The Tragic Meaning of Life


“Our life is a hope which is continually converting itself into memory and memory in its turn begets hope.” ― Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life

Happiness and a meaningful life are important features of a desirable life and they are indeed highly interrelated. Yet, they are not exactly the same. In the paper “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life“, the authors investigate the different roots and implications of happiness and meaningfulness, to conclude that there is more to life than being happy:

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning

Happiness Meaninfulness-Dispersion

Happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness is linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Happiness is about the present, whereas meaningfulness is about linking past, present, and future together(1)

Meaningfulness may be considerably more complex than happiness, because it requires interpretive construction of circumstances across time according to abstract values and other culturally mediated ideas.

The “parenthood paradox” illustrates the conflict between being happy and having a meaningful life. Most people want to be happy and want to become parents: they associate parenthood with personal fulfilment. But parenthood often requires downplaying the self and devoting oneself to caring for the children, which in turn means less happiness.

The authors conclude that it is perfectly possible to have a highly meaningful life that is not necessarily a happy one(*) (e.g., as a religious missionary, political activist, or even terrorist). They construct a statistical portrait of a life that is highly meaningful but relatively low in happiness:

It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others, and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.

Miguel de Unamuno would have happily underwritten the conclusions of this study


(*) The opposite is also true

(1) Researchers asked a sample of 397 adults (68% female; ages 18-78; M = 35.5 years old; 48.1% were parents) whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Figure shows partial correlations. Adapted from tables 1-5 in the paper cited.

Featured Image: Paul Gauguin, D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous (Where Do We Come From/What Are We/Where Are We Going)


  1. Love Unamuno! So much, in fact, that my blog name comes from Unamuno’s book, “Tragic Sense of Life.” Anacephalaeosis means “a recapitulation or summary of the facts in a situation or argument.”

    Here is the quote that rocked me out of a malaisey daze (p. 185, Tragic Sense of Life):

    “The apocatastasis, God’s coming to be all in all, thus resolves itself into the anacefaleosis [sic], the gathering together of all things in Christ, in Humanity—Humanity therefore being the end of creation.”

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