Time spent with loved people was signiﬁcantly linked with meaning,
but surprisingly irrelevant to happiness, possibly because loved
ones can be difﬁcult at times. People with more meaningful lives
also agreed that 'relationships are more important than
achievements'; this sentiment was unrelated to happiness.
For parents, the more time they spent taking care of children, the
more meaningful their lives were, yet looking after children also
The authors argue these ﬁndings illuminate the so-called
'parenthood paradox,' which is that most people want to be happy,
and desire to become parents, but those two goals are in fact in
Becoming a parent has been shown by a raft of research to often
reduce happiness. Roy Baumeister, the lead author of the current
study, has proposed that the 'parenthood paradox' can be resolved
by proposing that we seek not just happiness but also meaning.
People become parents because the gains in meaningfulness offset
any losses in happiness.
This latest research has profound implications for positive
psychology, because it suggests that people will pursue
meaningfulness even at the expense of happiness.
The more that people regarded arguing as something that reﬂects
them, the more meaningful but the less happy their lives were. The
effects of arguing were similar to those of helping
The authors of the study propose that meaningfulness comes in part
from being involved in things one regards as important, and
sometimes one has to argue for these. But the unpleasantness of
arguing may contribute to lower happiness. Happy people may prefer
not to argue and arguing is something they might do only
reluctantly, rather than as a frequent expression of their inner
self and values.
It's again perhaps not surprising that more worrying was linked to
lower happiness, but greater frequency of worrying was associated
with higher levels of meaningfulness. People with very meaningful
lives worry more and have more stress than people with less
The authors suggest worrying comes from involvement and engagement
with important activities that go beyond the self, and beyond the
present, and so worrying may often be an unavoidable part of a
meaningful life, even though it detracts from happiness.
The psychologists offered brief composite sketches of the unhappy
but meaningful life and of the happy but meaningless life - were
these relevant for the future King George?
The unhappy but meaningful life is seriously involved in difﬁcult
undertakings. It's marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and
anxiety. These people perceive themselves as having had more
unpleasant experiences than others. In fact 3% of having a
meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to
Although these individuals may be relatively unhappy, they could
make important positive contributions to society. High
meaningfulness despite low happiness was associated with being a
giver rather than a taker. These people were more likely to say
that taking care of children reﬂected them, as did buying gifts for
The highly happy but relatively meaningless life is characterised
by seeming rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If
these people argue, they do not feel that arguing reﬂects
They are takers rather than givers, and such happiness without
meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even
selﬁsh life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily
satisﬁed, and difﬁcult or taxing entanglements are
Given the picture this latest research paints, is there a clue as
to Kate's and William's values in their choice of God Parents?
Which life did the various adults at the christening ceremony
largely pursue - the happy or the meaningful?
We can only hope that George, or any child, experiences both.