ASK, powered by the site Psychwire, invites visitors to ask questions of world-leading experts in behavioral science. Here are some questions and answers fro the site focused on meaning and purpose, featuring WBI faculty member Michael Steger.
Q: What is the difference between purpose and meaning?
A: The distinction is a matter of some debate. Right now, the definition of meaning that I developed through my research seems to be the most influential and widely used definition. This makes sense because my goal was to synthesize the many approaches people had taken to provide a consensus view. Meaning in life is defined as the broader umbrella term that include purpose. So, meaning in life is based on feelings of significance and mattering about one’s live, being able to make sense of and comprehend one’s life, and having purpose.
Purpose is defined as the identification and pursuit of one or more highly important, overarching aims or very long-term goals that help organize life choices and actions. Purpose sits firmly in the future-directed, motivational realm, and is seen as the most observable and active element of meaning. One of the key elements of purpose is that a good purpose might not even be attainable—it is the noble pursuit of an aim worthy of our lives that makes it valuable.
Q: How does a meaningful life differ from a good life?
This is really a philosophical question that rests on definitions of the good life (eudaimonia vs. hedonia, for example). Personally, I can’t live a good life unless it is meaningful, but I acknowledge that there are others who would have other qualities take priority, such as fun, stimulation, pleasure, or power.
Despite my quick answer, I think the topic is super interesting, and I’ve written a couple of papers on why I think the meaningful life does a good job at bridging the gap between eudaimonic and hedonic definitions of the good life. Boiled down, the meaningful life can give us a framework for using virtue to create a good and enjoyable life.
Q: What is the difference between meaning “in” life and meaning “of” life?
When we look at the stars and wonder where it all came from, we are asking about the meaning OF life. When a tragedy strikes us, someone we love, or a good person and we wonder why such a thing could happen, we are asking about the meaning OF life. Meaning OF life is about huge questions, the answers to which we must take on faith or inference.
Meaning IN life is about what makes our own, personal lives worth living. It is answerable, it is livable, it can help us find solutions to problems we face now, and it expresses what we imagine we can do in our own lifetimes. Whether or not there is any meaning OF life, we can always strive to create meaning IN our lives.
Q: Is meaning and a sense of purpose in life influenced by personality traits or genetics?
A: The short answer appears to be yes, but the long answer is that it is complex. I have published research on twins showing that meaning and purpose in life is broadly genetically heritable, and that some of that heritability is linked to personality traits.
The complexity comes in interpretation. Almost all measurable psychological traits, like meaning, are genetically heritable, but not fully. We appear to each be dynamic blends of nature and nurture whether we’re talking about meaning, personality, or most other psychological characteristics. Because we tend not to describe people’s personality in terms of their meaning in life, conventionally we say that personality influences meaning as personality feels more fundamental for us.
Q: Do meaning and purpose matter to mental health?
YES! I estimate that there are nearly 1,000 empirical studies that show some link to mental health, broadly defined. The best of these studies are longitudinal or show how engagement in meaning-centered or meaning-informed applications of therapy account for increases in wellbeing and decreases in a range of psychological disorder severities. The earliest research comes from the 1960s and we’ve been adding many, many studies every year since!
When it comes to psychotherapy and psychological treatments, meaning-centered approaches have large effect sizes on increasing well-being and reducing stress and distress, and research suggests that around 13% of the positive impact of other approaches that use meaning-informed or meaning-rooted interventions is due to those specific interventions.
Q: To quote Charles Bukowski, why do we tend to get eaten up by trivialities?
A: I need to do more reading! I love that quote. The only Bukowski quote I know is from the movie Barfly: “To all my friends!” My brother knows another one, but I can’t remember it. I should ask him … And on it goes. We get eaten up by trivialities because we can do something about them right now, often with very little insight, training, effort, or preparation. Each of us has some need to feel in control, to feel we can master the world around us, and to feel effective. Trivialities give us “sugar high” versions of those.
Going deeper is harder work. Learning how to dedicate effort, rally motivation, commit to the right goals for the right reasons … these are more difficult tasks. When we are tired or feeling down, we often opt for the easier tasks, then not only might we get eaten up by trivialities, but our lives might be consumed that way, too.
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. Mike offers keynotes, lectures, workshops, and consulting around the world on the topics of meaning, purpose, psychological strengths, meaningful work, and creating a happy workplace.