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5 Questions to Test Your Sense of Meaning in Life

Studies show that believing life has meaning makes life better.


Whether or not you’re aware of it, the need for your life to have meaning is at the roots of the motivation that makes you uniquely human. Positive psychologists, beginning with the likes of Abraham Maslow, Viktor Frankl, and Carl Rogers, recognized that it takes more than satisfaction of our body’s basic needs to give definition to our lives.

Today, the central focus of positive psychology remains one of defining and understanding these higher-order motivations that often take us far out of our immediate comfort zone and into the challenges of realizing our potential.

The ideas behind so-called “humanistic” psychology are now becoming accepted as part of the field's mainstream. Although, to be sure, creature comforts can be highly motivating, a life filled with nothing but the hedonistic search for feel-good experiences can leave us feeling empty.

There are various ways to assess satisfaction, happiness, and well-being, all of which involve having you provide some type of subjective rating, anything from a 3- to perhaps 11-point scale. However, these measurements often reflect your momentary sense of joy or dejection. They’re not the same as evaluating the extent to which you’re accomplishing your life goals.

Psychologists have approached this deeper issue from a variety of angles, but one relatively recent measure seems to hold particular promise: The Meaning in Life Questionnaire developed by University of Minnesota-Twin Cities psychologist Michael Steger and colleagues (2006) is proving to have potential for assessing not only whether people feel they have a sense of meaning in their lives, but also whether they’re in the process of seeking it.

In one study, conducted by a large multi-university team of which I was a part (Dezutter et al., 2014), college students who felt their lives had meaning showed the most adaptive functioning across a host of psychosocial variables. Those who felt their lives lacked meaning showed opposite patterns, leaving them feeling depressed, anxious, and more likely to engage in acts of social and physical aggression.

Another study of young adults conducted by Colorado State University’s Aaron Eakman examined whether the connections between engagement in meaningful activity would predict changes in meaning in life over a year’s period. The findings showed that, in part, the day-to-day feelings that your work has meaning can predict your overall sense of life’s purpose. In addition, feeling that their daily activities were meaningful led participants to experience the positive needs for autonomy, competence, and a desire to maintain connections to others. Changes in these basic needs, in turn, were what increased people’s feelings that their lives overall had meaning.

Believing that your life has meaning may also help improve your relationships with others and vice versa (O’Donnell et al., 2014). Not only are people more satisfied when they feel their lives have meaning, but they are also more secure in their sense of self-worth. Further, as the Eakman study showed, they have higher motivation for relatedness to others. You may not specifically be searching for better relationships when you seek to define your life’s purpose, but it can become a very rewarding byproduct.

Keeping in mind the benefits of finding meaning in your life, how can you tell whether or not you’re on your way to doing so—or whether you even think it’s important? The MLQ is divided into 2 subscales—one that measures the presence of meaning in life (whether you feel you have it or not) and one that evaluates the search for meaning in life (whether you’re actively striving to find one).

In one of his studies relating MLQ to life satisfaction, Steger and colleagues (2011) found that college students who felt their lives had meaning were more satisfied with their lives, particularly when they thought the search for meaning was important. It’s not enough to feel your life has meaning, it’s also important to your well-being to value the search in and of itself.

The MLQ has 10 items; due to copyright restrictions, I cannot reprint the entire scale here (for researchers who wish to use the MLQ, it is readily available from the Steger et al., 2006 article). But these five items capture its essence, as well as how it connects to other psychological measures, and will allow you to evaluate where you rank, and in what areas you might consider seeking further development:

  1. Do you feel your life’s meaning is clear to you? You may feel this is a question to which you can never have an answer, but in a relative sense, is there something or someone that gives you focus? Many people recommend the thought experiment of writing your own epitaph. If you were to do so, would it have a clear, unifying mission or set of missions?
  2. Are you constantly searching for some type of meaning in your life? The search for meaning is one of the two subscales of the Steger et al. measure. Whether or not you have a clear sense of your life’s purpose, it’s possible that you feel that you’re still in search of one. In fact, as shown in Steger's 2011 study, the notion of needing a life purpose was just as important as having a life purpose that is clearly defined.
  3. Does your life’s significance stand out clearly for you? The research on meaning in life makes clear that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, political leader, or brilliant writer to have a significant life. From the very start, positive psychology has emphasized being the best that you can be, and that’s what the MLQ taps into. Believing your life has significance isn’t the same as being significant.
  4. Do your daily activities make sense to you? The idea of wrapping an evaluation of your life’s meaning into a 7-point rating scale on 10 items, as is done with the MLQ, may seem too difficult, or perhaps pointless. However, as Eakman pointed out, if you stop and think about what you do on a daily basis, having some sort of unifying principle can be the same as having Meaning with a capital M. The most meaningful activities are those that bring you pleasure and allow you to feel competent, express creativity, feel valued by others, and feel in control of what you’re doing.
  5. Is the desire to relate to others a prominent part of your life’s purpose? O’Donnell and her colleagues believe that meaning in life and relationships to others enhance each other. You can see your life as meaningful in its own right, but typically those with a sense of purpose are part of a larger social network.

If you feel confident that your answers to these questions are more yes than no, then chances are good that you’re on your way toward finding that ultimate fulfillment that comes from a well-defined, and well-defining, life. If you tend toward the no end of the spectrum, start with those activities that give you the greatest sense of meaning right now and you’ll be on your way toward finding the path toward greater long-term fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014

Dezutter, J., Waterman, A. S., Schwartz, S. J., Luyckx, K., Beyers, W., Meca, A., K., S. Y.; Whitbourne, S.K.; Zamboanga, B. L.; Lee, R. M.; Hardy, S. A.; Forthun, L. F.; Ritchie, R. A.; Weisskirch, R. S.; Brown, Elissa J., & Caraway, S. J. (2014). Meaning in life in emerging adulthood: A person‐oriented approach. Journal of Personality, 82(1), 57-68. doi:10.1111/jopy.12033

Eakman, A. M. (2014). A prospective longitudinal study testing relationships between meaningful activities, basic psychological needs fulfillment, and meaning in life. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 34(2), 93-105.

O’Donnell, M. B., Bentele, C. N., Grossman, H. B., Le, Y., Jang, H., & Steger, M. F. (2014). You, me, and meaning: An integrative review of connections between relationships and meaning in life. Journal Of Psychology in Africa, 24(1), 69-79.

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80-93. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.80

Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kesebir, S. (2011). Is a life without meaning satisfying? The moderating role of the search for meaning in satisfaction with life judgments. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(3), 173-180. doi:10.1080/17439760.2011.569171

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