Americans and the American social scientists who study them are obsessed withhappiness. What gets less attention is the perhaps deeper experience of meaningfulness. The two experiences are correlated – people who feel happy often feel that their lives are meaningful. Yet, a happy life is not the same as a meaningful one.
In research(link is external) designed to distinguish between a happy life and a meaningful one, a group of authors administered a 3-part online survey to a national sample of nearly 400 adults. Happiness was measured with items such as “Taking all things together, I feel I am happy.” A comparable example of an item measuring meaningfulness was “Taking all things together, I feel that my life is meaningful.”
Participants answered a wide range of questions. They included assessments of good and bad feelings and of time spent thinking about the past, present, and future. There were lots of items measuring social and personal involvement. Also included was a long list of activities, such as working, praying, watching TV, sleeping, reading, and worrying. For each activity, participants rated not the time they spend on each, but the extent to which each “reflects me”.