I framed my TEDx talk on meaning in life in terms of the evolution of my relationship with my life partner, and despite being a moderate introvert and slight grouch, the importance of other people and my relationships with them to my life and meaning was pretty clear. My research team later reviewed the literature and found there was consistent and diverse support for this intuition: Good relationships and meaning go together.
But how strong is this link, and is there something special about meaning in relationships? Is meaning in life a sufficient foundation for good relationships, or do we need to actively look at our interactions and connections with others through a relationship-specific lens of meaning?
The answer, according to recent research, sounds like an Improv for Beginner’s class: “Yes … AND!”
In a relatively simple research design, Elizabeth Yu and Edward Chang used the online survey platform Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to survey a sample of 190 adults (average age of 39, 98 female, 91 males, and 1 unspecified, 77.4 percent Non-Hispanic White, 7.9 percent Asian or Asian American, 6.8 percent Black or African American, 5.3 percent Hispanic or Latinx). Participants reported their demographic characteristics and completed the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ) and the Relational Meaning in Life Questionnaire, which built off the MLQ but with a focus on how relationships help build meaning in life. A sample question provided by the authors is “I understand my life’s meaning through my relationships with others.”
About five weeks later, participants completed a bunch of surveys about relationships:
- Friendship, including (a) Stimulating companionship, (b) Intimacy with a friend, (c) Reliable alliance with a friend, (d) Validation from a friend, and (e) Emotional security from a friend
- Relationship satisfaction, including (a) Romantic relationships, (b) Family relationships, and (c) Social life satisfaction
- Positive relationships
- Quality of social relationships
Whew! That’s a lot of questions about relationships. As a methodological point, you might expect your participants to get tired or bored of answering so many questions, which might entice them to start clicking buttons at random just to get through the survey. In my research using MTurk, we include distraction indicator items, or what I like to think of as “BS responding detectors” to drop data from people who are just clicking the buttons without reading the questions. Yu and Chang did the same. Also, they wisely separated the surveys into two sessions, weeks apart, to reduce people’s natural tendencies to mush their responses together on long lists of questions. So, despite being a simple survey study, the researchers did a nice job of trying to account for the limits of this method.
Here are the key findings:
1. Meaning in life, as indicated by the MLQ’s Presence of Meaning scale, was positively and significantly related to every single relationship variable: Less loneliness, better friendships, higher quality, more positive, and more satisfying relationships. Remember the surveys were spaced out five weeks apart, so this shows in a very limited sense that finding meaning in life predicts higher quality relationships five weeks later. Now, there are a lot of reasons why we can’t say that more meaning causes better relationships, but at least we can say that it’s a question worth exploring in more rigorous research methods.
2. Relational meaning in life also was positively related to every single relationship variable.
3. When both the MLQ and relational meaning in life were included in the same statistical analysis, finding meaning in life was still positively and significantly related to every single relationship variable, and even accounting for all of the predictive power of general meaning in life, relational meaning still showed small, significant relationships with family life satisfaction, positive relationships, and quality of relationships.
I think this is really fascinating and exciting. Not only do we see a comprehensive survey of how finding meaning in life is connected to better relationships, but we also see that it is worth examining the meaning that people get specifically from the way they view their relationships.
In the famous words of the late, great Christopher Peterson, when it comes to happiness, “Other People Matter.” I’ll add, “Meaning Matters Too!” And it is becoming increasingly clear that the two support each other. Like a good relationship!
This post was originally published on PsychologyToday.com.
Michael F. Steger, PhD
Michael F. Steger, PhD,is a professor of psychology and the founding director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University. His research focuses on how people flourish through building meaning and purpose in their lives and work. His published works include two widely used measurement tools, the Meaning in Life Questionnaire and the Work and Meaning Inventory, as well as three co-edited books, The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work, Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, and Designing Positive Psychology. He offers keynotes, lectures, workshops, and consulting around the world on the topics of meaning, purpose, psychological strengths, meaningful work, and creating a happy workplace.