What is the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life?
Turns out, quite a bit… at least, at the biological level.
In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researches worked with a large group of people over a month to determine how people saw their lives: happy or not, purposeful or not. They “found that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless “giving” behavior.”
When they examined the genetic level of the study participants, they found “that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.”
“That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.”
So being happy without a sense of purpose can make you sick…
Of course, in many instances, happiness and purpose go hand in hand. You have something in your life that gives you meaning, and it makes you happy. (People who are avid knitters spring to mind.) That isn’t always the case, though.
The study found that a subset – about a quarter of the participants – had a great sense of meaning but not of happiness.
My first thought: Huh?
Then I realized that those people probably work or volunteer in animal welfare.
Whether you’re sharing adoptable dogs on Facebook, volunteering at a low-cost clinic, participating in hands-on rescue, or donating to the rehabilitation of deserving dogs, you see the worst of the worst.
It may not make you happy to see animals in distress, cases of abuse and neglect, desperate dogs on death row… but when you can step in and play a role in saving these animals, it sure does give you a sense of purpose.
Which, according to this study, makes you healthier!
Yes, there are happy moments, too. Just look at Rex.
But, we’ve been talking a lot on Facebook and a bit here about how easy it is to feel numb, angry, sad, and more. It’s easy to feel compassion fatigue.
The silver lining?
All that dedication, that compassion, that purpose is making you healthier!
From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Jung’s wisdom certainly seems to apply to our bodies, if not also to our hearts and our minds.
What do you think? What gives your life meaning? Do you feel happy and purposeful? Is one stronger for you than the other?