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Meaning in life is often considered to be a vague and abstract concept, which has been difficult to define. Usually, meaning in life has been conceptualized as a coherent sense of identity, an understanding of the self, the world, and life in general, goal-directedness, or a sense of purpose in life. It has also been described as a cognitive construct that helps in discovering significant aspects of life.

Having a sense of meaning in life has been found associated with positive emotions, increased self-esteem, lesser depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of wellbeing. Over the years, different psychologists have given their perspectives on the concept of the meaning in life. These differing perspectives help in getting a better understanding of the concept of meaning in life. It also gives an understanding of how the concept has developed throughout the years, within psychology.

Alfred Adler
The psychoanalyst and founder of Individual Psychology, Alfred Adler, in his book, What Could Life Mean to You, published in 1931, acknowledged that the idea of meaning in life is age-old. In his book, he mentioned that the way to find meaning in life is to make a contribution to the life of others. Adler suggested that to have meaning in life, the person should believe in cooperation and have an interest in contributing to the welfare of society.

In his book, Adler further emphasizes that the meaning in life lies in communication, and not being in isolation. If this does not happen then the individual has unpleasant experiences. By suggesting this, he was again giving emphasis on contributing to the life of others. He also suggested that in contributing to the life of others, the individuals develop, and enhance their skills and abilities. In order to feel significant, Adler suggested that individuals should be significant to others.

Therefore, according to Adler, meaning in life can be experienced by making a contribution to the life of others. In this regard, later on, in 1939, Adler introduced his concept of social interest, which is about helping others - being respectful and considerate - to strive for a better society.  

Rollo May
Similar ideas have been conveyed by the existential psychologist, Rollo May. In the 1950s, Rollo May emphasized on having a healthy communal orientation. A healthy communal orientation is a strong concern for the welfare of others. This can be viewed in contrast to an unhealthy communal orientation, in which people are confused about themselves and are not sure about what they want. Due to this, they then turn to others meaninglessly in order to overcome their disconnect and separateness from others, only ending up being more desperate and more lonely.

The unhealthy communal orientation, according to May, results from unhealthy individualism, which involves a lack of sense of community and hyper-competitiveness, leading to interpersonal antagonism and separation from others. This unhealthy individualism eventually leads to a feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and a sense of meaninglessness. Therefore, according to May, having a healthy communal orientation gives meaning in life and helps in avoiding the experience of meaninglessness.

Around the same time as Rollo May, the existential psychologist, Viktor Frankl suggested that meaning in life is one of the major goals that drive human behavior. He referred to this as the will to meaning. This will to meaning, according to Frankl is innate.

Victor Frankl
Frankl categorized meaning in life in three different ways. First, he suggested that meaning in life is derived from one’s accomplishments, which include creative works such as art. Second, meaning in life is derived from varied experiences such as traveling, enjoying nature, and even experiences associated with the feelings of love.

The third type of meaning, according to Frankl, is associated with the approach towards suffering and events that cannot be changed. In such instances, Frankl suggested that meaning could be derived from compassion or even humor. This type of meaning is the transcendental nature of human experience and is associated with the feeling of dignity in suffering. It is this derived meaning that helps individuals to survive their experience of suffering.

Frankl, further, suggested that it is the will to meaning that helps people to overcome the existential vacuum, which involves a sense of emptiness or blandness, and hopelessness in life. It is a sense of alienation and an inexplicable feeling of loneliness that a person experiences. It is from this idea that Frankl originated his logotherapy. Logotherapy is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals to find meaning in life. Logotherapy is known as the third school of Viennese psychotherapy – the first school being the approach of Sigmund Freud, and the second school being the approach of Alfred Adler.

These early perspectives of meaning in life led to the high popularity of the concept. It allowed psychologists to conduct extensive research on the notion of meaning in life. This is reflected in the more recent perspectives on meaning in life.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, published in the year 2002, suggested three different yet related aspects of meaning in life. Csikszentmihalyi suggested that one of the aspects of having meaning in life is purpose, which means that individuals have a goal that is challenging enough to make their lives to be significant. The goal should be such that it makes people focus their attention on it, and they get involved in activities that not only make the goal achievable but even enjoyable.

The second aspect of meaning in life, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is resolution in the pursuit of the goal. This means that having purpose is not enough. Individuals should be having an expression of intentionality. Csikszentmihalyi suggested that there should be a striving for the goal that individuals have and that their intent should be transferred into some action.

Finally, the third aspect of meaning in life, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is a sense of
harmony that results from the other two aspects, that is, having purpose as well as being able to act upon it. Individuals who have purpose and work towards achieving that, have their thoughts, feelings, and actions in congruence. Such individuals, Csikszentmihalyi suggested experience a deep sense of inner harmony, which eventually gives them meaning in life.

Michael Steger
In 2009, Michael Steger, Social and Health Psychologist, and the Director of the Center of Meaning and Purpose, Colorado State University, in his research demonstrated that meaning in life can be viewed in terms of two dimensions – presence of meaning and search for meaning. 

The presence of meaning is the degree to which people find their life to be significant and meaningful. It is about the extent to which people find their lives to be significant as well as the extent to which they find their life to be purposeful.

The search for meaning is the degree to which people engage themselves in the search for meaning. It is about the efforts that people put in, while they try to comprehend the significance and purpose of their lives.

With Steger suggesting two dimensions, more recently, psychologists have been emphasizing on viewing meaning in life in terms of multiple dimensions. In recent times, a tripartite view of meaning in life has emerged. According to the tripartite view, meaning in life has three distinct but related dimensions – comprehension, purpose, and mattering.

Comprehension is the extent to which people perceive a sense of coherence in their life. People who are high on comprehension have more clarity about their life and feel that their life makes sense. People who are low on comprehension experience their life as being incoherent and unclear.

Purpose is the degree to which people feel that they have valued goals and have direction in life. People who are high on purpose have a clear sense of their goals in life, they feel motivated and enthusiastic and have a greater sense of direction in life. People who are low on purpose, experience a sense of aimlessness and disengagement.

Finally, mattering is the extent to which individuals feel their existence is significant and that they are valued in the world. People who are high on mattering, feel that their significance has a lasting value. People who are low on mattering feel that their existence is of no significance and that their life matters to nobody.

The tripartite view attempts to give a better understanding of the concept of meaning in life. In 2017, social and positive psychologist Login George, along with health psychologist, Crystal Park, developed a scale to measure meaning in life, on the basis of these three dimensions. The tripartite view has, thus, helped in making the notion of meaning in life more refined.

Meaning in life is a concept that has been widely studied in psychology. In recent times, it has emerged to be a significant construct in positive psychology as well as cognitive psychology. From initially being viewed as a general, abstract concept to more recently being viewed as a multidimensional, refined construct, meaning in life has been described in many ways.

Over the years, some of the ways in which meaning in life has been suggested to be derived from are - making significant contributions to the society, being concerned about the welfare of others, being able to overcome suffering and emptiness, having purpose in life, feeling coherence, and feeling significant in life.

This article can also be found on the blog History of Psychology

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Brian Arbenz said...

These words resonated with me: "...a sense of harmony that results from the other two aspects, that is, having purpose as well as being able to act upon it."
In this era when print media (my former profession and avocation) have died out, it is very hard to feel as though I can act on my purpose or knowledge. When we have what we consider well founded analyses that the general public is missing, it is SO difficult to feel that we are being heard. Media today are so frenetic and driven by algorithms that meaningful writing and well researched findings are drowned out.
And groups I formerly worked with to do advocacy and activism simply don't value original research any longer. They want the standard talking points.
I do however appreciate the more thoughtful and patient web sites - like Life And Psychology. I'm finding it a good place to learn and discuss.

Saif Farooqi said...

It's really glad to know that you find my blog to be a good place to learn and discuss.
Yes, I agree. In today's time when there is so much information out there, it's really difficult to find meaningful and credible resources