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Motivation

What Gives Our Lives Meaning?

New research suggests it's all about feeling like we matter.

Pxhere
Source: Pxhere

People who find greater meaning in life are happier, healthier, and more productive. But where does "life meaning" come from?

New research forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that while many factors are at play, one may be paramount — and that has to do with the idea of "mattering."

A team of scientists led by Vlad Costin of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom designed a series of experiments to uncover the sources of life meaning.

"Given the known psychological and health benefits of experiencing meaning in life, we believe that understanding the bases on which people judge that their own lives are more or less meaningful is an important research question in its own right," state Costin and his collaborators.

To understand what might contribute to life meaning, the researchers first needed to define it. Taking numerous perspectives into account, they landed on the following definition:

"Meaning is the web of connections, understandings, and interpretations that help us comprehend our experience and formulate plans directing our energies to the achievement of our desired future. Meaning provides us with the sense that our lives matter, that they make sense, and that they are more than the sum of our seconds, days, and years."

From this definition, the researchers extracted three key themes: coherence, purpose, and mattering. They are defined below.

  1. Coherence refers to the process of making sense of the world and one's experiences in it. Feeling a "sense of order" and "comprehensibility" are key facets of life coherence.
  2. Purpose describes the feeling of having a life goal, or multiple life goals, and being able to work toward those goals. It is understood as a future-oriented motivational state (i.e., having a vision for how one's life should be).
  3. Mattering refers to the belief that one's actions are making a difference in the world and that one's life is significant and worth living.

Next, the researchers tested which of these three psychological constructs might be most predictive of life meaning. Using a sample of 126 British adults, they found that "mattering" was most strongly associated with life meaning. Purpose was also predictive of life meaning but to a lesser extent. Coherence, on the other hand, appeared to be more of a symptom of life meaning than a cause.

The researchers believe their work holds important insights for therapists and psychological practitioners looking to advance people's abilities to live meaningful lives. They write, "Psychological practitioners have previously acknowledged the role of meaningfulness in leading a positive, fulfilled life and have incorporated this insight into their practice. Given the current findings, we suggest that practitioners who seek to foster a sense of meaningfulness should focus on bolstering a sense of mattering."

Naturally, the question that follows is how one improves one's sense of mattering. While there's no easy answer, a good place to start might be by thinking about the questions that define the concept of mattering. They are: "My life is inherently valuable." "Even a thousand years from now, it would still matter whether I existed or not." "Whether my life ever existed matters even in the grand scheme of the universe." And "I am certain that my life is of importance."

References

Costin, V., & Vignoles, V. L. (2019). Meaning is about mattering: Evaluating coherence, purpose, and existential mattering as precursors of meaning in life judgments. Journal of personality and social psychology.

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