by Michael F. Steger
In researching the factors that foster well-being and reduce psychological distress in people’s lives, I have spent most of my time looking at the role that meaning in life plays in human well-being. Humans appear to have a strong desire to be able to understand their experiences, gain some clarity about their own identity, and identify some sense of purpose in their lives. In other words, people want to know what their lives are all about and how they fit into the grand scheme of things and the world around them. When we talk about meaning in life, we are talking about knowing these things. Meaning in life refers to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter. (Meaning in life is different, then, from “the meaning of life.”)
People who feel this way, who have a sense of meaning in life, also report feeling more happy, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed and anxious, and more satisfied with their jobs. My research continues to explore the benefits of having meaning in life, as well as trying to elucidate how we get meaning in life. For example, through my research with twins, it appears that a good percentage of differences among people in how much meaning in life they experience is due to genetic factors. However, another line of my research indicates that what we do on a daily basis can affect how meaningful we find our lives to be. Thus, meaning might conceivably be “bred in the bone” to some degree, but it also appears possible that we might all be able to experience more meaning in life by engaging in certain activities.
Although it might seem like everyone should want to find meaning in life, my research shows that people differ greatly in how hard they’re looking. Some people would go so far as to say that they are always seeking and trying to understand what can make their lives more meaningful. Other people would say they are never searching for meaning in life. Surprisingly, even people who feel their lives are already full of meaning report searching for more.
In general, those who are searching for meaning are somewhat less happy than those who are not. However, their search is a dynamic process, and those who are looking seem to be able to take advantage of “meaningful” opportunities. For example “meaning-searchers” who also feel like they’ve found an occupational path infused with a sense of higher purpose and spiritual calling report more well-being and more investment in their career development. This finding has been supported in an experimental career development workshop format as well, indicating that giving meaning-searchers information about purpose and calling in work boosts their well-being.
Some of my other research examines meaning in life across the life span, finding that older adults report more meaning in life, whereas younger adults report more of a search for meaning. An additional line of research has focused on religion and spirituality, including some studies that have indicated that meaning in life provides one reason why religious individuals report higher well-being. Other areas of research include meaningful work and calling, the role of meaning in coping with stress and severe mental illness, how meaning can assist and promote positive health behaviors, and benefits of green and sustainable design.
Watch Michael’s talk, “Meaning in Life: The Deep End of Flourishing,” from the International Positive Psychology Association’s 2017 conference, “Happiness and Its Causes.”
Find out about Michael F. Steger’s WBI course, Meaning in Life, beginning August 26.