People often differentiate between two key aspects of a good life: pleasure (feeling good and enjoying oneself) and meaning (doing something valuable and worthwhile). These sometimes feel like opposing pursuits. Often, doing something meaningful requires struggling and enduring discomfort, whereas relaxing and enjoying oneself, although pleasant, might not seem like an especially meaningful thing to do.

Yet, research suggests that the opposition between pleasure and meaning may not be so stark. Studies have found that when people prioritize activities that they find meaningful (e.g., helping others or developing their talents), they often end up feeling good about themselves and what they have accomplished. But is the reverse also possible? That is, could pleasant experiences lead to a greater sense of meaning in life?

My colleagues and I hypothesized that certain specific kinds of pleasant experiences could increase meaning. In particular, we focused on co-experienced positivity—the kind of pleasure that arises when people connect and feel "in sync" with others. These states can arise in intimate moments among family and loved ones, but also in friendly banter and shared laughter among coworkers.

We speculated that, because of their socially embedded and self-transcendent character, such moments might feel inherently meaningful in ways that solitary pleasant experiences do not. Also, over the longer term, moments of co-experienced positivity are the building blocks of high-quality relationships. Past research has found that good relationships are crucial to a person's sense of meaning in life. So, this might be another way in which co-experienced positivity could enhance a person's sense of meaning.

We tested these hypotheses in four studies. Participants—including college students, local community members, and adults from across the United States—reported on how much they experienced moments of shared pleasantness in their social interactions and how meaningful their lives were. In three observational studies, ranging from 5 weeks to 18 months, we found that people who have more moments of co-experienced positivity tend to feel a greater sense of meaning in life. Also, when people experience more shared positivity than usual for them, they feel a stronger sense of meaning in life than usual.

In a fourth study, we randomly assigned participants to different groups. Some participants were encouraged to seek out high-quality social interactions during the following month. A comparison group did not receive this encouragement.  Relative to the comparison group, participants who sought high-quality interactions experienced more moments of co-experienced positivity which, in turn, led to improvements in their relationships and a greater sense of meaning in life.

This research indicates that, when co-experienced with others, pleasant states can foster a person's sense of meaning in life. It seems that the relationship between pleasure and meaning is not as antagonistic as it might appear. Pleasure and a sense of meaning in life seem to be mutually reinforcing aspects of psychological health and, more generally, a well-lived life.

So, the next time you find yourself waiting in line at the store or chatting with a colleague, see if you can create a moment of positive connection with someone. You may find the interaction surprisingly meaningful.

For Further Reading

Prinzing, M., Le Nguyen, K., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2023). Does shared positivity make life more meaningful? Perceived positivity resonance is uniquely associated with perceived meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 125(2), 345–366.

Huta, V., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). Pursuing pleasure or virtue: The differential and overlapping well-being benefits of hedonic and eudaimonic motives. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11(6), 735–762.

Titova, L., & Sheldon, K. M. (2022). Happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 17(3), 341–355.

Michael Prinzing is currently a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University. He is also a Consulting Research Scientist for the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he completed his PhD in 2022. Michael's research focuses on what it means to live a good life, and how we might help each other to live better lives.