Humans have a strong desire to perceive life as meaningful and a glance down the self-help aisle of any major bookstore suggests that many people are looking for a roadmap to assist them with this quest for meaning. So what does the scientific literature say about this issue? That is, what are the variables that have actually been proven to provide meaning in life?
Luckily, there is a significant amount of research on this very issue. However, first, perhaps it is critical to question the assumption that people need to perceive life as meaningful. Is it true? Or would people be just as psychologically and physically healthy if they concluded that life ultimately has no real meaning. Certainly, there have been existential movements within intellectual circles that advocate an acceptance of the meaninglessness of life. On the extreme end, some have even asserted that seeking meaning is tantamount to living a lie and, if anything, leads to a number of social problems such as religious intolerance. That being said, psychological research strongly suggests that meaning in life is an important indicator of psychological health and well-being. A lack of meaning in life is associated with depression and anxiety and is a risk factor for addiction and even suicide. People who see life as very meaningful are more physically and psychologically resilient. For example, they have an easier time coping with life stressors such as a chronic illness diagnosis and may even have quicker recovery times. Meaning in life also helps give people the motivation to pursue personal goals and take on new challenges. So even if, at the intellectual level, calling into question life's meaning is a stimulating and provocative mental exercise, the reality is that people (at least most people) need to see their lives as meaningful in order to be happy, healthy, and productive human beings.
Ok, so people need to see life as meaningful. What actually makes life seem meaningful?
Happy people are existentially fulfilled people
It turns out that one of the biggest predictors of perceptions of a meaningful life is positive mood. That is, if you are in a good mood, you are more likely to perceive life as full of meaning. Specifically, in a series of studies spearheaded by psychologists Laura King and Josh Hicks from the University of Missouri (Dr. Hicks in now at Texas A&M), the role of positive mood in perceptions of meaning was explored. Across several studies, levels of positive mood consistently predicted or caused increased levels of perceived meaning in life. For example, in one study, King and Hicks had participants complete questionnaires that measured current mood, various personality traits, personal goals, and perceptions of meaning in life. In this study, positive mood was a strong predictor of meaning and a better predictor of meaning than personality or goal pursuit. In other words, being happy appeared to make people see life as meaningful and did so more than having a particular type of personality (e.g., being extraverted) and more than the pursuit of important life goals. These researchers also found experimental evidence to further support the conclusion that positive mood leads to meaning. In one study, participants who read an essay with a happy ending saw life as more meaningful than participants who read an essay with a negative ending or a more emotionally neutral essay.
Finally, and critically, these researchers found evidence that positive mood was not simply leading people to blindly see life as meaningful, but was instead leading them to derive greater meaning from "meaning-relevant" experiences. Specifically, these researchers had participants complete a mood questionnaire and then engage in a meaningful or meaningless task. The meaningful task consisted of reading and critically thinking about a philosophical essay. The meaningless task consisted of counting the number of e's in each paragraph of the essay starting at the end of the essay and moving backwards. Thus, the meaningful task allowed the participants to be intellectually engaged in a philosophical essay, whereas the meaningless task involved completing a boring counting exercise. Subsequently, participants indicated how meaningful they perceived that task to be. Positive mood predicted perceived task meaning. Greater positive mood was associated with a greater sense that the task was meaningful. However, this relationship was only found amongst participants who were given the meaningful task. In other words, being in a good mood did not make any event seem meaningful. A boring event is a boring event and being in a good mood will not make it magically seem meaningful. However, this finding suggests that if you are engaged in meaningful, interesting, or engaging activities, the happier you are, the more meaning you will derive from that activity.
This research on positive mood as a contributor to meaning is important, but many questions remain. First, surely there are other factors that make life meaningful. What about family, friends, societal contributions, and religion? Also, we can't be in a good mood all the time. How do we find meaning when times are rough and our happiness is compromised? I will return to these issues in my next few postings. However, we can start with the knowledge that a first step to a meaningful life is finding and investing in the things that facilitate positive emotions.
King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., Krull, J., & Baker, A. G. (2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 179-196.