More on Baumeister et al 2013

Tuesday, Feb 21, 2017 4:29:00 PM

Interesting methodology: Instead of trying to define happiness and meaning, which are hard to define and have some overlap, Baumeister et al 2013 simply asked survey participants to gauge each, then asked a bunch of other questions, and then, controlling happiness and meaning for the other, searched for correlations between happiness, meaning, and the other questions for significantly different correlations to try to tease out how happiness and meaning might be different, and then created some hypotheses and definitions out of the results. They admit they threw out some “ostensibly significant findings” which “made little or no sense” and that “this project was intended to generate ideas”.

One particularly fascinating point is that participants rated happiness as “fleeting and unstable,” yet their own responses (the survey was taken multiple times over the course of a month) showed the opposite.

The reason behind that apparent mistake may be that happiness in fact consists of enjoyment of the present, so it does not inherently link together different moments in life (unlike meaning). Its link to the present may encourage the inference that it is unstable and transient.

Overall, the study finds these significant correlations:

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. […] 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.

Our exploratory findings are broadly consistent with the framework that happiness is natural but meaning is cultural. Although humans use money and other cultural artifacts to achieve satisfaction, the essence of happiness still consists of having needs and wants satisfied. The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity. In contrast, meaningfulness pointed to more distinctively human activities, such as expressing oneself and thinking integratively about past and future. Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.