Sustainability and happiness

I’d like to dedicate today’s post on the difference between happiness and meaningfulness. When you’re trying to change something and create a positive impact, it’s vitally important that you don’t just enjoy what you’re doing, you have to love what you’re doing. Loving your work gives you the energy you need to take the leap to shift from making incremental changes towards radical improvement (Steve Farber wrote about this process in his wonderful book ‘The Radical Leap‘). It’s easy to misinterpret this love for what you’re doing with being happy. I’ve been writing about happiness on this blog on several occasions (for example here and here), and even though happiness is extremely important, it’s not the driver for this leap of faith.

Last week I read this very interesting article on Stanford news about the differences between living a happy life and living a meaningful live. Both lives overlap, but there are some very important differences to be found:

“Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker.” – Jennifer Aaker



Getting what you want and need Expressing and defining yourself
Present Linking the past, present and future
Variety of relationships Deep relationships
Low stresslevel High stresslevel

“The unhappy but meaningful life involves difficult undertakings and can be characterized by stress, struggle and challenges. However, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society.

Aaker points out that this type of life has received less attention in the media, which has recently focused on how to cultivate the happy life.”

When you link this list with a list by John R. Ehrenfeld I posted on this blog before, it’s strange to see how Ehrenfeld’s unsustainable world is much more closely related to the happiness side of this table, and the sustainable world is more about meaningfulness. It might be interesting to analyze whether or not our quest (as human beings) for happiness is slowly destroying our planet, and (if so) how we can change our focus from happiness towards meaningfulness.

“Happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided, the report noted.

And so, the meaningful life guides actions from the past through the present to the future, giving one a sense of direction. It offers ways to value good and bad alike, and gives us justifications for our aspirations. From achieving our goals to regarding ourselves in a positive light, a life of meaningfulness is considerably different than mere happiness.

“People have strong inner desires that shape their lives with purpose and focus – qualities that ultimately make for a uniquely human experience,” said Aaker.”


About leyssensjan

Jan Leyssens is a designer and entrepreneur who strongly believes you can’t turn sustainability into a positive story if your main focus is on negative impact. When designing, he is always looking for the overlap between activism and entrepreneurship, technology and community. His main expertise lies in strategic business model development, Circular Economy, the makermovement, and social innovation. With a background in Industrial Design, Jan quickly shifted his focus towards business design and using the design process in strategic management. Jan is the father of two kids and founder & CEO of Regenerative Design, co-founder of Full Circle, ImpactBoost, and the Circular Design map, podcaster, storyteller, and changemaker.


  1. This is an interesting piece – although I would question whether happiness is the right term to use, as I’m not sure one can be truly happy without meaning. Also, I’m intrigued that a meaningful life is characterised as high stress – I think a lot of stress in the modern world comes from doing tasks that feel futile and pointless, rather than from the volume of work required. Perhaps it’s harder work to have a meaningful life, but ultimately less stressful because it feels like positive work?

  2. Interesting piece! Happiness is 50% genetics, 10% circumstances, 40% intentional activity. I would say that the quest to happiness is the western paradigm is shallowly addressed (to the 10%) and leads to destroying our planet. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” If you want to live a meaningful life you’ll learn that pain is part of the process of creating change (and experience high levels of stress). If you only want to be happy, you’ll avoid pain

    If you wish to be happy for one hour, get drunk.
    If you wish to be happy for three days, get married.
    If you wish to be happy for a month, kill your pig and eat it.
    If you wish to be happy forever, learn to fish.
    — Chinese Proverb

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