Happiness or Meaning…Your Choice

Happiness or Meaning…Your Choice

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence ends with the words life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness was clearly top of mind in 1776 and remains so today. But what’s the distinction between pursuing happiness and having a life of meaning?

The verb pursuing means chasing, seeking, or going after something. There is a huge difference of course between pursuing something and achieving or experiencing something.


Psychologists generally group together certain transient aspects of happiness under the term “subjective well-being.” This encompasses broad overall life satisfaction with health, wealth, safety, and security.

Within our financial lives, the pursuit of happiness is usually front and center. If we could just have more money, we would be happy; if we just had a bigger house, we would be happy; if we could afford that fancy car, we would be happy.

Research has shown, however, that chasing happiness can actually lead to unhappiness. The constant searching and seeking without ever achieving happiness makes us anxious and adrift.


Even worse, actually practicing happiness can lead to emptiness unless that leads to meaning. Meaning is outward facing, (think about taking a picture of something, not a selfie), instead of inward facing and always involves others. This is why we ask clients about those that they care about and want to protect. More money won’t do it alone. Money has to have a purpose; money has to have meaning.

The distinction between pursuing happiness and experiencing a meaningful life can be huge. One of the key components of this transition can be found in the stories that we tell about ourselves. Our personal narratives aren’t just random memories, they can be fuel for happiness and meaning. Unfortunately, sometimes these narratives become roadblocks to finding meaning.


Northwestern University psychologist Dr. Dan McAdams studies the field known as “narrative identity.” He describes our inner narratives as our personal myths. Like other types of myths, our narrative identity has good and bad, big events, challenges and victories. McAdams explains that we make “narrative choices” that are interpretations of what’s important and what’s left out. Our personal beliefs and values largely determine this mix.

Professor McAdams breaks out our personal narratives into two categories: contamination stories and redemption stories. We all have heard both of these many times.

Contamination stories basically start out fine but then something bad and ugly rears its head. This crucial event tilts the story from mostly good to mostly bad. These folks reside in a land of anxiousness and sometimes depression.

Redemption stories start out good but again hit a big bump in the road. The key difference is this event proves to be a catalyst for change and growth. These people see their challenges as positive and this provides them with a unique perspective.

McAdams has found that individuals who have a redemption narrative are more in control of their lives and move through obstacles into mostly good outcomes. From a financial planning perspective, this feeling of being aware and in control of your future has enormous value. Start there. Ready for a real conversation?