A meaningful life is a broad term encompassing a varied number of definitions having to do with the pursuit of life satisfaction. Meaning can be defined as the connection linking two presumably independent entities together. While the specific theories vary, there are two common aspects: a global way to understand one's life and the belief that life itself is meaningful. Those possessing a sense of meaning are generally found to have lower levels of negative emotions and lower risk of mental illness. With the stated goal of positive psychology to foster thriving in individuals and render a more fulfilling life, the interest of positive psychology is no longer to treat those with disorders or illnesses but to make a normal person's life more fulfilling and for the non-disordered individual to flourish. Thus the act of seeking a meaningful life goes hand-in-hand with positive psychology's mission statement.
Major theoretical approaches
Historically the study of meaningfulness in life has taken three routes. Victor Frankl's work emphasized finding value in an individual's life in order to attain meaningfulness. "Value" would be further subcategorized into three main areas: creative, experiential, and attitudinal. Creative values are reached through acts of creating or producing something. Experiential values are actualized when a person experiences something through sight, touch, smell, or hearing. Finally, attitudinal values are reserved for individuals who cannot, for one reason or another, have new experiences or create new things. Thus they find meaning through adopting a new attitude that allows "suffering with dignity". For all of these classes of values, it is because of one's sense of responsibility that one pursues these values and consequently experiences a meaningful life. It is through the realization that one is the sole being responsible for rendering life meaningful that values are actualized and life becomes meaningful.
Ernest Becker studied meaningfulness and its relationship to culture. According to Becker, a human's consciousness makes them aware of their own mortality. In order to deal with their inevitable death, humans attempt to leave their mark in some symbolic act of immortality within the structured society, otherwise known as "Terror Management Theory". The structure created through society and culture provides humans with a sense of order. Through the structured society we are able to create a symbolic immortality which can take various forms, e.g., monuments, theatrical productions, children, etc. Culture's order reduces death anxiety as it allows the individual to live up to the societal standards and in living up to such ideals; one is given self-esteem which counterbalances the mortal anxiety.
Finally, Snyder examined the previous theories and operationalized meaningfulness as having more to do with self-control that leads to higher self-esteem. As one lives by societal standards of living, one exercises self-control and it is through this self-control that higher self-esteem is achieved. Meaning is found when one realizes that one is capable and able to effectively achieve their goals through successful management. Furthermore, Snyder specified control as: "a cognitive model whereby people strive to comprehend the contingencies in their lives so as to attain desired outcomes and avoid undesirable ones". From this feeling of control, meaningfulness is achieved when one feels able to effectively live his/her life and achieve goals.
Currently, the meaningfulness theory postulates that meaningfulness is a subjective evaluation of how meaningful one's life is for that person. Furthermore, meaningfulness is actualized through positive functioning, satisfaction with life, the enjoyment of work, happiness, positive affect and hope. Meaningfulness can also be translated into physical health and a generalized well-being. Baumeister posits that meaningfulness is found through four needs for meaning: sense of purpose, efficacy, value and a sense of positive self-worth.
Major empirical findings
A study done by Stillman et al. (2009) found that social exclusion results in a perceived loss of meaningfulness in life. Furthermore, the four needs for meaning (sense of purpose, efficacy, value and sense of positive self-worth) were found to be mediators in the perception of meaningfulness of life. When an individual thinks themself to be socially excluded, one's sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth are all indirectly diminished.
Bower, Kemeny, Taylor and Fahey (1998) found an association between the discovery of meaning and a lower rate of AIDS-related mortality. This was the first study in which the findings appear to not be mediated by health behaviors or other potential confounds. The study looked at HIV-seropositive men who had recently witnessed the death of a close friend from AIDS-related death. When confronted with the stress of such a death those men, who were able to find meaning in the loss, were subject to less rapid declines in CD4 T cell levels. Furthermore, the subjects who went through cognitive processing in response to the bereavement were more likely to find meaning in the death of the close friend. Thus in experiencing a stressful life event if one is able to engage successfully in finding meaning there is a potential link to positive immunological benefits and health outcomes.
A meaningful life is associated with positive functioning: life satisfaction, enjoyment of work, happiness, general positive affect, hope and in general a higher level of well-being.
McAdams (1993) found that people tended to construct stories as a way to understand life events. A life story is a way to impose meaning on life thus connecting [via explanation] the individual to the event.
Psychological adjustment in the event of a stressor has been linked with meanings finding whether in the form of benefit seeking or making sense of the loss. In terms of how meaning is manifested, making sense of the loss seems to be more important earlier on in the adjustment process after the loss whereas perceiving the benefit may be a more long term process that occurs over time with the greatest benefit usually experienced later on (Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema & Larson, 1998).
The conception of what constitutes meaning also differs depending on the researcher. Also, there is no clear-cut route to make meaning in life. There have been studies showing correlations between meaningfulness in life and other aspects but there has been no explanation as to what specifically causes some people to make meaning and others not.
While there are benefits to making meaning out of life, there is still not one definitive way in which one can establish such a meaning. Those who were successful in creating a meaningful life enjoyed benefits such as higher levels of positive affect, life satisfaction, etc. When faced with a stressful life situation, finding meaning is shown to help adjustment. Meaningfulness in life is intrinsically related to positive psychology's goal to expand the good life for the normal non-disordered person. It is with a meaningful life that one is able to find connections to people, places, things and leave a mark on society; it renders a good life a meaningful one.
- Lopez, ed. by C. R. Snyder; Shane J.; Baumeister, R.F.; Vohs, K.D. (2002). "The Pursuit of Meaningfulness in Life". Handbook of positive psychology. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. pp. 608–618. ISBN 0195135334.
- Feldman, David B.; Snyder, C. R. (1 May 2005). "Hope and the Meaningful Life: Theoretical and Empirical Associations Between Goal–Directed Thinking and Life Meaning". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 24 (3): 401–421. doi:10.1521/jscp.24.3.401.65616.
- Becker, Ernest (1972). Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man. [S.l.]: Free Press of Glencoe. ISBN 0029021901.
- Stillman, TF; Baumeister, RF; Lambert, NM; Crescioni, AW; Dewall, CN; Fincham, FD (Jul 2009). "Alone and Without Purpose: Life Loses Meaning Following Social Exclusion.". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 45 (4): 686–694. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.03.007. PMID 20161218.
- Baumeister, Roy F.; Wilson, Brenda (1 October 1996). "Life Stories and the Four Need for Meaning". Psychological Inquiry. 7 (4): 322–325. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0704_2.
- Bower, JE; Kemeny, ME; Taylor, SE; Fahey, JL (Dec 1998). "Cognitive processing, discovery of meaning, CD4 decline, and AIDS-related mortality among bereaved HIV-seropositive men.". Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 66 (6): 979–86. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.66.6.979. PMID 9874911.
- McAdams, Dan P. (1996). The stories we live by : personal myths and the making of the self (5., 6. print. ed.). New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 1572301880.
- Davis, CG; Nolen-Hoeksema, S; Larson, J (Aug 1998). "Making sense of loss and benefiting from the experience: two construals of meaning.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75 (2): 561–74. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111. PMID 9731325.