Research Reveals 3 Ingredients That Make Life Meaningful
What is meant by meaningful life? A meaningful life is commonly associated with or predicted by the following:
- Positive self-views (e.g., high self-esteem and self-confidence).
- Seeing oneself as distinct (i.e. different from others in a positive way).
- Sense of self-continuity, meaning a connection between the past and present.
- Satisfaction of basic psychological needs—the need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
An important question is what makes a certain aspect of one’s life or worldview meaningful. According to a recent study by Costin and Vignoles, published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality, a sense of meaning in life is based on:
- Perceptions of life as making sense
- Feeling that one’s life matters and is worthy
- Having a purpose and moving toward valued goals
The study is described below, after a few definitions.
Meaning in life
The sense of meaning in life refers to subjective perceptions of one’s life as a whole being meaningful. Note, that this is different from the meaningfulness of particular activities within life.
For instance, despite engaging in activities you consider meaningful (e.g., volunteering, teaching), you may feel your life as a whole is not meaningful.
In addition, people may perceive certain aspects of their worldview or self-view (e.g., occupation, talents, abilities, intimate relationships) as more meaningful than others.
But what determines the meaningfulness of these aspects? More generally, what makes a particular worldview, attitude, belief, value, or identity —collectively called “mental representations”—meaningful?
Vignoles and Costin hypothesize that mental representations “foster a sense of [meaning in life] to the extent that they provide feelings of coherence, purpose, and existential mattering.” The three investigations described in the next section tested the authors’ hypothesis.
Before we continue, a few additional definitions:
- Coherence: “Perceptions of order…applied to self-related experiences.”
- Purpose: “Having an overarching life aim that subsumes and organizes other goals.”
- Existential mattering: “An evaluation that one’s life is worth living and matters on a wider scale.”
What makes life meaningful?
Sample: 208 (108 females) American Amazon Mturk workers; the average age of 38 years old (20-74 years, age range); 94 atheists and agnostics, 92 Christians; 120 were full-time employed, 50 self-employed or part-time employed.
Methods: Information was collected on participants’ mental representations regarding the domains of family identity, role identity, national identity, religious identity, socioeconomic beliefs, beliefs related to free will and determinism, beliefs about human nature, personal values, moral values, and attitude toward abortion and death penalty.
These mental representations were then rated in terms of meaning in life and related constructs, such as self-efficacy, belonging, self-continuity, personal control, self-esteem, meaning, purpose, coherence, and mattering.
For instance, participants were asked whether the representation provided “a sense of meaningfulness,” “a sense of purpose and direction,” “a sense of order and coherence,” and “a sense of control.”
Analysis of data showed mental representations that give one a sense of mattering, coherence, and purpose were perceived as more meaningful.
Furthermore, mattering and purpose predicted meaning in life even after researchers controlled for various factors, like self-esteem and individual differences in religious beliefs.
Coherence, however, did not predict meaning in life in some analyses.
Sample: 106 UK college students (87 females); the average age of 19 years old (18 to 27 years, age range); 78 were agnostic or atheist.
Methods: Similar to the above investigation, with minor variations. For example, self-insight and self-reflection were also measured.
The results indicated that coherence, mattering, and purpose predicted the sense of meaning in life, though coherence was less predictive.
Sample: A nationally representative group of 296 British participants (151 females); the average age of 45 years old (range of 18 to 82 years); 242 Whites; 170 atheists or agnostics, 94 Christians.
Methods: Similar to the earlier investigations, with minor variations. For instance, a potential fourth dimension of meaning in life, called experiential appreciation, was also tested. And since the data collection occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were additional questions concerning pandemic-related fears and worries.
Analysis of data replicated previous findings: Mattering, coherence, and purpose predicted the sense of meaning in life, even after researchers controlled for experiential appreciation. The biggest predictor was having a purpose in life.
Predictors of meaning in life
In summary, the reviewed investigations found that existential mattering, coherence and a sense of purpose predicted meaning in life.
The strongest and most reliable predictor was a sense of purpose.
In addition, existential mattering was a stronger predictor than coherence.
Because living a meaningful life is essential to well-being and life satisfaction, let me conclude by recommending ways to enhance meaningfulness.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself on a regular basis, in order to get a sense of how meaningful your life is to you at the moment and whether it is becoming more or less meaningful over time.
- Coherence: Does your life make sense? Is there clarity? Are things as they “should” be? Do the different aspects of your life fit together nicely? Or is your life confused and fragmented?
- Mattering: Do you matter? Is your existence valuable? Have your actions and life as a whole made an important difference in the world? Or do you believe the world would not have really noticed or cared if you had not existed at all?
- Purpose: Do you have a clear view of the direction your life is headed? Do you have important goals in life and are you committed to them? Or are you wandering aimlessly, with no appealing or worthy goal in life?