Meaning, beliefs and happiness

This page last updated June 13th, 2016

This page in brief ….

Wealthier countries might seem to have it all. But they also have higher suicide rates. It turns out that wealthier countries are also less religious, religion is one of the main ways people find meaning in life, and lack of meaning is more likely to lead to suicide.

Altruism, working for a cause, and religious belief all provide meaning in life, and so add to wellbeing and satisfaction in life. Hedonism and seeking happiness selfishly ultimately fail to make us happy and content.

Do happy people commit suicide?

You would think that people in the wealthier and more developed countries would generally be happier than those living in harder circumstances. And this is so, to some degree at least. We have better health and longevity, most of us have material security and greater opportunity to choose our path in life.

And yet countries with higher GDP also have higher suicide rates.

So if we’re so happy, why are we more likely to end it all? There must be other factors.

Pleasure, happiness and wellbeing

Pleasure is a short term feeling and very dependent on circumstances. It makes us happy for a while, but we need more for our lives to be truly happy.

Wellbeing is a more holistic concept, encompassing health, happiness, peace of mind and purpose. In the end, wellbeing is what we all need.

Meaning in life

Meaning is sometimes described as having something in life that is “bigger” than self, a direction or purpose. Feeling like we belong to some larger group or have something to contribute to society are aspects of having meaning in life.

Suicide and meaning

It turns out that societies that have higher suicide rates, tend to be ones with lower sense of meaning. It has been suggested that wealthy societies are more materialistic; they place greater value on wealth and possessions and tend to encourage focus on oneself and not so much on others, which reduces the sense of purpose and meaning.

Meaning in life is important for wellbeing

Victor Frankl, who survived Nazi prison camps in World War 2, observed that meaning was an important factor in determining who survived and who succumbed in the camps, for having meaning made people more resilient to suffering.

Modern research has confirmed this; meaning in life appears to be an important player in people’s (and nations’) mental health and recent research shows that playing an important role in a community, or contributing to the well-being of others, is what gives life meaning.

Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.

So what gives our lives meaning?

Meaning comes from being motivated by something “bigger” than ourselves, and this can come via many different sources.

Givers vs takers

Research has shown that being a ‘taker’, someone who seeks to satisfy themselves, can give a person pleasure and even make them happy for a while, but ‘giving’ behaviour is more likely to give life meaning and lead to a satisfied life and wellbeing.

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,

Givers are more likely to:

  • be generous
  • enjoy socialising
  • be viewed positively by other people
  • work for a cause such as the environment, a political belief, social welfare, etc (whether it be paid or vulunteer work)
  • help other people

Religious belief and meaning

Religious belief tends to be greatest in poorer countries, and least in richer countries. But suicide is directly (and inversely) related to religious belief because religious belief provides meaning, and loss of religious belief leads to loss of meaning. Other factors have been examined, but religion is the key one.

It isn’t yet clear why wealth leads to less religion and hence less meaning, but it seems likely that materialism leads us to focus more on ourselves whereas religion leads us to focus outside ourselves, both on God and on helping people.


Altruism, working for a cause, and religious belief all provide meaning in life, and so add to wellbeing and satisfaction in life. Hedonism and seeking happiness selfishly ultimately fail to make us happy and content.

These are not just the views of religious moralists, but are the findings of eminent psychological researchers.

Photo Credit: mynameisharsha via Compfight cc.

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