The Science of Meaning

Meaning Matters.

With the growth of positive psychology in the last couple of decades, meaning has been inching its way into the spotlight as the key ingredient for a life well-lived.
Bringing attention and a holistic approach to meaning is the central motivation of this site. Meaning “IN” life, as an experience, is accessible to everyone, and we provide tools, skills, and resources to empower people to live their lives well…with meaning.

And what does it mean to “live well”?
Positive Psychology aims to specify exactly that.

Here’s a concise definition of Positive Psychology:

“The scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.” (Seligman and Csiksentmihaly 2000)

Inclusive and holistic, this field has been seeking to clarify not only what a well-lived life is, but also how we achieve it.

One of the key findings of this new line of research is clear and hopeful:
Meaning is key to a life well-lived.

This page will be a curated overview of the modern science of meaning and its role in living well.
After reading, you should have a solid grasp of Positive Psychology and meaning in life: what’s being researched and what is being found so far.

Positive Psychology: An Overview

In 1998, when Martin Seligman began his term as president of the American Psychological Association, he chose a theme for his role: shifting away from the field’s focus on mental illness and psychological disorders.

Hitherto taking an approach of psychoanalysis and behaviorism, the field of psychology was giving considerable attention to what can go wrong in our brains.

Perhaps exacerbating negative thinking, the field was focused on human behavior and thought patterns that we generally want to avoid. We ask questions like:

  • What makes people depressed?
  • What causes anxiety?
  • How do we classify sicknesses of the mind?

In response, Seligman and his colleagues invited a new approach, asking questions like:

  • What is a ‘good life’?
  • What factors hold greatest value in life?
  • What contributes most to a fulfilling ‘well-lived’ life?

In his landmark books, Authentic Happiness & Flourish, Seligman offers a holistic approach to happiness, stressing the importance of personal strengths, a freedom-focused perspective of the the past, present, and future, and more.
He offers 3 versions of lives well-lived:

  • The pleasant life – full of positive emotion, especially in how we relate to/think of our own life.
  • The good life – using our signature strengths to achieve mastery and abundance.
  • The meaningful life – adding to the good life, using our strength to serve a purpose larger than ourselves.

Even from the forefront of work in this field, Seligman was championing the value of meaning for a life of flourishing. More on that later.

Now, the field of positive psychology is itself flourishing.

Numerous conferences around the world, a thriving dialogue within academia, and many since-published books by researchers and contributors have pushed positive psychology into public reception.
Since 2006, the most popular class at Harvard has been Tal Ben-Shahar’s class on how to be happier. And his book is a best seller. One could confidently say that positive psychology has helped bring science into prominence within the ‘self-help’ sphere of publishing and media.

Now, the International Positive Psychology Association garners thousands of member from almost 100 countries around the world. Positive Psychology is booming.

Theories and Useful Terms

As is the case in psychology generally, there is no ‘gold standard’ to encapsulate the human mind, no unifying model to measure and interpret well-being.
Various researchers have employed various, respective models for well-being. Some of these have attracted more attention than others. Some terms are colloquially useful. Other semantic divisions have become useful for research purposes, and aren’t yet mainstream.

Here, we’ll do our best to provide an overview of the language and models within the field.
Again, we’re going to pay special attention to meaning in life, as it has become a central topic in the field, and is the interest of this site.

– Hedonic Well-Being –  Well-being as a result of increased pleasure and decreased pain. This is ‘happiness’ as opposed to joy.
– Eudaimonic Well-Being – from ‘daimon’ (true nature) – Well-being as a result of virtue and doing what is worth doing. A sense of meaning and purpose. We call this JOY.
You can learn more about Aristotle’s approach and Hedonism vs. Eudaimonia here or here (Ryan & Deci 2001).
Subjective Well-Being (SWB) – Subjective well-being (SWB) is a somewhat broad term for people’s appraisals that their life is good with no particular boundaries or criteria imposed upon their responses. (Steger et al. 2018). SWB has been proposed to include variables such as ‘happiness’, ‘life satisfaciton’, and positive and negative emotions. (Diener 1984)
Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWL) – Used as a measure of the life satisfaction component of SWB. (Diener 1985) You can find an overview of research from this framework in this book.
Psychological Well-Being (PWB) – A more narrowly-focused term for a specific set of variables that are deemed by an expert source as being necessary for human flourishing. It is generally associated with Eudaimonic Well-Being. Particularly present in Carol Ryff’s 6-point model. (Ryff 1989)

PERMA

In his 2011 book Flourish, Seligman presented this acronym to capture his 5 elements of well-being:

  • Positive Emotions – This refers to a wide range. Not only happiness and joy, but also excitement, awe, and more.
  • Engagement – This is essentially Flow, as pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, ‘Flow’. It is one of the four happiness types in our model of happiness, which you can see here.
  • Relationships – We are essentially social creatures. In our model, people are the ‘frames‘ that give quality to many of our experiences, and ‘love‘ plays a massive role in meaning.
  • Meaning – Seligman presents this as a driver of everything else. It contains the ‘Why’ behind relationships, work, and everything. It gives us purpose, and it’s crucial.
  • Accomplishments – pursuit of success and mastery, accomplishments are notably sought after, even though they sometimes don’t result in positive emotions. These go well with service, and one’s work.

Each of the elements of Seligman’s PERMA model satisfy 3 criteria: they contribute to well being, are pursued for their own sake, and are defined and measured independently of the others. You can take a PERMA test, and engage with many other questionnaires used by Seligman HERE.

The Ryff Scale

Carol Ryff, a prominent researcher on psychological well-being and resilience, uses 6 factors to measure an individual’s well-being, contentment, and happiness:

  1. Self-Acceptance – A positive attitude about oneself. Ex: “I like most aspects of my personality.”
  2. Personal Growth – One continues to develop, is welcoming new experiences, and recognizes improvement in behavior and self over time. Ex: “I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.”
  3. Purpose in Life – A strong goal orientation and conviction that life holds meaning. Ex: “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”
  4. Environmental Mastery – One makes effective use of opportunities and has a sense of mastery in managing environmental factors and activities, including managing everyday affairs and creating situations to benefit personal needs. Ex: “In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live.”
  5. AutonomyIndependence and regulation of one’s own behavior independent of social pressures. Ex: “I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are contrary to the general consensus.”
  6. Positive Relations with Others – Engagement in meaningful relationships with others that include reciprocal empathy, intimacy, and affection. Ex: “People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others.”

*Descriptions are adapted from Tricia A. Seifert’s 2005 assessment of the Ryff Scales.
A short version of the Ryff Scale test can be taken here. A paper, 42-item version of the test is here. These and many more quizzes can be found on our comprehensive quiz page.

There are more models out there for psychological well-being. Most of the others are less empirically tested:

And in them all, you’ll find the prominence of meaning.
Meaning may be biggest factor for well-being and life-satisfaction, and at the least it seems to be a foundation upon which other factors rely.

Without a ‘why’, after all, where is the how?

‘Meaning’

‘Meaning’ itself is a construct.
Michael Steger, a renowned researcher in meaning, has lobbied for refining this construct.
First, it could be useful to refer to “Meaning” as a combination of two factors: Comprehension and Purpose.
Comprehension encompasses people’s ability to find patterns, consistency, and significance in the many events and experiences in their lives, and their synthesis and distillation of the most salient, important, and motivating factors. People face the challenge of understanding their selves, the world around them, and their unique niche and interactions within the world, and the notion of comprehension unifies these domains of understanding. Purpose refers to highly motivating, long-term goals about which people are passionate and highly committed. (Steger – 2012)

And Steger has more recently further refined his construction of meaning: (Steger 2016).

  1. Coherence – a sense of comprehensibility and one’s life making sense.
  2. Purpose – a sense of core goals, aims, and direction in life.
  3. Significance – a sense of life’s inherent value and having a life worth living.
These metrics, later adopted into the “Multidimensional Existential Meaning Scale” (MEMS) have been helpful for precision in research. “Regression and relative importance analyses showed that each MEMS subscale carried predictive power for relevant variables and other meaning measures.” (George 2016)
And this division is consistent with some other researchers’ distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, where…
Meaning is defined as a sense of comprehension (coherence) and significance in life, while
Purpose is defined as a sense of goals, aims, and direction in life. (George 2013)

Michael Steger and his co-authors are making incredible progress in Positive Psychology. If you’re interested in an overview of the field, this is the book for you.

Throughout this website, we do our best not to use ‘Meaning’ and ‘Purpose’ interchangeably. This can muddy the colloquial expectation for our readers, and it is useful to keep in mind that these divisions are important. Meaning is not a simple concept. Not only has further classification been useful for research, but we believe it would benefit humanity as a whole to adopt a more refined understanding of the topic.
With that said, this site presents a simple, memorable model for meaning in life, incorporating 4 cornerstones which set the foundation for experiencing joy. The stronger the 4 cornerstones, the more a sense of meaning will be had. More on that below.

As Positive Psychology research advances, specificity is growing, and there are plenty more terms and findings to explore. To see a fairly comprehensive overview of the ways meaning is being broken down, check out this article.
As a species and a society, we are still refining what we mean when we peer into meaning, happiness, well-being, etc. Nevertheless, the elephant in the room —  that meaning is crucial to a life well-lived — is as compelling and relevant as ever. Let’s look at some research findings.

Meaning is Key

So what’s the meat of the modern research?
As Positive Psychology clarifies meaning and purpose, there are a number of insights.

The following excerpts are from the comprehensive research analysis of Michael F. Steger in 2018 “Meaning and Well-Being“. In it is a meta-analysis of 70 studies on life in middle and old age, in which meaning in life was consistent in people with higher social integration, better health, higher everyday competence, high psychological well-being, and lower depressive symptoms.
“Meaning is positively correlated with experiencing positive affect and emotions (Chamberlain & Zika, 1988), such as love, joy, vitality (Steger et al., 2006), curiosity (Kashdan & Steger, 2007), and hope (Mascaro & Rosen, 2005). In fact, so much of this line of research has been published that a meta-analysis among older adults was feasible, identifying a near-large effect size between meaning and diverse measures of positive emotions (Pinquart, 2002).
Further, experimental evidence from one set of studies shows that increasing positive emotional states raises people’s perceptions of meaning (King et al., 2006). As one might expect, meaning is inversely correlated with negative affect and emotions (Steger et al., 2006).
“Among the relationships that have been found repeatedly in the literature are positive correlations between meaning and happiness, life satisfaction, positive emotions, hope, self-esteem, autonomy, positive relationships with others, competence, extraversion, conscientiousness, health, and longevity. Negative correlations have been replicated between meaning and negative emotions, depression, anxiety, stress, hopelessness, neuroticism, substance use problems, and suicidality. The body of evidence regarding meaning is large and growing quickly, and appears to reliably demonstrate the importance of meaning to human wellbeing and flourishing.
“Meaning also is positively related to broader indicators of SWB, such as happiness (Debats, van der Lubbe, & Wezeman, 1993), general well-being (Reker, 2002), psychological adjustment (O’Conner & Vallerand, 1998), and life satisfaction (Ryff, 1989). This latter finding includes one of the rare long-term longitudinal studies, demonstrating that meaning and life satisfaction are positively correlated over one year’s time (Steger & Kashdan, 2007). However, many of these results have been demonstrated over shorter periods of time such as one month (Steger et al., 2006) or 2-3 weeks (Steger & Frazier, 2005).
“Research shows that people who are searching for meaning are a little more likely to be anxious and unhappy, but also are more likely to be open-minded and interested about the world around them.” (Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008)
Time and time again, research is showing that meaning is the key to a life well-lived. Meanwhile, we are surrounded by sources that imply otherwise. Companies crowd our media-saturated lives, each competing for our attention for the sake of profit, selling us products that offer a quick and fleeting rush of pleasure.
What many of us suspect, that there is more to life than the happiness offered to us by stuff and entertainment, has been shown in research:
People who draw from self-centered or materialistic sources for happiness experience less life satisfaction as those who seek meaning in self-transcendence and altruistic activities. (Schell, 2009)
For all its importance, we might even call meaning a fundamental psychological need. (Routledge 2018)

Meaning on Health

It’s simple and yet striking: a person who sees their life as full of meaning is likely to be physically and psychologically healthier than a person who’s life lacks meaning. And a lack of meaning is a risk factor for depression and suicide. (Routledge 2018)
Meaning and a sense of purpose makes us more resilient against life stress and trauma. It even makes us live longer. (George and Park 2013)
Higher levels of meaning in life brings lower levels of stress, and that means fewer instances of stess-related disorders, like PTSD. (Flannery 1990)(DeViva et al. 2016)
It even correlates with reduced risk of heart attack and stroke in older adults, some of the most common causes of death in the United States. (Kim 2012)(Kim 2013)

Concerning health, the list goes on an on. Meaning in life puts a spring in our step. It brings vitality, a reason to wake up in the morning. It would seem that when we have meaning in our lives, the message trickles down to our very cells. If you want to know more about meaning on health, check out some of the articles below.

More Scales and Research

Currently, there are a number of scales and standards by which researchers measure the effects of meaning in life:

  • The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) (Diener, et al 1985) primarily measures Subjective Well Being (SWB) and has proven reliable and flexible for users’ own criteria. (Pavot 1993)
  • The Five Factor Wellness Inventory (5F-Wel) (Myers & Sweeny 2005) tests for 17 factors of wellness, utilizing a holistic and prevention-focused approach, and has been especially useful for adolescents and counseling. (Rachele et al 2013)
  • The Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ) (Steger et al 2006) has 2 subscales, search and presence and is showing itself to be highly effective for various samples. (Semma 2018)
  • And there are many more scales for positive psychological research on well-being.

Hopeful data resulting from Seligman’s 2005 “Positive Psychology Progress Empirical Validation of Interventions

And, as Seligman asks in his 2005 paper: “Can psychologists create an evidence-based practice of positive psychology” with it being such a broad field?

Well, yes. It’s looking that way.

There is a considerable plethora of research showing, across the board, the empirical progress of Positive Psychology for human well-being. Our need for meaning in life, as a fundamental underpinning to our well-being, is in turn being stressed and elucidated. Again, that is why this website exists.

These are some of the most-insightful metanalyses out there collecting recent research findings on meaning, purpose, and positive psychology (that haven’t already been mentioned in citation):

Research is ongoing, and there is much to learn. As psychologists continue to uncover the secrets of happiness and joy, meaning in life becomes clear as perhaps the most important foundation for lives well-lived.

It’s for this reason that we provide resources for optimizing our readers 4 cornerstones of meaning.

The 4 Cornerstones of Meaning

In Our Model for meaning IN life, we break down its primary sources as an interplay of 4 simple, memorable, powerful elements:

Within each of the above sections, you’ll find extensive writing with tools, tips, and resource to help you on your journey through life, fostering each cornerstone as a source of meaning in life.

Infographics

These are a few of our favorite infographics on meaning in life. Click each one to see the full version. Enjoy!

From the folks at Happify. Click twice for a zoomed-in view.

From SAP’s article “Why Companies of the Future Need Purpose

Books

These books are about the power of meaning in life. By reading them, you’ll develop further insight into the value of meaning for well-being, the latest research in positive psychology, and more.

Perhaps the landmark book of Positive Psychology.


Seligman’s other top-selling book.


This book has taken the world by storm. Quickly becoming a best-seller, this book takes a journalistic approach to the subject by examining many stories and interviewing authors and scientists.


An easy read on the subject, affirming and strengthening many of the aspect of purpose-driven living.


Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Auschwitz, explores the human capacity for purpose and perspective in this historic book.


We are each our own therapist, after all. The approach of this book is applicable for anyone reading for themselves.

A well-written romp about meaning and its power to change people in remarkable ways.


This is a comprehensive look at meaning in the world; how it’s experienced differently by cultures and individuals. Perfect for if you’re interested in meaning as a scholarly subject in and of itself.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “mee-high cheek-sent-mee-high”) presents key research on engagement and optimal experiences. When, along with this, life is full of meaning, one experiences a ‘Unified Flow State’.

An examination of meaning by examine meaning along five dimensions: the architecture of meaning, responding to uncertainty, meaning from retrospection, compensating for meaning violations, and restoring meaning: physiological and neurocognitive mechanisms.


Why have people from different cultures and eras formulated myths and stories with similar structures? What does this similarity tell us about the mind, morality, and structure of the world itself?


Widely regarded as one of the seminal overviews on Positive Psychology.

Exactly as it sounds, here is the 2009 encyclopedia on the subject.

Exploring the positive neuroscience research that illuminates the brain mechanisms enabling human flourishing.


This is a high concept exploration into positive (and existential) psychology that would best serve people who are interested in both positive psychology and philosophical perspectives


The book focuses on how different psychological movements have historically dealt with happiness, culminating in the field of positive psychology.

On Health:

Videos

References

Cited Research