In positive psychology, a meaningful life is a construct having to do with the purpose, significance, fulfillment, and satisfaction of life. While specific theories vary, there are two common aspects: a global schema to understand one’s life and the belief that life itself is meaningful. Meaning can be defined as the connection linking two presumably independent entities together; a meaningful life links the biological reality of life to a symbolic interpretation or meaning. Those possessing a sense of meaning are generally found to be happier, to have lower levels of negative emotions, and to have lower risk of mental illness.
Major theoretical approaches
Logotherapy emphasizes finding values and purpose in an individual’s life, and building relationships with others in order to reach fulfilment and attain meaningfulness. “Value” can be further subcategorized into three main areas: creative, experiential, and attitudinal. Creative values are reached through acts of creating or producing something. Experiential values are actualized when a person experiences something through sight, touch, smell, or hearing. Finally, attitudinal values are reserved for individuals who cannot, for one reason or another, have new experiences or create new things. Thus they find meaning through adopting a new attitude that allows “suffering with dignity”. For all of these classes of values, it is because of one’s sense of responsibility that one pursues these values and consequently experiences a meaningful life. It is through the realization that one is the sole being responsible for rendering life meaningful that values are actualized and life becomes meaningful.
Terror management theory studies meaningfulness and its relationship to culture. A human’s consciousness makes them aware of their own mortality. In order to deal with their inevitable death, humans attempt to leave their mark in some symbolic act of immortality within the structured society. The structure created through society and culture provides humans with a sense of order. Through the structured society we are able to create a symbolic immortality which can take various forms, e.g., monuments, theatrical productions, children, etc. Culture’s order reduces death anxiety as it allows the individual to live up to the societal standards and in living up to such ideals; one is given self-esteem which counterbalances the mortal anxiety.
Hope theory operationalizes meaningfulness as having more to do with self-control that leads to higher self-esteem. As one lives by societal standards of living, one exercises self-control and it is through this self-control that higher self-esteem is achieved. Meaning is found when one realizes that one is capable and able to effectively achieve their goals through successful management. Control is “a cognitive model whereby people strive to comprehend the contingencies in their lives so as to attain desired outcomes and avoid undesirable ones”. From this feeling of control, meaningfulness is achieved when one feels able to effectively live his/her life and achieve goals.
Narrative psychology proposes that people construct life stories as a way to understand life events and impose meaning on life, thus connecting [via explanation] the individual to the event. Meaningfulness is a subjective evaluation of how well these stories connect to the person. Furthermore, meaningfulness is actualized through positive functioning, satisfaction with life, the enjoyment of work, happiness, positive affect and hope. Meaningfulness can also be translated into physical health and a generalized well-being. Baumeister posits that meaningfulness is divided into four needs: sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and a sense of positive self-worth.
Major empirical findings
Social exclusion results in a perceived loss of meaningfulness in life. Furthermore, the four needs for meaning (sense of purpose, efficacy, value and sense of positive self-worth) were found to be mediators in the perception of meaningfulness of life. When an individual thinks themself to be socially excluded, one’s sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth are all indirectly diminished.
Recent systematic reviews addressing meaning in life found that higher meaning in life is associated to better physical health in general, lower distress among cancer patients, and higher subjective well-being in China. On the other hand, in another systematic review a more specific type of meaning, a purpose in life, was associated to reduced mortality and cardiovascular events. Another meta-analysis found that purpose in life was in average slightly lower in older age-groups compared to younger ones.
A study found an association between the discovery of meaning and a lower rate of AIDS-related mortality. This was the first study in which the findings appear to not be mediated by health behaviors or other potential confounds. The study looked at HIV-seropositive men who had recently witnessed the death of a close friend from AIDS-related death. When confronted with the stress of such a death those men, who were able to find meaning in the loss, were subject to less rapid declines in CD4 T cell levels. Furthermore, the subjects who went through cognitive processing in response to the bereavement were more likely to find meaning in the death of the close friend. Thus in experiencing a stressful life event if one is able to engage successfully in finding meaning there is a potential link to positive immunological benefits and health outcomes.
Relation to happiness
A happy life and a meaningful life are strongly correlated attitudes. However, happiness may be distinguished as relating more to biological needs and desires, such as the absence of pain or unpleasant experiences, while meaning is more cultural and abstract, relating to overall life satisfaction or eudaimonia. According to a research, living a meaningful life is one of the several enduring pathways to happiness. Another study found that difficulty, health, purchasing power, and a focus on the present corresponded more to happiness than meaning, while thinking about the past or the future, struggle, stress, worry, argument, anxiety, generosity, and viewing daily activities such as raising children as reflective of oneself corresponded more with finding life meaningful. Feeling more connected to others improved both happiness and meaning, according to the study. Yet, the role a person adopts in the relationships makes an important difference. Those who agreed with the statement, “I am a giver,” reported less happiness than those who were more likely to agree with, “I am a taker.” However, the “givers” reported higher levels of meaning in their lives compared to the “takers.”
A meaningful life is associated with positive functioning: life satisfaction, enjoyment of work, happiness, general positive affect, hope and in general a higher level of well-being.
Psychological adjustment in the event of a stressor has been linked with meanings finding whether in the form of benefit seeking or making sense of the loss. In terms of how meaning is manifested, making sense of the loss seems to be more important earlier on in the adjustment process after the loss whereas perceiving the benefit may be a more long term process that occurs over time with the greatest benefit usually experienced later on (Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema & Larson, 1998).
Based on systematic reviews, there are various promising therapies and interventions that focus on increasing meaning or purpose in life. Many of these interventions been created for patients with advanced disease.
While there are benefits to making meaning out of life, there is still not one definitive way in which one can establish such a meaning. Those who were successful in creating a meaningful life enjoyed benefits such as higher levels of positive affect, life satisfaction, etc. When faced with a stressful life situation, finding meaning is shown to help adjustment. Meaningfulness in life is intrinsically related to positive psychology’s goal to expand the good life for the normal non-disordered person. It is with a meaningful life that one is able to find connections to people, places, things and leave a mark on society; it renders a good life a meaningful one.
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