January 22, 2014 By Sally Wadyka
If someone asked you whether you wanted your life to be meaningful or happy, chances are you’d say “both.” A recent study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, takes an interesting look at whether or not that’s truly possible. Researchers analyzed 397 adults over a month-long period, using self-assessment questionnaires to determine whether people thought their lives were happy or meaningful. They found that while the two states aren’t synonymous, they’re not mutually exclusive either. A rich life, ultimately, seems to need healthy doses of both short-term happiness and lasting substance. To get you started, here are five ways to make your life more meaningful.
1. Get connected
Having a busy social life with lots of friends may help keep you happy, but it’s your deeper relationships (family, close friends) that will truly add meaning to your life, according to the researchers. Spending time with your close ties can sometimes be tough—they force you to focus on big issues, not just small talk—but the rewards are worth it.
2. Don’t shy away from stress
The things that add the most meaning to your life—a high-pressure job, raising kids, caring for a loved one—are often the same things that add the most stress to your day-to-day existence. But don’t assume that taking the easy road is the better option. “Often those biggest challenges in life (those that cause stress in the short term) lead to the biggest gains in the long run,” says Jennifer Aaker, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and one of the authors of the study.
3. Think about the past, present, and future
According to the findings of this recent study, happiness is something that’s experienced mainly in the here and now. “Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present, and future into some kind of coherent story,” Aaker says.
4. Be a giver
Not surprisingly, the study found that doing things to help others will help add meaning to your life. (Happiness, on the other hand, was linked to being a “taker.”) By helping someone else, you’re ultimately doing something positive for both parties involved.
5. Find a sense of purpose
Fulfilling short-term desires may provide a bit of happiness, but in the long run, finding things that feed your soul will bring the most satisfaction. The study found that people who spent more time pursuing activities that reflected their sense of self rated their lives as more meaningful. “Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money,” the study authors wrote. “In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self and in particular to doing positive things for others.”
But the good news is that pursuing meaning over straight-up happiness can help you in more ways than one. “There is research to suggest that when people add more meaning to their life, happiness is a result,” Aaker says. So maybe you really can have it all.