The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for thousands of years. Aristotle wrote that finding happiness and fulfillment is achieved “by loving rather than in being loved.” According to the psychologist Carol Ryff, who reviewed the writings of numerous philosophers throughout history, relationships with others are “a central feature of a positive, well-lived life.”
Yet today many of us seem to be struggling to find meaning by gathering up achievements, spending so much time at work that we’re cut off from other people.
Are we headed down the wrong path? New research is providing more and more evidence that kind and helpful behavior causes us to feel that our lives are meaningful, and discovering what we can do to reap those benefits.
Often, psychologists have distinguished between two types of well-being: hedonic well-being (a sense of happiness) and eudaimonic well-being (a sense of meaning and purpose). Although happiness and meaning overlap significantly, researchers suspected that helping others is especially crucial to developing a sense of meaning.
A recent study by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University sought to investigate this and other differences between happiness and meaning. In a survey of over 300 participants, the researchers looked for traits and behaviors that were related to happiness (but not meaningfulness) and vice versa. The researchers found that having strong social connections was important for both happiness and meaningfulness. However, helping others in need and identifying oneself as a “giver” in relationships were related to meaning alone.
Baumeister points out that a meaningful life is different for everyone (since the cultural messages we have been exposed to can impact what we see as meaningful). However, the research on meaning in life points to one factor that appears to be important for all of us: developing high-quality relationships.
But does behaving in a kind and helpful way (“prosocially”) actually cause us to feel that our lives have more meaning? While it may seem intuitive that helping others goes along with a meaningful life, it’s possible to imagine a variety of different explanations for this: Perhaps those who feel like their lives have meaning are more motivated to help others, or perhaps some other factor (for example, being religious) causes people to be helpful and experience more meaning in their life.
A recent article published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues sought to examine this relationship. In a preliminary study, the researchers asked over 400 participants to report on how frequently they engage in different altruistic behaviors (such as volunteering) and how meaningful their life feels. Participants who were more altruistic reported a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.