Happiness and Meaning Are Not the Same Thing


Take a moment to consider what experiences, actions, and relationships make your life worth living. If you’re like most people, your answers will fall into two general categories, what psychologists call “hedonic” and “eudaimonic.” Hedonic experiences are all about pleasure: seeing a beautiful sunrise, eating a delectable slice of cake, or having great sex. Eudaimonic experiences, on the other hand, are about personal meaning and purpose: living according to our values, completing an important life project, or making a difference in the world in some way.

The reason this distinction is important is that sometimes the things that are most meaningful to us aren’t pleasurable, whether we’re talking about working hard, keeping our promises even when inconvenient, being honest when we’ve made a mistake, or forgiving someone we love. For years, I worked as a psychotherapist in a hospice, helping dying people come to terms with how to live the last weeks or months of their lives. While I can’t say the job was pleasurable, I can definitely say it was the most meaningful work of my life. On the flip side, many pleasurable experiences are not actually meaningful. Although binge-watching every episode of Survivor or eating an entire tub of ice cream may make us happy, it’s hard to argue that these activities contribute to our life being truly “good.”