As an argentinian as the pope I feel I must share this:
The vagus nerve, one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system.
The cranium has many openings called foramina through which the 12 cranial nerves exit the skull. Muscle pressure on the bones of the skull may change the shape and size of the foramina compressing or stretching the cranial nerves as they pass through these openings. Tensions anywhere from the top of the head to the bottom of the spine may produce an array of symptoms, such as impaired vision, headaches, difficulty with hearing and balance, nausea, digestive upset, impaired speech, difficulty breathing, and many more.
Craniosacral Therapy is well known for it’s subtle and profound effects. It can work on the relief of chronic stiffness and pain releasing tension on muscles, tendons and connective tissue. A great advantage of this is also the release of cranial bones and therefore of the spinal and cranial nerves.
Any trauma to these 12 cranial nerves will result in dysfunction of the structures that they innervate, as well as pain or discomfort.
Here there is a video depicting the importance of the vagus nerve where is described as “a key nexus of mind and body, and a biological building block of human compassion.”
New research says mothers using childcare can reap social, psychological, and financial rewards.
Every weekday morning, Christie Henry went through the same simple routine. She would drop off her two young kids at the childcare center near her home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, unwrapping them from their puffy snowsuits and scribbling their names on the sign-in board by the door.
Henry wouldn’t linger long, since she was always on her way to work. But during the few minutes that she spent at the center each morning, she’d frequently chat with the other parents who bustled in around her—about their children, usually, but often the talk would turn to work, or families, or other issues that happened to be on their mind.
Before long, they’d head back out into the cold and on to work. These conversations were small, uncomplicated encounters, soon forgotten in the bustle of the rest of the day.
But how small were they? New research suggests that Henry’s morning routine might have had more impact on her well-being than she realized. In fact, as incidental as her childcare stops seemed, at least one scientist believes she was doing far more than dropping off her kids and chitchatting.
According to research by University of Chicago sociologist Mario Small, Henry was also building “social capital,” the complex system of interpersonal ties and networks that scientists have linked to a host of benefits, from better health to stronger job prospects.
This is an unusual way of thinking about childcare, especially since the national debate over it usually concerns its impact on children’s emotional, behavioral, and intellectual development.
Research conducted by psychologists John Bowlby and Jay Belsky, for instance, as well as studies published by groups such as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), do suggest that under some circumstances, kids in full-time childcare settings may be worse off than their stay-at-home peers. Yet these negative findings have been contradicted by other studies finding that kids in childcare aren’t at a disadvantage.
But what hasn’t been well studied, at least until recently, is the hidden benefits childcare may bring to parents, especially mothers. In a provocative line of research, Small has found that mothers using childcare reap social, psychological, and even financial rewards; these rewards are especially pronounced for low-income mothers. Even when mothers make few friends through a childcare center, they still benefit from the resources they find there.
Small’s work has profound implications beyond childcare. It suggests that at a time when many are lamenting the decline of strong social connections, many of us may actually be building valuable social capital without realizing it—and these “invisible ties” may carry real rewards.
The perks of friendship
For years, studies have found that enjoying greater social capital can improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors, reduce dropout rates for high school students, and increase the chances that job-seekers find employment, among other benefits. At the same time, researchers such as Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, author of the book Bowling Alone, warn that Americans have been experiencing a steady decline in social capital, with most people having fewer friends, participating in fewer civic organizations, and engaging less with their neighbors than they did fifty or sixty years ago. In other words, we’re learning both how vital our connections with each other are, and how elusive.
It was against this scientific backdrop that Small and his colleagues explored how childcare centers broker social capital for mothers. They drew on rich and varied data sources, including a national survey of 3,500 mothers in 20 large U.S. cities, a survey of 300 childcare centers in New York City, 67 in-depth interviews with mothers who had enrolled their children in childcare, and 23 case studies and observations of specific childcare centers.
When the team compared mothers who used childcare with those who did not (controlling for income, race, age, education, employment, and marital status), they discovered that mothers with children in childcare experienced fewer incidences of financial hardship—events such as having insufficient funds to see a physician, falling behind on rent or mortgage, or borrowing money to cover utility bills—than their counterparts. In fact, poor mothers who were struggling financially before they started to use childcare saw their risk of such events decrease after their child’s enrollment.
What’s more, the analysis revealed psychological benefits: Mothers who enrolled a child in childcare were less likely to experience non-clinical depression than those who did not.
Making friends with other parents through childcare was especially beneficial. Poor mothers who formed friendships at childcare centers were more than 40 percent less likely to be depressed than those who made no friends; for mothers of higher income, the figure was nearly 60 percent. And for mothers of higher income, forming friendships through childcare reduced their likelihood of facing material hardship by more than 40 percent—a benefit that disappeared if they made no friends.
“At first,” Small admits, “I assumed mothers would only make superficial friends through childcare centers. Who has time to sit and gossip when more often than not, mothers need childcare in the first place because they work outside the home?
“Surprisingly,” he continues, “many made strong friendships—they used the word ‘family’ to describe them—in which they would go to the theater and plan trips together out of state.”
This makes sense to Sarah Diwan, who runs BabyPhd, a childcare network comprising 18 home childcare providers and 60 families in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “There’s a shared vulnerability when mothers wonder what’s going to happen to their relationship with their child when they go back to work,” says Diwan. “They often come together over the emotional aspect of dropping off a child.”
Henry, who enrolled both her children in a Baby PhD childcare center, agrees. “The immediate empathy formed through that shared experience,” says Henry, “made it easy for friendships to start.” Today, Henry regularly emails and meets for coffee with three other mothers who used the same center.
“Hi and bye” relationships
Other discoveries about social connections emerged from Small’s study. For instance, many mothers formed relationships that were deeply personal, but only within the domain of childcare. These “compartmentally strong friendships,” as Small calls them, extended mothers’ support systems, even though they rarely resulted in meetings outside the center.
Mothers also made weak “hi and bye” relationships that were nevertheless valuable, because they were made trustworthy by the mothers’ shared ties to the center. “If I were to ask if you would hand your child over to somebody whose name, address, and job you didn’t know, any rational person would answer no,” adds Small. “In the context of childcare centers, many mothers were willing to do just that.”
These types of connections wouldn’t necessarily show up in a survey of social networks, because they aren’t what comes to mind when respondents are asked to list their ties—yet they, along with traditional friendships, dramatically increased mothers’ available social capital. “There’s a kind of psychic safety net,” says Small, “that comes from knowing an extra three or four people in this context. You can stay late at your meeting. You can miss your bus. And you have someone you trust to call. It takes the edge off a lot of things.”
This kind of practical support has been invaluable to Virginia Pace, who also found childcare through Diwan’s network. “It’s really nice to be able to compare notes about things like discipline,” she says, “or what to do when a child is sick.” Although Small could not say quantitatively how long after they enroll their children mothers might begin drawing on this kind of social capital, his interviews with mothers suggest that benefits often appear after as little as six months.
But one of the study’s most striking discoveries was that, for poor mothers, the benefits of social capital accrued regardless of whether they made friends at a childcare center. How could this be? Social capital, it turns out, doesn’t just emerge from relationships with people. It can also be the result of relationships with institutions.
For many mothers, enrolling a child in childcare opened up a world of other resources: access to free healthcare through referrals to government-funded health programs that they might not otherwise have known about, help with finding housing and filing taxes, domestic abuse counseling, museum discounts, and referrals to resources like learning disability experts. By plugging into childcare centers that were themselves connected to other nonprofits and government organizations, mothers effectively multiplied the size of their support networks with no effort required on their part.
In a twist that overturns traditional social network analysis—which predicts that neighborhood poverty reduces access to resources—Small found that childcare centers located in poor neighborhoods were more connected to valuable resources than those in affluent areas. “Government organizations and non-profits that offer social support reach out more to childcare centers in poor neighborhoods,” he explains, “inviting them to inform their clients about the services they provide.”
How to choose childcare
Importantly, not all childcare centers do a good job of brokering social capital—they don’t all try to introduce parents for the sake of friendship, for instance. Instead, when social ties form, they tend to do so as an accidental result of center policies.
One surprising factor has to do with timing. “Some centers allow you to drop off your child anytime in the morning and pick them up anytime in the evening,” explains Small. “Others want you to do so within a certain strict window, with cash penalties for being a few minutes late. So everybody beelines to the center after work. And naturally, they sit and talk to other parents.” Furthermore, parents in these centers have an incentive to get to know each other immediately. They exchange numbers, agreeing to help each other out if one of them has a meeting that runs late.
Another factor that encourages social ties is the existence of frequent field trips. In the classroom, one adult can easily supervise ten children. “But,” Small points out, “when you’re at a museum with vases that break or at the zoo with monkeys that bite off toes, you simply need more adults per child. And most centers are not lucrative enterprises. So they need volunteers—and the most obvious ones are parents.”
In both these cases, friendships result unexpectedly—first, from a seemingly burdensome rule, and second, from financial constraints that require childcare centers to rely on parents for practical assistance.
Small, who has no children of his own but has become an expert on childcare by default, suggests the following tips for parents in search of a childcare center that fosters social capital.
- Look for a center that holds yearly elections for its parent association, rather than one that’s been led by the same parent for several years in a row.
- Look for one in which parents are expected to participate in activities such as fundraising.
- Scout around for centers that go on a lot of field trips.
- Though it’s counterintuitive, look for a center that sets strict windows for drop-off and pick-up times.
- Figure out whether a center is well-connected to other local organizations. This can be tricky—but one sign to look for is a frequently-updated bulletin board full of flyers, posters, and notices advertising local resources.
Grab a coffee, make a friend
This research has implications even for those who take care of their children at home or don’t have children at all, as it reveals a broader truth about how we build social networks. Policymakers and scholars argue passionately for fostering civic engagement as a tool against crime, poverty, and inequity; business experts say who you know is more important than what you know; and self-help writers are eager to teach “networking” for happiness and success. But most of these voices focus on the consequences of social connections, and ignore how they’re formed.
Small’s research points to the fact that many of our most valuable social ties are made in the context of our involvement with institutions. We connect with others, almost without noticing it, in the coffee shops we visit, the churches, synagogues, and mosques at which we pray, and the gyms in which we exercise.
“These are not incidental aspects of our connections,” says Small. “They are the core. To the extent that we are our social networks, we are also the organizations we participate in.”
This essay describes the differences between ardently striving for happiness and making deliberate choices day in and day out, choices that enable you to have more experiences that are known to be sources of happiness.
As you read, consider: How does your daily life give rise to opportunities for positive vs. negative emotions? Could you rearrange things, or engage in different behaviors that would permit more positive emotion eliciting experiences?
A Better Way to Pursue Happiness
But how do we pursue happiness effectively? After all, some recent scientific research actually cautions us against the pursuit of happiness. For instance, a study led by Iris Mauss, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found that people instructed to feel happier while watching a pleasant film clip ended up feeling worse than people instructed just to watch the clip. Findings like this are echoed in the popular press: Writer Ruth Whippman argued in a recent New York Timespiece that the pursuit of happiness is a “recipe for neurosis.”
But is this the whole story? Are we doomed to fail at the pursuit of happiness?
It depends. The difference between effectively and ineffectively pursuing happiness may all be in how we go about it. Research suggests that people who strive to feel happy all of the time may suffer disappointment, and people who pursue happiness as if it were the only thing that matters may, ironically, chase happiness away.
But these are not the only ways you can go about pursuing happiness. Another approach involves what I call “prioritizing positivity”: deliberately organizing your day-to-day life so that it contains situations that naturally give rise to positive emotions. This way of pursuing happiness involves carving out time in your daily routine to do things that you genuinely love, whether it be writing, gardening, or connecting with loved ones. Prioritizing positivity also involves heavily weighing the positive emotional consequences of major life decisions, like taking a new job, which have implications for the daily situations in which you will regularly find yourself. This way of pursuing happiness means proactively putting yourself in contexts that spontaneously trigger positive emotions.
For years I’ve studied prioritizing positivity, and through scientific research, I’ve found that it goes hand-in-hand with optimal mental health. That is, the people who pursue happiness by seeking out pleasant experiences as part of their everyday lives are happier. In stark contrast, people who strive to feel good every possible moment, as if it were possible to will oneself to be happy, appear to be following a recipe for unhappiness.
To test whether people are happier if they proactively seek out pleasant experiences as part of the framework for their everyday lives, I developed a prioritizing positivity scale to measure this tendency. The scale asks people how much they agree with statements such as, “What I decide to do with my time outside of work is influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions,” “My major decisions in life are influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions,” and “A priority for me is experiencing happiness in everyday life.” Together with Barbara Fredrickson and Sara Algoe, both professors of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, I hypothesized that people who scored higher on prioritizing positivity would be happier and less depressed.
Why did we predict this? One reason is that prioritizing positivity involves monitoring one’s daily itinerary, not one’s moment-to-moment emotional experience. As research has revealed, the mere act of monitoring one’s happiness from one second to the next may get in the way of positive emotions. By contrast, we thought a more effective strategy would be “situation selection,” which involves approaching (or avoiding) situations that naturally trigger certain emotions. Going for a walk with your partner after dinner is one way you might use situation selection to experience a feeling of tranquility. The tendency to prioritize positivity draws upon this strategy.
We also predicted that prioritizing positivity would predict greater happiness and fewer symptoms of depression because of its relevance to daily life. The “highs” we get from one-time events like going on vacation or winning a prize wear off over time. As a result, effectively pursuing happiness may require engaging regularly in behaviors that promote happiness. By its nature, prioritizing positivity increases the chance that we will weave these positive behaviors into our daily lives rather than just maintaining a general desire for happiness or expecting it to come from a few isolated events.
To test our hypothesis that people high in prioritizing positivity would be happier and less depressed, we ran a study surveying more than 200 adults, ranging in age from 21 to 87. The adults completed the prioritizing positivity scale, as well as questionnaires measuring their levels of positive emotions, negative emotions, symptoms of depression, and life satisfaction.
We also administered a questionnaire measuring the extent to which they value happiness to an extreme, obsessive degree—they had to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as, “How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is” and “I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness.” This scale measures a way of relating to happiness that previously has been shown by Iris Mauss and her colleagues to predict less happiness and more symptoms of depression. Our team wanted to replicate this effect and also pit prioritizing positivity against the extreme valuing of happiness. Would only one of them be positively related to emotional well-being?
Indeed, that’s what the data told us. Our results, published recently in the journal Emotion, show that people who scored higher on the prioritizing positivity scale felt more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, more life satisfaction, and fewer depressive symptoms than people who scored lower on that scale. People who scored higher on valuing happiness to an extreme showed the opposite pattern: They felt fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, less life satisfaction, and more depressive symptoms. Both tendencies place a premium on happiness, yet one appears to be effective and healthy whereas the other does not.
So what are the real-world implications of these findings? The science on the deliberate pursuit of happiness is young, so any prescriptions for happiness must be offered with the caveat that the research is still evolving and conclusions might be subject to change. So far, however, I do have some speculations, based on my research, about how people might more effectively pursue happiness.
First, let go of extreme ways of relating to your happiness. Don’t set the unrealistic goal of feeling positive emotions all—or even most—of the time. Just because you’re striving to experience happiness doesn’t mean you should be striving to feel joy, contentment, gratitude, peace (or any other flavor of positive emotion) every second of the day. This is unrealistic, because life invariably contains hassles and disappointments—and, for many, chronic stress. The negative emotions that arise from negative life events, big or small, are natural and help us better understand ourselves—they provide vital information about what we value and what might need to change in our lives. For instance, feeling a wave of anxiety about your physical health may actually motivate you to improve your dietary habits.
Letting go of wanting to feel happy all the time also encourages less self-consciousness about happiness. This may be helpful because many peak, pleasant experiences, characterized by total absorption in an activity, a phenomenon known as “flow,” are marked by a lack of self-awareness.
Second, reflect on the activities that give you joy or contentment. This thought experiment should be highly personalized. For some, the activities that spark happiness are cooking elaborate meals and attending public lectures. For others, the activities are watching basketball and going to their children’s soccer practices. (If you have trouble coming up with ideas, here are two activities that, research has shown, elicit positive emotions in most people: connecting with a loved one and doing something physically active.)
Finally, once you think of a couple of activities, schedule them into your upcoming week. To ensure that you actually do them, consider transforming the activity into a social obligation. If running is something you enjoy, set up a specific time to go running with a friend, so that you’re more likely to follow through. Repeatedly incorporate these activities into your daily life; they don’t have to assume large blocks of your time. If carving out even 20 minutes each day to read a novel inserts a dose of tranquility into your life, then incorporate this ritual into your daily routine.
The pursuit of happiness is not easy. If people attempt it with unrealistic expectations and too much attention, they risk sabotaging it. But this doesn’t mean you should give up on trying to be happy. It may be more effective to adjust your daily routine so that it includes activities that naturally spark interest or contentment. Seeking happiness, although a delicate art, may still be a worthwhile pursuit.
By Laura Catalino
By Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh
Philosophers, researchers, spiritual leaders—they’ve all debated what makes life worth living. Is it a life filled with happiness or a life filled with purpose and meaning? Is there even a difference between the two? Think of the human rights activist who fights oppression but ends up in prison—is she happy? Or the social animal who spends his nights (and some days) jumping from party to party—is that the good life?
These aren’t just academic questions. They can help us determine where we should invest our energy to lead the life we want.
Recently some researchers have explored these questions in depth, trying to tease apart the differences between a meaningful life and a happy one. Their research suggests there’s more to life than happiness—and even calls into question some previous findings from the field of positive psychology, earning it both a fair amount of press coverage and criticism.
The controversy surrounding it raises big questions about what happiness actually means: While there may be more to life than happiness, there may also be more to “happiness” than pleasure alone.
Five differences between a happy life and a meaningful one
“A happy life and a meaningful life have some differences,” says Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. He bases that claim on a paper he published last year in the Journal of Positive Psychology, co-authored with researchers at the University of Minnesota and Stanford.
Baumeister and his colleagues surveyed 397 adults, looking for correlations between their levels of happiness, meaning, and various other aspects of their lives: their behavior, moods, relationships, health, stress levels, work lives, creative pursuits, and more.
They found that a meaningful life and a happy life often go hand-in-hand—but not always. And they were curious to learn more about the differences between the two. Their statistical analysis tried to separate out what brought meaning to one’s life but not happiness, and what brought happiness but not meaning.
Their findings suggest that meaning (separate from happiness) is not connected with whether one is healthy, has enough money, or feels comfortable in life, while happiness (separate from meaning) is. More specifically, the researchers identified five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful one.
- Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.
- Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them.In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.
- Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.
- Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.
- Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness.
One of the more surprising findings from the study was that giving to others was associated with meaning, rather than happiness, while taking from others was related to happiness and not meaning. Though many researchers have found a connection between giving and happiness, Baumeister argues that this connection is due to how one assigns meaning to the act of giving.
“If we just look at helping others, the simple effect is that people who help others are happier,” says Baumeister. But when you eliminate the effects of meaning on happiness and vice versa, he says, “then helping makes people less happy, so that all the effect of helping on happiness comes by way of increasing meaningfulness.”
Baumeister’s study raises some provocative questions about research in positive psychology that links kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—activity to happiness and well-being. Yet his research has also touched off a debate about what psychologists—and the rest of us—really mean when we talk about happiness.
What is happiness, anyway?
Researchers, just like other people, have disagreed about the definition of “happiness” and how to measure it.
Some have equated happiness with transient emotional states or even spikes of activity in pleasure centers of the brain, while others have asked people to assess their overall happiness or life satisfaction. Some researchers, like Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, have tried to group together these aspects of happiness under the term “subjective well-being,” which encompasses assessments of positive and negative emotions as well as overall life satisfaction. These differences in definitions of happiness have sometimes led to confusing—or even contradictory—findings.
For instance, in Baumeister’s study, familial relationships—like parenting—tended to be tied to meaning more than happiness. Support for this finding comes from researchers like Robin Simon of Wake Forest University, who looked at happiness levels among 1,400 adults and found that parents generally reported less positive emotion and more negative emotions than people without kids. She concluded that, while parents may report more purpose and meaning than nonparents, they are generally less happy than their childless peers.
This conclusion irks happiness researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, who takes issue with studies that “try too hard to rule out everything related to happiness” from their analysis but still draw conclusions about happiness.
“Imagine everything that you think would be great about parenting, or about being a parent,” says Lyubomirsky. “If you control for that—if you take it out of the equation—then of course parents are going to look a lot less happy.”
In a recent study, she and her colleagues measured happiness levels and meaning in parents, both in a “global” way—having them assess their overall happiness and life satisfaction—and while engaged in their daily activities. Results showed that, in general, parents were happier and more satisfied with their lives than non-parents, and parents found both pleasure and meaning in childcare activities, even in the very moments when they were engaged in those activities.
“Being a parent leads to all of these good things: It gives you meaning in life, it gives you goals to pursue, it can make you feel more connected in your relationships,” says Lyubomirsky. “You can’t really talk about happiness without including all of them.”
Lyubomirsky feels that researchers who try to separate meaning and happiness may be on the wrong track, because meaning and happiness are inseparably intertwined.
“When you feel happy, and you take out the meaning part of happiness, it’s not really happiness,” she says.
Yet this is basically how Baumeister and his colleagues defined happiness for the purpose of their study. So although the study referred to “happiness,” says Lyubomirsky, perhaps it was actually looking at something more like “hedonic pleasure”—the part of happiness that involves feeling good without the part that involves deeper life satisfaction.
Is there happiness without pleasure?
But is it ever helpful to separate out meaning from pleasure?
Some researchers have taken to doing that by looking at what they call “eudaimonic happiness,” or the happiness that comes from meaningful pursuits, and “hedonic happiness”—the happiness that comes from pleasure or goal fulfillment.
A recent study by Steven Cole of the UCLA School of Medicine, and Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that people who reported more eudaimonic happiness had stronger immune system function than those who reported more hedonic happiness, suggesting that a life of meaning may be better for our health than a life seeking pleasure.
Similarly, a 2008 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies reports several positive health effects that have been associated with eudaimonic happiness, including less reactivity to stress, less insulin resistance (which means less chance of developing diabetes), higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, better sleep, and brain activity patterns that have been linked to decreased levels of depression.
But happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn thinks the distinction between eudaimonic and hedonic happiness is murky.
“I think it’s a distinction that intuitively makes a lot of sense but doesn’t actually hold up under the lens of science,” says Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
Dunn has authored numerous studies showing that giving to others increases happiness, both in the moment, as measured by positive emotions alone, and in terms of overall life satisfaction. In a recently published paper, she and her colleagues surveyed data from several countries and found supporting evidence for this connection, including findings that showed subjects randomly assigned to buy items for charity reported higher levels of positive emotion—a measure of hedonic happiness—than participants assigned to buy the same items for themselves, even when the spending did not build or strengthen social ties.
“I think my own work really supports the idea that eudaimonic and hedonic well-being are surprisingly similar and aren’t as different as one might expect,” says Dunn. “To say that there’s one pathway to meaning, and that it’s different than the pathway to pleasure, is false.”
Like Lyubomirsky, she insists that meaning and happiness go hand-in-hand. She points to the work of researchers who’ve found that positive emotions can help establish deeper social ties—which many argue is the most meaningful part of life—and to University of Missouri psychologist Laura King’s research, which found that feeling positive emotions helps people see the “big picture” and notice patterns, which can help one aim for more meaningful pursuits and interpret one’s experience as meaningful.
In addition, she argues that the measurements used to distinguish eudaimonic from hedonic happiness are too highly correlated to separate out in this way—statistically speaking, doing so can make your results unreliable.
As University of Pennsylvania psychologist James Coyne—according to Dunn, a statistical “hardhead”—wrote in a 2013 blog post, trying to distinguish eudaimonic well-being by controlling for hedonic well-being and other factors leaves you with something that’s not really eudaimonia at all. He compares it to taking a photo of siblings who look alike, removing everything that makes them resemble each other, and then still calling the photos representative of the siblings.
“If we were talking about people, we probably couldn’t even recognize a family resemblance between the two,” he writes.
In other words, just because it’s statistically possible to remove the influence of one variable on another doesn’t mean that what you end up with is something meaningfully distinct.
“If you parcel out meaning from happiness, the happiness factor may go away,” says Dunn. “But, in terms of people’s daily experience, is it actually the case that people face genuine tradeoffs between happiness and meaning? I don’t think so.”
Can you have it all?
Baumeister, though, clearly believes it is useful to make distinctions between meaning and happiness—in part to encourage more people to seek meaningful pursuits in life whether or not doing so makes them feel happy. Still, he recognizes that the two are closely tied.
“Having a meaningful life contributes to being happy and being happy may also contribute to finding life more meaningful,” he says. “I think that there’s evidence for both of those.”
But one piece of warning: If you are aiming strictly for a life of hedonic pleasure, you may be on the wrong path to finding happiness. “For centuries, traditional wisdom has been that simply seeking pleasure for its own sake doesn’t really make you happy in the long run,” he says.
In fact, seeking happiness without meaning would probably be a stressful, aggravating, and annoying proposition, argues Baumeister.
Instead, when aspiring to a well-lived life, it might make more sense to look for things you find meaningful—deep relationships, altruism, and purposeful self-expression, for example—than to look for pleasure alone… even if pleasure augments one’s sense of meaning, as King suggests.
“Work toward long-term goals; do things that society holds in high regard—for achievement or moral reasons,” he says. “You draw meaning from a larger context, so you need to look beyond yourself to find the purpose in what you’re doing.”
Chances are that you’ll also find pleasure—and happiness—along the way.