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What Makes Life Meaningful?

Age, routines, and a sense of purpose may help foster the belief that life means something.


A sense that life has meaning doesn’t just offer philosophical benefit; it’s also tied to improved physical and mental health. What factors, apart from close relationships and personal accomplishments, foster a belief in a meaningful life? Three recent studies highlight some potential mechanisms of meaning.

What Really Matters

Researchers who study meaning in life have broken the concept into three facets: coherence (the feeling that life makes sense), purpose (having and working toward goals), and mattering (the sense that one’s life has value and makes a difference). University of Sussex psychologist Vlad Costin argues the last factor, mattering, may be the most crucial. In three experiments, participants’ sense of mattering most reliably predicted whether they saw life as meaningful one month later. Though it wasn’t known why participants felt their lives mattered, Costin thinks that it could have resulted from their “believing in God, contributing to others, or leaving some form of legacy.”

Golden Age

Confidence in life’s meaningfulness may be greatest around age 60, on average, a recent study suggests. Using data from 1,042 U.S. adults, University of California, San Diego, researchers found that the presence of meaning in life followed a curve over the lifespan, reaching its peak at approximately 60 before declining again. The search for meaning, on the other hand, followed the opposite trajectory, reaching a low point at 60 before climbing. Regardless of age, physical and mental well-being were both strongly correlated with a belief in life’s meaning.

Everything in Its Place

Many seek meaning through extraordinary experiences—but they may also find it in ordinary, daily acts. New research found that a preference for routines was correlated with a greater sense of meaning. Students tracked for a week reported somewhat greater meaning, on average, when engaging in everyday acts such as studying or commuting—perhaps, the authors note, because routines build a coherent sense of self. Study co-author and Rutgers University psychologist Samantha Heintzelman observes: “Moments that make sense and feel right can make life meaningful, too.”

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