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Meaning and Happiness: What’s ‘Good for Thee’ Is Not Necessarily ‘Good for Me’

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In psychology, happiness can be defined in multiple ways. One popular approach is to distinguish between two forms of happiness: eudemonic (happiness derived from meaning or purpose) and hedonic (happiness derived from pleasure and enjoyment). Different studies involving happiness generally include measures that assess aspects of one or both types of happiness.  

So, happiness, at a broad level, involves both meaning and pleasure. But how we pursue meaning can vary. On the one hand, we can derive meaning from pursuits (such as work) that benefit others (such as having a job in a helping profession or volunteering our time to serve others). On the other hand, we can derive meaning from pursuits that benefit us (such as achievements, growth, and even hedonic pleasures). But are there differences in how much meaning we derive from pursuits that benefit others versus those that benefit us? And how do these different types of pursuits relate to our sense of happiness? 

Both questions were the focus of a series of studies published in 2022. The researchers assessed the value that people place on self-transcendence (pursuits that benefit others) and on self-enhancement (pursuits that benefit us) as it relates to meaning and happiness. But the studies didn’t focus strictly on people’s appraisals as they related to their own work and other pursuits. They also examined the way people viewed these issues as a third party (judgements made about others). 

How they viewed meaning and happiness as a function of self-transcendence and self-enhancement varied as to whether their reference point was other people or themselves.  

When it came to meaning: 

  • For other people, they viewed self-transcendence (benefits to others) as more important than self-enhancement (benefits to the self). 
  • For themselves, they viewed self-transcendence to be equally as important as self-enhancement. 

When it came to happiness: 

  • For other people, they viewed self-transcendence to be equally as important as self-enhancement.  
  • For themselves, they viewed self-transcendence as less important than self-enhancement. 

In other words, where other people were concerned, there was a stronger emphasis on self-transcendence (societal benefit) but where they were concerned, there was a stronger emphasis on self-enhancement (personal benefit). This trend occurred across both general ratings and recommendations made for how to improve meaning and happiness.  

Thus, the results suggest that there is a bias toward societal benefit when it comes to making attributions and recommendations to others but a bias toward self-enhancement when it comes to oneself. This could partially be explained by the fact that when speaking about a generic other person, we have limited insight. We are working more within the confines of our own assumptions, so we default to the expectation that activities and jobs that benefit others are useful ways to improve meaning and happiness.  

But when it comes to us, we have much more context with which to work. We have a more personalized assessment that is less based on generic assumptions and more based on our idiosyncratic preferences, wants, and needs. And so, we tend to default to our own self-enhancement. 

In some ways, this may represent a form of naïve realism, where we rely on one frame of reference for making assessments of others and a different frame of reference when making assessments about ourselves. This, of course, is speculation and outside the scope of the study’s results, but it may offer an avenue for further research.   


Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD is a professor and director of strategic research at the School for Professional Studies at Saint Louis University.

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