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Why Meaning Does in Fact Matter: An Exploration of Meaning in Life and its Impact on Well-Being

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posted on 2021-11-14, 05:35 authored by Grouden, Melissa Emily

Human beings are naturally inclined to search for, and achieve meaning in life as a means of understanding life events, and integrating them into a coherent whole. Although the experience of possessing meaning in life has been widely researched, the process of searching for meaning which is of utmost importance, has been largely neglected (Steger, 2009). These two constructs are argued to be related, yet distinct from one another, and they share a weak inverse relationship (e.g., Steger & Kashdan, 2006). However, searching for meaning does not appear to lead to the attainment of meaning as one might intuitively expect (Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008). As research has tended to be cross-sectional, there is scope to explore how the relationship between these two constructs unfolds over time. Meaning in life appears to share a positive relationship with well-being such that happiness and life satisfaction are elevated, and depression reduced; however, search for meaning has been shown to have the opposite pattern of correlates (Park, Park, & Peterson, 2010). Given that searching for meaning is an instinctual human motivation, it is important that research investigate whether it does share positive relations with well-being under certain conditions, and whether these relationships are evidenced longitudinally too. Additionally research has considered whether certain personal qualities might be closely linked to both searching for, and having meaning in life (e.g., McAdams, 2012; Michael & Snyder, 2005; Steger et al., 2008). It is also valuable to investigate whether certain dispositional traits might facilitate productive search for meaning which leads to meaning attainment, and preclude the experience of improverished well-being while searching for meaning. Chapters Two to Five explored the relationship between search for meaning, presence of meaning, and well-being, and considered what influence dispositional traits might have on these processes. The sample used for these chapters comprised 543 community adults (15 to 81 years) who completed measures of presence of meaning, search for meaning, happiness, life satisfaction, depression, rumination, hope, and grit five times with three-month intervals. Generally, findings obtained from analyses confirmed that while searching for meaning is an essential human process, it does not appear to predict a gain in the presence of meaning. Additionally, variation in the two constructs at different times in the lifespan gives weight to a developmental perspective for understanding of the overall meaning process, incorporating both search for meaning and presence of meaning dynamically over time. The pattern of correlates between search for meaning, presence of meaning, and well-being outcomes was confirmed with longitudinal data, however the research showed that search for meaning exhibited stronger negative relationships with life satisfaction and happiness when individuals reported low presence. Furthermore, when life satisfaction was very high, searching predicted an increase in presence longitudinally, highlighting that under some conditions, search for meaning does not lead to impoverished well-being. Age-related results were obtained for the relationships between search for meaning and presence of meaning with various outcomes. In particular, presence of meaning predicted increased happiness and life satisfaction, and decreased depression over time for older adults, but not for younger adults; this result suggests that the beneficial impact of meaning on well-being only starts to unfold later in life. Additionally, for older adults reporting high presence of life, less depression and rumination were reported when searching for meaning. The results also showed that search for meaning and depression were more strongly positively related and rumination predicted increased search in younger individuals. Although as mentioned, searching for meaning has not been shown generally to actually lead to increased meaning in life, the present research demonstrated that this did occur for individuals with high grit: having tenacity, determination and passion for goals. Furthermore, hope and grit were both found to mitigate the negative well-being outcomes resultant from searching for meaning, thus making the search for meaning more fruitful, and less likely to harm one‘s well-being. While the first four chapters explored meaning on a general level, the degree to which individuals felt that they search for meaning in life, and the overall level of meaningfulness that they experienced, the subsequent two chapters elucidated the more specific sources of meaning in life. Research has examined what brings human beings a sense that their lives are meaningful, and these sources vary between individuals from relationships with others, to personal development, to social and political beliefs (O‘Connor & Chamberlain, 1996). Although there is quite some variation between individuals, concerning the nature and degree of sources, on the whole, relationships with other people are thought to be most meaningful to people (e.g., Debats, 1999). Individuals tend not to derive meaning from just one sphere in life however, and research has demonstrated that it is advantageous for well-being to have greater breadth of meaning: one should experience meaning in a variety of areas in life (e.g., Reker & Woo, 2011). Research still needs to examine more closely which sources of meaning are of greatest importance, and determine variations according to demographic factors such as age, gender and education level. Further, the possibility of particular sources of meaning being differentially predictive of well-being outcomes has yet to be explored. Holding a strong conviction that one‘s sources of meaning are important may also have an impact on overall meaning and well-being levels. Additionally, strongly endorsing a wide variety of sources may facilitate the process of searching for meaning leading eventually to meaning attainment and fewer negative well-being outcomes. For the last two chapters a community sample of 247 individuals (30 to 69 years) provided open-ended descriptions of the meaning in their lives, rated their meaning in certain domains, and completed 11 well-being measures. Family was most frequently reported as an important source of meaning, followed by interpersonal relations, however health also featured prominently when individuals were prompted with a list of possible domains. Personal growth was more meaningful for younger people, whereas standard of living and community activities were more meaningful for older adults. Leisure activities were more meaningful for males, whereas females derived meaning from life across a wide range of sources. Those with higher education found community activities meaningful, whereas those with less education found family, standard of living, health, leisure activities and life in general more meaningful. These findings highlight that although some aspects of life are meaningful for all individuals, such as relationships with others, the way that meaning is constructed varies according to demographic groups. Meaning from family and health was found to facilitate the process of searching for meaning leading to greater presence of meaning. Also, meaning from family, interpersonal relationships, health, religiosity/spirituality and life in general mitigated negative well-being outcomes when searching for meaning. Finally, highly endorsing a larger variety of sources buffered against impoverished well-being when searching for meaning. Meaning was obtained from important spheres such as family and interpersonal relationships, but also, strongly endorsing a large number of sources alleviated the negative impact of searching for meaning on well-being. This research makes valuable contributions with its longitudinal findings. The results also go some way in illuminating the complex ways in which search for meaning and presence of meaning are related to one another, to well-being outcomes, and how they are influenced by personality traits. This research has also considered meaning from a global, general level, and then delved deeper to the level of sources of meaning in order to understand more specifically what provides human beings with a sense of meaning. All of the obtained findings are discussed in Chapter Eight, with a focus on how these might be applied practically, for example in treatment interventions aiming to mitigate experiences of psychopathology. This chapter concludes by contemplating the strengths and limitations associated with the research, and detailing new directions for subsequent investigations to take.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and the Cognitive sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Jose, Paul