Having a sense of meaning is less important for your happiness if you’re rich

By Emily Reynolds

Searching for meaning is something many of us experience throughout our lives: finding something to strive for that gives shape, direction, and purpose to the things we choose to do. For some, this meaning is religious; some political; some interpersonal. And having a sense of meaning can bring us happiness (or, if we lack meaning, unhappiness).

A new study to be published in Emotion looks at the relationship between meaning and happiness in the context of financial resources. Rhia Catapano from the University of Toronto and colleagues find that meaning is a far weaker predictor of happiness for rich people than poorer people — suggesting economic resources can impact how we experience meaning.

The team analysed data from over 500,000 people across 123 countries. The first study used data from a daily poll of US residents collected between 2013 and 2015. Wellbeing was tracked using measures of positive affect — whether, during the day before they were surveyed, participants had smiled or laughed a lot, experienced a lot of enjoyment, or experienced a lot of happiness.

Meaning was measured through a daily “purpose index”, which explored the extent to which participants felt that they like what they do every day and are motivated to achieve their goals. (Though this may be more accurately described as a measure of purpose than meaning, the team note that the terms are somewhat interchangeable in this part of the study). Finally, income levels were assessed.

The results showed that the correlation between meaning and happiness was strongest among those in lower income brackets. But as income levels increased, the correlation became weaker: in other words, having a sense of meaning or purpose was not as good a predictor of happiness among those with a higher income.  

The second study looked at worldwide data. Happiness was measured using the same questions as in the first study, while meaning was measured using the single question: “Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?”. Again, the strength of the relationship between meaning and happiness depended on participants’ income: meaning had a greater influence on happiness for those on lower incomes compared to those in higher brackets.

In the final study, French participants indicated the extent to which they felt they led a purposeful and meaningful life and how much they considered themselves a happy person. Finally, rather than using specific income brackets, they placed themselves on a “social ladder” representing where they stand in society with regard to wealth, education, and career. The results from this study replicated the first two.

So, overall, meaning and happiness had a stronger relationship in those with fewer resources than those with more. This might be the case because richer individuals have more access to other sources of happiness — many of which will be external, like lack of stress or community. Thus, a focus on an internal sense of satisfaction, purpose or meaning is less important. Future research could explore the relationship more fully, and look at how happiness impacts meaning as well as vice versa.

The team also notes the higher levels of depression and anxiety in people in lower income brackets and suggests that focusing on meaning may be one way of improving mental health. It’s crucial not to avoid the structural factors involved here, however: designing interventions that focus on meaning are not going to alleviate systemic injustices many people on low incomes face.

Financial Resources Impact the Relationship between Meaning and Happiness

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest