We live in exciting times.
Over the last handful of decades, humanity has finally been applying the scientific method to the universally sought—yet conceptually illusive—subject of human ‘happiness.’
This newly blossoming area of study in psychology is being referred to as Positive Psychology.
Here’s a concise definition of Positive Psychology from some of its founding figures:
“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)
Multidisciplinary and ongoing, this field has been seeking to clarify not only what a well-lived life is, but also how we achieve it.
There is a lot to glean from this new field of study. You’ll find sections on this site covering almost every factor of well-being researched today.
But as research evolves, one particular (multifaceted) factor of well-being is proving to be an essential ingredient for a good life.
That factor is meaning.
It may seem obvious to some. Wise voices has spoken about the importance of virtue and living with purpose for millenia.And now, the scientific research shines like a beacon, affirming those voices of history:
Meaning is key to a life well-lived.
Bringing attention and practical implementation to meaning is the central motivation of this site. A sense of meaning—meaning “IN” life, an experience—is accessible to everyone.
And this site is packed with tools, skills, and resources to empower people to live their lives with meaningful depth and joy.
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 has been found so far.
Positive Psychology: a Meaningful Start
In 1998, when Martin Seligman began his term as president of the American Psychological Association, he called attention to the elephant in the room of his field of science.
He implored his colleagues to shift some of their focus away from mental illness and disorders and ask new questions.
It was as if psychology was trapped in an avoidance framework, asking 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?
- 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 will be a very brief overview of the language and a couple models within the field.
Again, we’re going to pay special attention to meaning in life, as it is the interest of this page.
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 this site’s of model of well-being, which you can see here.
- Relationships – We are essentially social creatures. In this site’s ‘landscape of meaning‘ 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:
- Self-Acceptance – A positive attitude about oneself. Ex: “I like most aspects of my personality.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- Autonomy – Independence 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.”
- 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. Some are well-tested by this point. Some others are less empirically tested:
- The Well-Being Engine Model (Connor 2017)
- The Network Theory of Well-being (Bishop 2012)
- The Structure of Psychological Well-Being (Bradburn 1969)
And in them all, you’ll find the prominence of meaning.
Meaning may be the 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?
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 to being composed of three factors: (Steger 2016).
Coherence – a sense of comprehensibility and one’s life making sense.
Purpose – a sense of core goals, aims, and direction in life.
Significance – a sense of life’s inherent value and having a life worth living.
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.
This site has a highly comprehensive section on Purpose. Check it out here:
So, ‘Meaning’ and ‘Purpose’ are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Throughout this site, you’ll see them mentioned together when referring to their importance, as they are closely related. And, the distinction is made more clear in the Purpose section of this site.
And, still…our notion of ‘meaning’ is undergoing improvement.
Coherence, as a factor of meaning in life (MIL), is a work in progress. Research has failed to replicate its connection to the experience of MIL, despite it being useful for some. (Heintzelman 2013, Ratner 2016)
And some, like John Vaervaeke, feel that significance may wrap into a better construct: Mattering.
Mattering is a well-tested construct in other areas of psychology, (like in Attachment Theory, for example), and it could be more helpful for understanding MIL, especially considering its intersections with philosophy and politics. (Prilleltensky 2019)
“So I now would argue that what contributes to meaning in life is purpose, perspectival coherence, and mattering.” – John Vaervaecke on The Psychology Podcast
Meaning is not a simple concept. There are a number of conventions attempting to lend clarity to the construct.
On this site, we use a model for meaning in life, incorporating 4 cornerstones, that offers a simple, memorable way to think about meaning, setting the foundation for experiencing joy. The stronger the 4 cornerstones, the more a sense of meaning will be had. More on that below.
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?
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 than those who seek meaning in self-transcendence and altruistic activities. (Schell, 2009)
Meaning on Health
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)
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 and models for positive psychological research on well-being.
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):
- Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology – Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz 1999
- Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions – Seligman & Steen 2005
- Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future – Joseph, Harrington, & Wood 2007
- Personal Projects, Happiness, and Meaning: On Doing Well and Being Yourself – McGregor & Little 1998
- Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms With Positive Psychology Interventions:A Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis – Lyubomirsky & Sin 2009
- Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: the full life versus the empty life – Peterson, Park, & Seligman 2005
- Meaning in life and physical health: systematic review and meta-analysis – Czekierda, Banik, Park, & Luszczynska 2017
- Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use – Steptoe & Fancourt 2019
- Meaning in life as comprehension, purpose, and mattering: Toward integration and new research questions – George and Park 2016
- Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events – Park 2010
- The Handbook of Well-Being – Steger, M. F. 2018
- Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived – Keyes and Haidt 2003
- The Handbook of Positive Psychology – Snyder & Lopez 2002
- Positive Psychological Assessment: A Handbook of Models and Measures – Snyder & Lopez 2004
- Positive Psychology in Practice – Linley & Joseph 2004
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.
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.
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.
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’.
- The Pursuit of Meaning, Not Happiness, Is What Makes Life Incredibly Better – A short and sweet motivating article.
- Why You Should Prioritize Meaning in Your Everyday Life – Can simple, everyday actions make life more meaningful?
- Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? – In short, yes. A scientific controversy about the relationship between meaning and happiness raises fundamental questions about how to live a good life.
- Getting Over Happiness: Why Meaningfulness Is A Better Life Purpose – An interesting take on the last article by a ‘family enterprise consultant.’
- On The Power of Meaning: A Conversation With Author Emily Esfahani Smith – A detailed interview with the author of one of the best-selling books on meaning.
- Choose Meaning Over Happiness – “Happiness is fleeting but meaning is forever.”
- Key Scientific Papers of Positive Psychology – This list, containing a collection of key paper from Pos. Psych., serves as a great overview for the field, and quickly shows the importance of meaning.
- How a Sense of Purpose in Life Improves Your Health – A more meaningful life is likely to be healthier as well. Here’s why.
- Does Your Life Have Purpose? – Warning that this article uses ‘purpose’ interchangeably, when they usually are talking about ‘meaning.’
- Meaning in life and physical health: systematic review and meta-analysis – A thorough scientific study on this topic.
- You’re More Likely to Exercise if You Have a Sense of Purpose – A short and sweet article highlighting this correlation.
- We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of It Is Nonsense – Aiming to cut through the fluff of ‘wellness’ and get to the core of what’s more effective, we arrive at meaning in life.
There’s more to life than being happy
Happiness comes and goes, says writer Emily Esfahani Smith, but having meaning in life — serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you — gives you something to hold onto.
How to unlock the power of purpose
Imagine a pill that would aid cognitive decline, help prevent macroscopic stroke, aid sleep, and add 7 years to your life. How much would you pay for it? Would you take it?
Why You Should Strive for a Meaningful Life, Not a Happy One
This video argues that pursuing happiness is a futile endeavor, and that we should aim to live a meaningful life instead. And it proposes how to cultivate meaning.
Articles by order mentioned:
The Concept of Eudaimonic Well Being
The Positive Psychology Center’s website
What is the Meaning of Life, According to Positive Psychology?
There’s More to Life Than Being Happy
Purpose in Life Brings Longevity
What is Self-Transcendence? Definition and 6 Examples
The Different Types of Love
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