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What Are the Most Meaningful Moments of Your Life?

Researchers typify characteristics of moments people find the most meaningful.

Key points

  • Meaningful memories tend to feature loved ones who people feel emotionally close to.
  • Common themes of meaningful experiences include opening up to life, facing the precariousness of life, and countering negative events.
  • People don't tend to rate work and career-related experiences as their most meaningful.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s film “After Life” (1998), people are asked to select just one memory to take with them to the afterlife. In their paper, “Wonderful Life: Exploring Wonder in Meaningful Moments” (2017), Jacky van de Goor and her colleagues posed a similar question to a sample of a hundred people: “What if there is an afterlife. There, all your memories will be erased, except for one. Which memory do you choose to take with you to eternity?”

The sample included 50 men and 50 women from a wide variety of ages and professions. They all participated in personal development workshops and were asked to take 15 minutes to describe in writing, as if it were a story or a film fragment, the one memory they would select to take with them to the afterlife.

van de Goor and her colleagues supposed that being asked to choose only one memory that would then accompany the person to the afterlife may help disclose to the participants what is highly meaningful in their lives. It would also allow researchers to learn, from a new and unconventional perspective, what is meaningful to people.

Common Themes of Meaningful Experiences

The researchers found the following general characteristics typical of the replies they received:

  1. The main characters often described in the "stories" were people to which the participants were emotionally close (partners, children, parents, grandparents, close friends, etc.).
  2. When parents appeared, it was usually one parent rather than both.
  3. The stories described the events in different settings, but of all the stories, only one was set in the workplace.
  4. The emotions or values represented in the memories were usually positive, such as gratefulness, love, warmth, happiness, pride, peace, and trust.
  5. The researchers found that the stories could be collated into five main types:

Type A–Opening Up to Life: the meaningful event happens unintentionally, is new and surprising to the storyteller, leading her to learn, understand, or open up to something.

Type B–Facing the Precariousness of Life: In this type of story, unlike the previous one, the meaningful event occurs in a negative, demanding, or difficult setting (e.g., crisis, accident, death). However, as in the previous type, the event is unintentional and can be surprising. The positive content of the event (e.g., an insight, happy ending, emotional closeness) contrasts with the negative context in which it appears.

Type C–Celebrations: In this type of story, the meaningful event (e.g., a wedding; a birthday) is planned and created intentionally. Hence, the meaningful event isn’t surprising, although it differs from the ordinary. It often has to do with relationships with other people and is carried out in other people’s company.

Type D–Countering the Negative: As in the second type, events in this type of story are set in a negative context. But unlike stories of the second type, and like those of the third type, the difficult, dangerous, or demanding situations are countered by active and intentional actions, which as such aren't surprising. Here, too, events or actions may be relational (e.g., helping, soothing, healing).

Type E–Familiar Routines: These stories aren’t set in negative contexts and don’t relate to non-routine celebrations or extraordinary events. These stories have to do with ordinary, routine occurrences that happen repeatedly, but in the remembered incidence they are strongly sensed as special and valuable.

Perhaps you, the reader, may also want to ask yourself the question posed in the research and consider what one memory you would want to take to the afterlife. As for me, I couldn’t decide between several events or stories, all of them involving emotional closeness to a loved one.

Interpretations and Caveats About Meaningful Events

Here are some more thoughts on van de Goor and her colleagues’ research. First, it is noteworthy that hardly anyone in the sample mentioned meaningful moments that had to do with work and career. Perhaps, although we dedicate so many of our waking hours to work, sometimes sacrificing for its sake our personal relations, the results above may teach us something about what’s most important for us.

Second, it’s a pity that the researchers didn’t try to examine whether there are any differences in preferred memories among gender groups, age groups, social-economic groups, professional groups, etc.

Third, it would have been interesting to compare the replies to the researchers’ question to replies to another possible question, namely “What is the most meaningful event in your life?” The researchers relate the question they asked to meaningfulness, but it may be that the replies had to do with pleasant events mostly because people want to remain for eternity with a pleasant memory. If people were asked to describe just a meaningful event, replies may have also included negative meaningful experiences. It would be interesting to compare the replies to the researchers’ question with replies to other questions.

Finally, the authors themselves point at a possible problem in the research: the data was collected at workshops in which group dynamics and discussion themes might have influenced the replies. I think they are right. It may also be that the people who go to workshops in which questions such as the above are posed are more prone to presenting some types of replies rather than others (e.g., relationship-oriented replies rather than career-oriented replies).

Nevertheless, this remains an interesting and important question to pose to oneself and to others in order to learn, from a certain perspective, about what is meaningful in life to oneself and to other people.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: AlessandroBiascioli/Shutterstock


van de Goor, J., Sools, A. M., Westerhof, G. J., and. Bohlmeijer, E. T. 2017. Wonderful Life: Exploring Wonder in Meaningful Moments. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 60(2): 1–21. DOI: 10.1177/0022167817696837

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