Having a sense of Meaning in life is Good for you — So how do you get one?

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There’s a high degree of overlap between experiencing happiness and meaning.
Shutterstock/KieferPix


Lisa A Williams, UNSW

The pursuit of happiness and health is a popular endeavour, as the preponderance of self-help books would attest.

Yet it is also fraught. Despite ample advice from experts, individuals regularly engage in activities that may only have short-term benefit for well-being, or even backfire.

The search for the heart of well-being – that is, a nucleus from which other aspects of well-being and health might flow – has been the focus of decades of research. New findings recently reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences point towards an answer commonly overlooked: meaning in life.

Meaning in life: part of the well-being puzzle?

University College London’s psychology professor Andrew Steptoe and senior research associate Daisy Fancourt analysed a sample of 7,304 UK residents aged 50+ drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

Survey respondents answered a range of questions assessing social, economic, health, and physical activity characteristics, including:

…to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Follow-up surveys two and four years later assessed those same characteristics again.

One key question addressed in this research is: what advantage might having a strong sense of meaning in life afford a few years down the road?

The data revealed that individuals reporting a higher meaning in life had:

  • lower risk of divorce
  • lower risk of living alone
  • increased connections with friends and engagement in social and cultural activities
  • lower incidence of new chronic disease and onset of depression
  • lower obesity and increased physical activity
  • increased adoption of positive health behaviours (exercising, eating fruit and veg).

On the whole, individuals with a higher sense of meaning in life a few years earlier were later living lives characterised by health and well-being.

You might wonder if these findings are attributable to other factors, or to factors already in play by the time participants joined the study. The authors undertook stringent analyses to account for this, which revealed largely similar patterns of findings.

The findings join a body of prior research documenting longitudinal relationships between meaning in life and social functioning, net wealth and reduced mortality, especially among older adults.

What is meaning in life?

The historical arc of consideration of the meaning in life (not to be confused with the meaning of life) starts as far back as Ancient Greece. It tracks through the popular works of people such as Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, and continues today in the field of psychology.

One definition, offered by well-being researcher Laura King and colleagues, says

…lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have a significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.

This definition is useful because it highlights three central components of meaning:

  1. purpose: having goals and direction in life
  2. significance: the degree to which a person believes his or her life has value, worth, and importance
  3. coherence: the sense that one’s life is characterised by predictability and routine.
Michael Steger’s TEDx talk What Makes Life Meaningful.


Curious about your own sense of meaning in life? You can take an interactive version of the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, developed by Steger and colleagues, yourself here.

This measure captures not just the presence of meaning in life (whether a person feels that their life has purpose, significance, and coherence), but also the desire to search for meaning in life.

Routes for cultivating meaning in life

Given the documented benefits, you may wonder: how might one go about cultivating a sense of meaning in life?

We know a few things about participants in Steptoe and Fancourt’s study who reported relatively higher meaning in life during the first survey. For instance, they contacted their friends frequently, belonged to social groups, engaged in volunteering, and maintained a suite of healthy habits relating to sleep, diet and exercise.

Backing up the idea that seeking out these qualities might be a good place to start in the quest for meaning, several studies have causally linked these indicators to meaning in life.

For instance, spending money on others and volunteering, eating fruit and vegetables, and being in a well-connected social network have all been prospectively linked to acquiring a sense of meaning in life.

For a temporary boost, some activities have documented benefits for meaning in the short term: envisioning a happier future, writing a note of gratitude to another person, engaging in nostalgic reverie, and bringing to mind one’s close relationships.

Happiness and meaning: is it one or the other?

There’s a high degree of overlap between experiencing happiness and meaning – most people who report one also report the other. Days when people report feeling happy are often also days that people report meaning.

Yet there’s a tricky relationship between the two. Moment-to-moment, happiness and meaning are often decoupled.

Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues suggests that satisfying basic needs promotes happiness, but not meaning. In contrast, linking a sense of self across one’s past, present, and future promotes meaning, but not happiness.

Connecting socially with others is important for both happiness and meaning, but doing so in a way that promotes meaning (such as via parenting) can happen at the cost of personal happiness, at least temporarily.

Given the now-documented long-term social, mental, and physical benefits of having a sense of meaning in life, the recommendation here is clear. Rather than pursuing happiness as an end-state, ensuring one’s activities provide a sense of meaning might be a better route to living well and flourishing throughout life.The Conversation

Lisa A Williams, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Man’s Search for Meaning


Man’s Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” Part One constitutes Frankl’s analysis of his experiences in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy.

According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search for Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” At the time of the author’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.

Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp’s inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a hope in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.

An example of Frankl’s idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were “decent” Nazi guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

His concluding passage in Part One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation, which he separates into three stages. The first is depersonalization—a period of readjustment, in which a prisoner gradually returns to the world. Initially, the liberated prisoners are so numb that they are unable to understand what freedom means, or to emotionally respond to it. Part of them believes that it is an illusion or a dream that will be taken away from them. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization.

The body is the first element to break out of this stage, responding by big appetites of eating and wanting more sleeping. Only after the partial replenishing of the body is the mind finally able to respond, as “feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it”.

This begins the second stage, in which there is a danger of deformation. As the intense pressure on the mind is released, mental health can be endangered. Frankl uses the analogy of a diver suddenly released from his pressure chamber. He recounts the story of a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.

Upon returning home, the prisoners had to struggle with two fundamental experiences which could also damage their mental health: bitterness and disillusionment. The last stage is bitterness at the lack of responsiveness of the world outside—a “superficiality and lack of feeling… so disgusting that one finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more”. Worse was disillusionment, which was the discovery that suffering does not end, that the longed-for happiness will not come. This was the experience of those who—like Frankl—returned home to discover that no one awaited them. The hope that had sustained them throughout their time in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome.

As time passed, however, the prisoner’s experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing but a remembered nightmare. What is more, he comes to believe that he has nothing left to fear any more, “except his God”.


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Man’s Search for Meaning (PDF)