What Gives Meaning to Our Lives?
New research finds a sense of "mattering" may matter more than other factors.
Posted March 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
When we think of a crisis, we imagine a situation that is serious and urgent, imperative to address without delay. It can also be considered a turning point, such that life will never be the same again. The decisions made during a crisis will likely affect the nature and quality of life for the future. Some crises, like natural disasters or traumatic accidents, are dramatic upheavals accompanied by intense emotions. Others may be more insidious, arriving and intensifying more gradually.
In sudden events, the realization that life will change dramatically comes soon after urgent needs are met and the imminent threats have resolved. But the impact of crises that develop more gradually is often not obvious and, in some cases, is only fully appreciated with time. During either type of crisis, threats to health or safety awaken and clarify what is most important and what gives meaning to our lives.
Unfortunately, a pronounced sense of meaninglessness seems to exist among young people. In a recent survey of a representative national sample of 1,700 Americans, a majority (59%) of adults 65 years and older strongly agreed that their life has meaning, in contrast to only 36% of those 18 to 29 years old.
Are an increasing number of young adults experiencing lives empty of essential meaning? Research suggests that a sense that one’s life is meaningful is correlated with healthier behaviors, such as exercise and better diet, greater life satisfaction, and a lower incidence of depression. Conversely, a sense of emptiness of purpose or value in life has been associated with unfavorable indicators such as depression, anxiety, and suicide. The association of depression and suicidal ideation with weak assurance of meaning in life suggests that many people are experiencing a crisis of meaning.
In The Rebel, Albert Camus argued: “If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance.”
Recent research has shed light on what constitutes a person’s sense of meaning in life (Costin & Vignoles, 2020). One prominent theory views meaning in life as comprised of three facets: coherence, purpose, and mattering.
- Coherence refers to making sense of one’s experiences or the world at large. A high sense of coherence is the feeling that there is order to the world or that what happens to us makes sense.
- Purpose refers to the belief that one’s life is justified by a life aim that can be pursued and a vision of how life ought to be.
- Mattering refers to the experiences of value and worth that transcend superficial passing situations and events. Mattering means feeling that one’s behaviors make a difference and that life is worth living. More importantly, mattering refers to a person’s feeling that they matter.
The research suggests that of the three dimensions, a sense of mattering is most predictive of overall meaningfulness in life. Although further research is needed, preliminary work suggests that mattering is enhanced by rising above petty things and exclusive self-interest. Understanding our role in the broader social landscape can yield insight into the significance of our life and of our self.
Appreciating the impact we have on others, especially on those to whom we will one day pass the torch, strengthens our recognition that we and our lives matter. Most parents understand what matters most when they see their child’s spontaneous expressions of joy, need, fear, and love. What matters is even more evident in their child’s rapid growth toward independence.
The significance of one’s life is affirmed when we ponder the legacy we will leave behind in those who have been affected by us—by how we have interacted with them, by who we are, and by how we have lived and loved. The anguish we once felt over pricey purchases or fashion choices fades in the face of a loved one’s life-threatening illness or life-changing injury. Arguments over homework or practicing for music lessons become trivial when a child’s life or wellbeing is threatened.
We don’t need to wait for a crisis to know what really matters. We can remind ourselves of what really counts before we ever find ourselves in the midst of one.
The most valuable gift we can give to one another is the conviction that they matter. As noted nearly 2,000 years ago, faith, hope, and love endure, but the greatest of these is love. Faith in the coherence of life even when we can’t understand it and hope in fulfilling our purpose in life are important to our psychological wellbeing. But ultimately, feeling that one’s life is worth living flows from having been loved and from loving another. During the most difficult times, the most life-sustaining resource we can extend to another is the affirmation that they are loved.
Costin, V., & Vignoles, V. L. (2020). Meaning is about mattering: Evaluating coherence, purpose, and existential meaning as precursors of meaning in life judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118, 864-884.
Ekins, E. (2019). Poll: Who finds the most meaning in their lives? Cato Institute. https://www.cato.org/blog/poll-who-finds-most-meaning-their-lives
Kleiman, E. M., & Beaver, J. K. (2013). A meaningful life is worth living: Meaning in life as a suicide resiliency factor. Psychiatry Research, 210, 934-939.
Lew, B., Chistopolskaya, K., Osman, A., Huen, J. M. Y., Talib, M. A., & Leung, A. N. M. (2020). Meaning in life as a protective factor against suicidal tendencies in Chinese University students. BMC Psychiatry, 20:73.
Mascaro, N., & Rosen, D. H. (2008). Assessment of existential meaning and its longitudinal relations with depressive symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27, 576-599.
Pew Research Center. (2018). Where Americans find meaning in life. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewforum.org/2018/11/20/where-americans-find-meaning-in-life/