Happiness Isn’t Enough - Why a Life Without Meaning Is Unfulfilling

Life without meaning is the worst. How can we find meaning in life? Can happiness determine our well-being? Or maybe it isn't happiness that we need to live a happy life. We need meaning. Read on to learn much more about this fascinating debate.
Happiness Isn’t Enough - Why a Life Without Meaning Is Unfulfilling
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Can you picture your life without meaning and happiness? Many things are necessary to living a full and enjoyable life. One of these things is meaning. Therefore, everyone needs meaning in order to savor life. Many believe that, without happiness, their lives would have no color or purpose. 

But they didn’t even consider the possibility that striving for happiness might not be in our best interest. Who wouldn’t want to be happier? Happiness isn’t necessarily bad for us. However, happiness alone isn’t enough for us to feel fulfilled. Sadly, chasing happiness is really common these days. 

But life without meaning is unbearable. Yet, most of us don’t realize why being happy isn’t enough for us to be satisfied with life. As a matter of fact, happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Let’s first look at the state of things as they are. We tend to pursue happiness as if it’s something attainable, something we should be aiming to achieve. 

In America and similar cultures, people are fairly consistently pushed toward happiness. They do this with an abundance of self-help books, happiness coaches, and marketing campaigns. Yet they don’t even consider life without meaning.

However, even living in a “happy focused” culture like America doesn’t mean we’re more satisfied with our lives. According to a recent study, 4 in 10 Americans don’t think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or meaning. 

Famous psychologist Victor Frankl said that “happiness can’t be pursued; it must ensue. People must have a reason to be happy. He also said that our constant search for happiness is a problem. He used the genius phrase, “It’s the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness”.

You can’t find peace by avoiding life.

-Virginia Woolf-

Happiness versus meaning

There’s no point in life without meaning. A study proved this by showing that the greater emphasis participants put on happiness, the less happy they were. People putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions. 35 percent of participants had less satisfaction with their life and 75 percent of participants were more depressive.

Happiness is that it’s such an overused phrase and under-examined concept. We all have an idea of what it is and how it works, but this leads us astray. It’s obvious how dangerous our happiness pursuit is by seeing how scientists define it and how it affects us. On the other hand, happiness itself isn’t necessarily bad for us. 

Here’s the crux of this issue: happiness and meaning are different. More importantly, happiness without meaning really doesn’t lead to a great life. Being happy is about feeling good. Who can live life without meaning? No one. Meaning comes from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way, with generosity and kindness. 

People who are happy but have no sense of meaning have the gene expression patterns like those with adversity. So here’s what happiness is like: it’s about being a “taker” rather than a “giver”. It’s about satisfying your needs. Happy people are in good shape and can afford to buy anything. 

This is a problem only when our happiness outweighs the meaning in our life. Happiness without meaning is a shallow, selfish life, where things go well and needs are satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, is different. It focuses outward, on others, rather than inward, on ourselves. 

Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to society. This makes life meaningful but it doesn’t necessarily make us happy. While happiness is an emotion, it ultimately fades away. Meaning doesn’t.

You now know the difference between life without meaning and life without happiness. Let’s explore how they affect us biologically and what our optimal state is for both physical and emotional health.

Our bodies protect us from all the possible illnesses we could pick up each day. Pretty interesting. Our emotional state pushes our immune system into two preparations: one prepares to fight bacterial infections, the other, viruses. The amount of happiness and meaning in our lives affects this. 

Essentially, your body prepares to fight bacterial infections or viruses. Bacterial infections are at bigger risk when we’re stressed. Whereas, viruses are common when we’re feeling well and interacting with lots of people. Taking clues from our happiness and meaning levels, our bodies know what threat to prepare for.

The problem is that if it continues in a prolonged state, it boosts the risks of illnesses like cancer. The issue is when happiness outweighs meaningfulness. This is when we risk affecting our immune systems in detrimental ways.

Sadly, this is a fairly common state. People with high happiness scores and low meaningfulness scores formed 75 percent of the study’s participants. Besides, only 25 percent actually had more meaning in their lives than happiness.

Clearly, the optimal state we should aim for is a balance between the two. Without enough meaning in our lives, we can be ill, not to mention lacking in purpose and direction. Without enough happiness, however, we’ll become unhappy. And who wants that?

Since happiness is the more common of the two and the easiest to achieve. After all, it’s really just a matter of satisfying our needs and desires, remember? Let’s take a look at some ways we can add meaning to our lives below.

Where to look for meaning in your life

A life without meaning sucks. I’m going to call again Viktor Frankl’s work and worlds to help us out here. He truly is an expert in finding meaning in life . In his best-seller, Man’s Search for Meaning , he detailed his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp. He came up with many secrets to surviving the camp despite losing all of the family. 

The secret was finding meaning in even the most horrific circumstances, making him resilient to suffering. He suggested three ways for finding meaning in our lives:

  • By creating a work or doing a deed. Working as a therapist in the concentration camps, he helped inmates to find meaning in their lives and bear their suffering. He even helped two suicidal inmates who had lost all hope.
  • By experiencing something or encountering someone. He helped a man with a son at war find meaning in his life. Understanding how we’re each impossible to replace will show us we are responsible for our lives.
  • By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Unavoidable suffering is inescapable. We have to approach it one way or another. And the way we do so improves how meaningful our lives feel.

None of these suggestions are easy, but there are many benefits of living a life full of meaning. We must put in the hard yards if we want to be full of meaning. We hope this post helps you. Did you find meaning in your life in other ways?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.