The Meaning in Life: A Psychological Approach

Humans, by nature, ask questions about purpose in life and how to achieve its meaning. There might be several answers to this but one that can appeal to the modern mentality is the scientific one. Indeed, in the current positivist society, scientific answers are a good starting point for dialogue, which is a necessity in any collaborative endeavor. This article aims to look at the scientific efforts in answering these questions from the viewpoint of psychology.

Humans are constantly trying to make sense of the things they live and experience. Of this fact are testimonies the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943) and the experiences of Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl (Frankl, 2008), to name only a few. American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that there is a hierarchy of human needs, ranging from the most basic and biological, passing through the psychological like belonging and reaching the transcendental, also called self-actualization. At the peak of the hierarchy, meaning in life rest, and is no accident that meaning is found precisely at the peak of human aspirations. Similar conclusions were made by Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, to the extent that he endorsed Nietzsche's famous dictum: "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how" (Nietzsche, 1997). The fact that nothing less but a concentration camp survivor agrees with this statement only adds to the weight of its truth.

Concentration camp fence
Auschwitz, Photo by Karsten Winegart (Winegart, 2020)

What is the true meaning of life ? What do people mean when they say they have found meaning in their lives? What are they referring to? These questions have so many different answers: biological perspectives would say that the meaning of our life is to survive and have offspring (Scharf, 2019). Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Kant proposed the human function, the beatific vision, and the highest good, respectively (Metz, 2021) while Camus would even say it is just a myth or illusion (Camus, 1955).

A worth noting distinction, however, is that the general question of the "meaning of life" can not be answered unless we look at the "meaning in life" first. There is a subtle difference in prepositions but one that changes the whole meaning of the question. According to Steger (2012), meaning in life is that which gives a foundational understanding of being, what the world is like, how humans fit in it, and the big scheme. Whereas, the meaning of life is more about the definitive principle that contains the final answer to the question of human existence (King & Hicks, 2021). The former is an experience, a subjective mental state, the latter is something much more transcendental and elusive.

School of Athens, by Raphael Sanzio

Psychologists can approach the question of what meaning in life is in two ways. A top-down approach, which would imply first defining theoretically what meaning in life is and then developing a measurement that will determine its presence or absence in people; or a bottom-up approach, which would imply first asking people already what meaning in life is, whatever they think it is, and wait for the data to make sense and point out the defining characteristic of this psychological process. The problem with choosing the top-down approach is that scientists are still not sure what meaning in life means, and by defining it they risk losing important aspects of its definition. The issue with the bottom-up approach is that scientists may get what meaning in life is from the majority of the population, but that does not necessarily equate with real experience (King & Hicks, 2021). All things considered, the best solution found is the bottom-up approach because it means to let the data speak for themselves (Bleidorn et al., 2014), whereas the top-down approach means to let the subjective understanding of the researcher define for all of us what meaning in life is, and this is not advisable until the variable of interest is sufficiently studied. In terms of scientific rigor, the bottom-up approach is substantially better.

An example of this bottom-up approach in the study of meaning in life would be the work of George and Park (2017), in which undergraduate students answered a questionnaire developed by the authors to measure meaning in life. Once their answers were collected, statistical analyses were performed (e.g. factor analyses and regressions) and they showed a tripartite structure of meaning: comprehension, purpose, and mattering. Similar studies have shown results that converge on these findings (Leontiev, 2005; Martela & Steger, 2016). These three definitory aspects of the meaning in life experience have been established as the cornerstones of meaning in life in psychology: therefore, meaning in life is understood as having a sense of coherence about life events, a sense of purpose and direction, and a sense of existential mattering or significance (King & Hicks, 2021). But how does psychology define these aspects?

The sense of coherence means that the person can make sense of all or most of the events that have happened in his life. People lose this when faced with circumstances that are not explainable within the framework of their previous experience (Janoff-Bulman, 1985). Great traumatic events like a car accident, sudden death of a loved one, a natural catastrophe, a global pandemic, or war, are all events that may at first keep people on the edge. Not being sure what will happen the next moment increases stress levels, and physiological and psychological activation until things are put back under control (Panksepp, 1998). Interesting work in this direction was conducted by Updegraff and colleagues (2008), in which they found that people who had found some meaning to the 9/11 events experienced less stress than those who had not. In this sense, humans are meaning-making beings, one can’t endure life with no coherence, with no sense of beginning, body, and conclusion. Research has shown that when people have daily routines, their momentary experience of meaning in life and their well-being is higher (Heintzelman & King, 2019).

Orlando Sentinel, Photo by Aidan Bartos (Bartos, 2017)

Purpose, on the other hand, is a “central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning” (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). Research shows that purpose predicts physical and mental health, resilience, and delayed onset of health problems (Hill & Turiano, 2014; McKnight & Kashdan, 2009; Steger, 2012). Of note, having a purpose does not equate to saying “I have this purpose”. Having a purpose is a definitory aspect of the human experience. The purpose instills every single action of the day, it fuels people every morning when they wake up, and keeps them going when faced with tiredness or exhaustion. The purpose is this powerful driving force with so many manifestations as people on this planet (Bronk, 2011). Mother Teresa of Calcutta's purpose was to alleviate the suffering of the poorest of the poor people, Steve Jobs's purpose was to make more elegant and beautiful solutions to everyday activities through technology, and Dostoviesky's purpose was to convey his deep insights and understandings through stories and literature. Whoever one can ask, everyone has some purpose, some reason to exist since it is one sure way to get to live a fulfilling life. There is no escape from purpose. Human beings can’t do without it. It is a burden, but the kind that makes life easy once borne, it has been found that purpose provides efficient self-regulatory strategies, facilitates decision making, and greater goal commitment and engagement (George & Park, 2016).

To feel that one's life is important for someone or something is what psychologists understand as existential mattering or significance. This is not a narcissistic perception of life. Instead, this feeling of significance derives not from an overestimation of our virtues but for a humble need to “live a life you will remember” (Avicii, 2014), to believe that one's life counts (King & Hicks, 2021). This is the trickiest one to measure from a scientific perspective: how can someone be objectively sure that their lives would be significant as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, or Elvis Presley? This conundrum has an easy solution: it’s not so much that the person has to reflect on the reality in their judgment of their importance, instead their subjective assessment of their life significance is enough (King & Hicks, 2021). Some of the questions that psychologists use to study significance are "Whether my life ever existed matters even in the grand scheme of the universe" or "Even considering how big the universe is, I can say that my life matters" (George & Park, 2017).

No one could objectively agree with these questions without having some profound reservations, but subjectively it is possible to agree these statements with some degree of easiness (King & Hicks, 2021). Furthermore, this significant aspect of meaning brings to mind the first class with Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society (Weird, 1989), in which the students saw all the pictures from old generations of alumni that were looking at them from the glass of an exhibition wall:

They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? (...) Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in.

And leaned they did, and learnt to seize the day, to make their lives extraordinary.

Carpe diem
Not that strangers, Photo by Orkun Azap (Azap, 2020)

Psychology points out that people are required to do the same if they want to have a meaningful life. It is a necessity to think that every human endeavour matter, to someone, to something. When significance is missing, people have more suicidal thoughts and attempts (Heisel & Flett, 2004; Kleiman & Beaver, 2013), more violent and risky behaviors (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981), and there is some evidence that terrorist attacks may be fueled by feelings of insignificance and a desire to have a lasting impact in the world (Kruglanski et al., 2009).

Where Heaven And Earth Meet by unknown

Of course, these three aspects of life are not everything there is to meaning in life, but they are the best answer so far in scientific terms. More research is currently being done in this direction and more insights will be found in the future about these fundamental aspects of human existence. This is what psychology has to say about meaning in life, this is how it has been studied so far. Now, what should be done is to use this knowledge to lead happier lives and to help others do the same. Strive to find coherence in the long thread of our life events, seek for an aim, and comprehend that everything humans do matters. Hopefully, the science of meaning in life will be oriented to bring about a better world, in which people do not have to despair from lack of meaning and can enjoy the benefits of a life ripe with meaning.


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Author Photo

David Saeteros

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