Meaning and Well-being
Feeling like you have meaning in your life is so deeply entangled with your well-being. Every which way it’s been measured – and the ways are many – a positive correlation is found.
Having a higher sense of meaning in your life is associated with higher self-esteem (Ryff, 1989), self-worth (O’Conner & Vallerand, 1998), self-actualization (Phillips, Watkins, & Noll, 1974), a sense of personal control over one’s life (Ryff, 1989), lower levels of perceived stress (Flannery & Flannery, 1990), higher autonomy (Church et al., 2014), positive relationships with others (Church et al., 2014), competence (Church et al., 2014), extraversion (e.g., Pearson & Sheffield, 1974), conscientiousness (e.g., Steger et al., 2008), health (Battersby & Phillips, 2016), longer life (Boyle, Barnes, Buchman, & Bennett, 2009), more effective coping (Debats, Drost, & Hansen, 1995), more experiencing of positive emotions (Chamberlain & Zika, 1988), more experiencing of love, joy, vitality (Steger et al., 2006), more curiosity (Kashdan & Steger, 2007), more hope (Mascaro & Rosen, 2005), more happiness in general (Debats, van der Lubbe, & Wezeman, 1993), general well-being (Reker, 2002), psychological adjustment (O’Conner & Vallerand, 1998), and overall life satisfaction (Ryff, 1989).
Those who feel they have meaning in their life are more likely to say that they not only have survived trauma and tragedy but even have grown psychologically, spiritually, or socially as a result of those experiences (Steger, Frazier, & Zacchanini, 2008).
Not to be outdone, lack of meaning can have negative consequences as well. Negative correlations have been replicated between meaning and well-being, including: negative emotions (Diener, 1984), depression (e.g., Keyes, 2002), anxiety (e.g., Keyes, 2002), stress (e.g., Keyes, 2002), hopelessness (Edwards & Holden, 2001), neuroticism (e.g., DeViva et al., 2016), substance use problems (Nicholson et al., 1994), and suicidality (Henry et al., 2014).
People who get their meaning from self-centered or materialistic sources are less happy and experience less meaning than people who get their meaning from self-transcendent and altruistic sources (Schnell, 2009).
What is Meaning in Life?
Okay, so we’ve established that meaning is important to happiness in a bunch of ways. But what do we mean by “meaning in life”?
Psychology isn’t concerned with discovering the philosophical meaning OF life. In contrast, psychology cares about whether a person feels that there is meaning IN their life. This is a personal pursuit. Not one that is bestowed upon you, but rather, one you bestow upon yourself.
Viktor Frankl, a very influential psychologist in the category of meaning-driven well-being, argued that there is some kind of meaning out there for each of us, and that our primary job was to discover it and give it life. (Frankl, 1963)
The most common sources of meaning are the relationships we connect with and the types of activities we are engaged in (Steger et al., 2013). Meaning in our lives emerges from the web of connections, interpretations, aspirations, and evaluations that demonstrate three attributes to us (Steger, 2012, p. 177, Martela & Steger, 2016, p.538):
- (1) Comprehension (also known as coherence) – We are able to make our experiences comprehensible. In other words, we can make sense of our lives.
- (2) Purpose – We feel we can determine a broader purpose for our lives. We can direct our efforts toward our desired future.
- (3) Significance – We feel a sense that our lives matter and are worthwhile.
What is this for you? What helps you find comprehension, purpose, and significance in the world? And more importantly, are you living it? Are you true to your meaning? Because now you’re aware of the consequences of if you’re not.
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- Frankl, V.E. (1963). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press.
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- Pearson, P. R., & Sheffield, B. F. (1974). Purpose-in-life and the Eysenck Personality Inventory. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 30, 562-564.
- Phillips, W. M., Watkins, J. T., & Noll, G. (1974). Self-actualization, self-transcendence, and personal philosophy. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 14, 53-73.
- Reker, G. T. (2002). Prospective predictors of successful aging in community-residing and institutionalized Canadian elderly. Ageing International, 27, 42-64.
- Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 57(6), 1069. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1689
- Schnell, T. (2009). The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe): Relations to demographics and well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 483-499.
- Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53 (1), 80–93. doi:10.1037/0022-022.214.171.124
- Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., & Zacchanini, J. L. (2008). Terrorism in two cultures: Traumatization and existential protective factors following the September 11th attacks and the Madrid train bombings. Journal of Trauma and Loss, 13, 511-527.