What are meaning & purpose in life?
You may have heard countless answers to the question 'what is my meaning in life’? Some pop philosophers may have told you what The Meaning Of Life is. Some Holy Books may have introduced you to a Cosmic Purpose. Some esoteric authors may have told you not to listen to others, but to manifest your own meaning in life. Some therapists or life coaches may have done some exercises with you about meaning in life. Possibly you may have read the book 'Man's search for meaning' from Viktor Frankl. All these answers may be part of the larger puzzle of your meaning in life. Some of these pieces may fit your personal experiences, but others may not.
Meaning in life is a personal quest...
Although people can inspire each other, in the end, each individual decides for themselves what they find meaningful. A key tool to discover your personal sense of meaning are your critical intuitions.
Listening to your critical intuition means...
...when we carefully listen to what we are experiencing, we can intuit what is more meaningful in our life and what is less meaningful. We usually do this automatically. For example, you are reading this text and are not watching football on the TV; apparently at this moment you intuit that reading this is more meaningful. Unfortunately, sometimes we feel overwhelmed by what others are telling or by our emotions, and it can be difficult to differentiate between equally meaningful options. Therefore, it is important to critically listen to our intuition, and not automatically believe each fleeting emotion that may pop up. In sum, listen to what your gut feeling tells you is meaningful for you, but at the same be critical about what your gut may be telling you.
If you want to learn more about meaning in life...
...you have come to the right place! We are research experts and practitioners on meaning (read more). We have meetups, training, courses, and conferences for everyone, regardless of how much you know about living a meaningful life. Join our monthly self-development groups to learn from an expert and share your experiences. If you are serious about learning about your meaning in life, follow a training on 'Discover your meaning in life'. If you want to learn how to help clients with questions about meaning or life, you may want to follow one of our certificates or CPD practitioner training. Join our conferences to learn about the science and practice of meaning, share your dissertation or research, and to learn about qualitative research methods such as phenomenology.
Some scientific bits about meaning
How do researchers define the experience of meaning in life?
How can we define meaning in life? The following summarises a large body of empirical research (in Vos, 2022b):
‘Meaning in life describes a set of psychological experiences which can be empirically distinguished from phenomena such as happiness, meaninglessness, and ordinary daily life (Vos, 2016a, 2018). Psychological research has shown that most individuals do not experience One Absolute Ultimate Meaning Of Life -although some individuals say they do- but they experience multiple simultaneous meanings in life which can change over time and which do not need to be religious or spiritual. The experience of meaning can involve smaller as well as larger events, such as listening to a bird in a park as well as marriage. Both in smaller and larger meaningful activities and experiences, meaning seems to involve an experience of transcendence and significance that deviates from mundane daily life, -like the meaning of a sentence transcends its grammar and spelling. The experience of meaning also seems to require individuals to take up their personal responsibility to discover what is meaningful for them and translate this into daily life actions.
Although philosophers and psychologists differ in their theoretical definitions of meaning, a review of 37 empirical studies has identified seven empirical components to the definition of meaning in life (Vos, 2016a, 2017, based on for example: Melton & Schulenberg, 2008; Steger, 2012; Shin & Steger, 2014; Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Reker & Chamberlain, 2000; Wong, 2012). These components are like different facets of a diamond which can only be seen when light is cast from different angles. Although different researchers have looked at the experience of meaning from slightly different research paradigms, the facets they identified refer to the same phenomenon (this was for example suggested by large correlations between psychometric instruments operationalizing these facets) (Vos, 2021).
Motivation (e.g. purpose, goals, directionality): An individual’s motivation describes the fact that an individual moves towards directions, goals, or purposes in life (the word ‘motivation’ is etymologically derived from ‘movere’, to move). For example, a client may initially strive towards professional success, but may learn in meaning-oriented therapy to shift towards social and ethical goals. Thus, there is a directionality in the experience of meaning, although this directionality does not need to be in the form of specific future goals that individuals move towards in a linear line as individuals may experience meaning in the process of moving through life and not merely in achieving the goals in the most efficient way possible (this is sometimes described as the difference between ‘teleologic’ versus ‘non-teleological’ approaches, referring to Aristotle’s term for goal/purpose ‘telos’; Vos, 2018,2021).
Values: Most individuals do not seem to move randomly through life, but they follow norms and values, which are their subjective and inter-subjective principles about how they try to realize their motivations. For example, individuals try to achieve their individual goals in ethical ways.
Understanding (e.g. coherence): The experience of meaning often involves an understanding of self, life, world, and events, such as a sense of coherence of one’s own life history and one’s life situation. For example, the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness can make patients reflect on the legacy they were given (where they come from), the legacy they live (where they are now) and the legacy they still want to live and that they want to give to those who will remain after their death (Vos, 20216b).
Self-worth & significance: Individuals need to feel worthy to follow their own meaning in life and their own meaning needs to feel significant, instead of robotically following the expectations from family, friends, and society. For example, individuals may first need to go through the psychodynamic processes of separation-individuation, emotionally process early-life traumas, and develop self-compassion before they can listen to what their own critical intuition tells them what is meaningful in life.
Goal-management & self-regulation skills: Living a meaningful life also includes practical skills. Individuals need to translate their sense of meaning into specific steps, actions, and goals. Therefore, research has shown how goal management and self-regulation skills are strongly positively correlated with a sense of meaningfulness in life.
Existential skills: Individuals will inevitably face challenges and their human limitations, such as mortality, freedom, and responsibility. Individuals may need existential competences to cope with life’s challenges and limits, such as meaning-centered coping, coping flexibility and psychological resilience and hardiness.
Commitment: The seventh component of the experience of meaning in life follows from the clinical observation that some clients seem to have all previous six components, but they still sit on the shore looking at other people sailing meaningfully through life without taking their own sailing boat onto the water (Vos, 2017). Thus, the experience of meaningfulness in life requires a commitment to actually striving towards realizing meaning in daily life.
In sum, the general experience of meaning in life may be defined as ‘the subjective experience of being motivated and committed to moving in a self-regulated and existentially-competent way towards self-determined directions, goals, or purposes in life, in line with one’s values and understanding of the world and significance of oneself’ (Vos, 2022, p.45).’
What is the problem with populist authors talking about meaning in life?
The topic of meaning in life is popular, possibly even a hype. At least this is the impression if you walk into any bookstore in London, United Kingdom. The shelves seem overloaded with books on pop philosophy and self-help books with ambitious titles such as ‘Seven steps to a meaningful life’ and ‘Manifest your purpose’. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people understandably asked existential questions, which were answered in countless articles in newspapers and magazines (Vos, 2021). Also on the scientific side, many psychology, psychotherapy, and medical conferences have jumped on the meaning bandwagon.
However, it almost seems as if the more we talk about meaning in life, the less we understand it. The popularisation of the topic of meaning in life sometimes seems to reduce the complexity and totality of the lived experiences of meaning into a ‘Burger McMeaning’ that you can order from an ‘existential fast-food’ author, get a quick fix for your existential hunger, but you may quickly feel hungry again due to its lack of healthy and fulfilling nutrients (Vos, 2017). That is, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1927) said that in each era, people cast a different light at life, and in our era this seems to be the light of populism. How could we describe the populist light on meaning?
Firstly, there seems to be a lack of attention for systematic empirical research on meaning in life. For example, whereas conferences would never give the stage to a self-acclaimed expert on a psychological topic such as ‘depression’ or ‘COVID-19’, this seems to happen for the topic of meaning, -even though there is a large body of empirical research, and there are systematic researchers in this field. Philosophers are given the stage to present their personal theories, sometimes supported by a self-confirming selection of empirical papers, which may only be relevant for a specific group of individuals in a specific era. The topic of meaning may even be hijacked by authors who want to impose their political opinion, such as Jordan Peterson talks about meaning in life to levy his neoconservative ideology which he bases on a highly selective reading of the research field. Furthermore, the inspiring but non-evidence-based words from authors such as Viktor Frankl can sometimes be uncritically repeated time and again, almost like cult leaders. Some of Frankl’s ideas such as the three pathways to meaning are uncritically taken as the foundations of many psychological treatments, despite a lack of empirical support (Vos, 2022b, 2017, 2016a; Vos & Vitali, 2018). All these ideas may be very inspiring, but may not apply to everyone and may not be supported by systematic empirical research. Consequently, there are many unfounded myths about meaning in the general public (see table 1).
Secondly, even if researchers are given the stage, they sometimes seem to highlight only one small piece of empirical evidence, like casting light from one specific angle onto a multi-faceted diamond which only lightens one facet. This reductionism is for example visible in the elevation of authors who have only published one questionnaire or did one clinical trial on meaning and they are expected to know everything about meaning. However, meaning in life is a complex phenomenon. For example, a review of 37 studies has identified seven empirical components to the definition of meaning in life, which are all strongly correlated to each other, and therefore all components should be acknowledgment when talking about meaning in life (Vos, 2016a, 2017). For example, meaning includes a component on motivation, such as a sense of purpose, goals, or directionality in life, although this directionality does not need to be in the form of specific future goals but could also be about the path towards the destination. This also involves values, such as how individuals move towards their goals in life in line with their subjective ethical norms and values. An individual develops their sense of meaning in the context of their life story, generations before and after them, and it is this understanding of larger coherence that directs them in life. Individuals also need to feel worthy to follow their own direction in life and their own meaning needs to feel significant, instead of robotically following the expectations from family, friends, and society. Living a meaningful life also includes practical skills, to translate their general sense of direction into specific steps, actions, and goals, for example via goal-management and self-regulation skills. Individuals will also need existential skills to live a meaningful life in the face of their inevitable challenges and human condition. Finally, individuals need to be committed to actually try realising their meaning potential in daily life. Thus, the experience of meaning in life needs all these components, and cannot be reduced to only one of these. The general experience of meaning in life may be defined as the total subjective experience of being motivated and committed to moving in a self-regulated and existentially-competent way towards self-determined directions, goals, or purposes in life, in line with one’s values and understanding of the world, self-worth and significance of one’s meanings (Vos, 2022, p.45).
Thirdly, although meaning is a multifaceted phenomenon that may only be understood with multidisciplinary collaboration, sometimes there seems to be competition between different paradigms. Some authors also seem to claim the monopoly over the topic of meaning, as if only logo-therapists, positive psychologists or existential therapists can talk about meaning, and for example cognitive behaviour therapy or cognitive psychology are totally irrelevant for understanding life.
Fourthly, there also seems to be a clear cultural bias in how psychologists and psychiatrists approach meaning in a functionalistic way, for example in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. These authors sometimes seem to approach meaning as something that we can ‘make’ and ‘control’, like the variables in a mathematical function, and where the type of meaning that we select appears random and replaceable. Although this functionalistic approach to meaning dominates modern-western and neoliberal countries, this functionalistic approach is less frequently found in other cultures and seems absent in most of human history, because most people seem to have a traditional or phenomenological/critical-intuitive approach to meaning (Vos, 2022b, 2017). However, popular authors and speakers touring events across the globe continue presenting meaning as something that we can make and randomly replace if needed.
The previous paragraphs are deliberately provocative for pedagogical reasons. In many situations, authors, speakers, and conferences will of course address both populist and evidence-based aspects of meaning in life, and they will acknowledge their limitations. However, this introduction shows how the experience of meaning in life is like a multi-faceted diamond; if we cast light from only the narrow popular angle we will only see one facet. If we want to see more facets and get an understanding of the totality and complexity of the phenomenon of meaning in life, we may also want to cast light from other, non-populist angles.
What are the six universal types of meaning in life?
What types of meaning do individuals experience in different cultures and times?
To answer this question, Vos (2022) conducted a systematic literature review on all studies in which researchers have asked what individuals experience as meaningful, valuable, purposeful, or important in life. The findings from 107 studies in 45.710 participants were categorised in six types and 29 sub-types of meaning in life:
materialistic types of meaning (e.g. material conditions, professional-educational success),
hedonistic types (hedonistic/embodied experiences),
self-oriented types (resilience, self-efficacy, self-acceptance, autonomy, creative self-expression, self-care),
social types (social connections, belonging, conformism, altruism, children),
larger types (purposes, personal growth, temporality, justice/ethics, spirituality/religion),
existential-philosophical types (being-alive, unique, free, grateful, responsible).
This universal meaning typology was created into0 the Meaning Sextet Questionnaire, which was developed via an interview study and input from scientific experts on meaning in life, tested in a pilot study, and confirmed in a world-wide survey in 1281 participants in 49 countries. The findings of the survey confirmed that in all countries, individuals report this meaning sextet.
The studies also showed that materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meaning correlate with low psychological well-being, and social and larger meanings with large psychological well-being (Vos, 2022a).
Similarly, the more different types of meaning a client explored in psychotherapy, the larger was their improvement in psychological well-being (Vos, 2022a; Vos & Vitali, 2018), This was explained with a metaphor: if a therapist only invites patients to consider a limited number of meanings (such as Frankl’s three pathways to meaning), this seems like fishing with a tiny fishing rod. In contrast, if a therapist asks patients to consider all six types and 29 sub-types of meaning, this seems like fishing with a large fishing net: the more types/sub-types of meaning are explored with a client, the larger is the likelihood that any of the types/sub-types may be relevant for the clients (Vos, 2022b).
Furthermore, meaning-centered therapists such as Elizabeth Lukas have suggested that clients should have between three and five important meanings in their life, as this could make them more resilient in the case that one meaning in life cannot be achieved (Vos, 2016b). Indeed, the more different types of meaning an individual experiences, the better their psychological well-being is, that is the less symptoms such as depression and anxiety do they report (Vos, 2022a, 2020). Vos’ Corona Survey also showed that during the COVID-19 lockdowns and self-isolation, many individuals reported that they were not able to fulfil certain meanings in life -such as going to a football game, as the stadiums were closed. Individuals who had multiple important types of meaning in their life reported lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, as they could shift their focus towards other types of meaning that were not hindered by the pandemic (Vos, 2021b).
What universal approaches are there to meaning in life?
Individuals seem to differ in how they approach any type of meaning in life. Therefore, this section answers the question: How do individuals approach meaning? The Meaning Approach Scale was filled in by 1281 participants in 49 countries, which showed that individuals can approach meaning in three different ways: traditional, functionalistic, and critical-intuitive approaches to meaning in life (Vos, 2022c, 2020).
The traditional approach to meaning (‘do as others tell you’) means that an individual follows what their religion or social expectations tell what their meaning in life is, or they conform to the socio-economic position that they were born into. This is like a cast or class system, or in Medieval Europe when the place where you were born decided whether you would be a peasant, king, etc.
The functionalistic approach (‘you can make anything, regardless of others and life’) is based on the post-modernist idea that an individual can achieve anything in life, like a mathematical function: ‘do behaviour X, and you will get Y’. The functionalist approach has the following characteristics: (1) individuals can rationally and consciously decide their meaning in life; (2) individuals can define meaning in terms of specific well-defined and well-operationalised goals in life; (3) individuals should set large ambitious goals (‘live life to the max’); (4) individuals can move towards their goals in a linear line; (5) individuals need to maximise every activity in life to achieve their goals in the most efficient way; (6) individuals can randomly select and replace any types of meanings because all meanings have equivalent value to the individual; (7) individuals can achieve their goals in life by fulfilling materialistic conditions, e.g. by buying property, holidays or adventures; (8) individuals need to compete and fight for the survival of their personal meaning. Examples are the populist approaches to meaning in the introduction section. Many psychologists seem to approach meaning in a functionalist way, such as Acceptance and Commitment, Second-Wave Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or Schema Therapy.
The critical-intuitive approach to meaning (‘listen critically to your intuition’) means that individuals listen critically to their intuition, which is also called a phenomenological or critical-receptive attitude. The critical-intuitive approach means, that on the one hand, an individual accepts what their flow of experiences intuitively tells them what is meaningful (e.g. identifying meaning via systematic experiential exercises), and on the other hand the individual uses critical thinking skills (e.g. focus on rational, helpful beliefs). This was described before as immanent transcendence and dual attitude.
The world-wide survey of meaning in life showed that in western countries and neoliberal economies, individuals are more likely to have a functionalistic approach to meaning (Vos, 2022c, 2020). In contrast, individuals in non-western and less neoliberal economics are more likely to have a traditional or phenomenological approach. Furthermore, traditional and functionalistic approaches are moderately correlated with worse mental well-being whereas critical-intuitive approaches correlated strongly with better mental well-being (Vos, 2022c, 2020). The modern economic philosophy of neoliberalism seems to be built on a functionalistic approach to life, and seems to promote individual customers and citizens to live their lives functionalistically (Vos, 2020). Consequently, the globalisation of neoliberal consumerism and humanitarian military interventions also seems to implicitly export a functionalistic approach and a focus on materialistic/hedonistic/self-oriented types of meaning to countries which previously had a more traditional or phenomenological focus on social and larger types of meaning in life; this cultural transition may consequently lead to an increased mental health crises in these countries (Vos, 2020). Communist countries seem to have had a traditional or functionalist focus towards meaning in life, as each individual was expected to function like a radar in the socio-economic system; when communist countries open up and integrate more neoliberal ideas, such as China and Russia, they seem to become more functionalistic than neoliberal countries (ibidem).
How does society influence my individual meaning in life?
How is the experience of meaning influenced by their social context, such as the dominant types and approach to meaning by people around them?
The previous sections have already preluded on how in pre-modern times and non-western cultures, individuals seemed to have a dominantly traditional or phenomenological approach to life, and they seemed to focus on social and larger types of meaning. In western countries and neoliberal economies, individuals are more likely to have a functionalist focus on materialistic, hedonistic, or self-oriented types of meaning.
Individuals seem to be socialised in these approaches and types of meaning in a myriad of ways, often very implicitly and unconsciously. In modern western countries, parents and schools seem to teach relatively little and not explicitly about how to live life -in contrast with traditional religious schools or schools in communist systems. However, the school curriculum can implicitly teach a child that professional success and social status are meaningful, and that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything meaningful (Vos, Roberts & Davies, 2019).
Furthermore, on an average day, an individual citizen sees about 4000 adverts and logos, which may give explicit or implicit messages about life such as Pepsi Max’ slogan ‘live life to the Max’, Nike’s ‘just do it', Adidas ‘impossible is nothing’, Red Bull’s ‘put on your wings’, and Zurich Insurance helps us to be realist ‘because change happens’.
Governments also explicitly use propaganda and psychological nudging to steer citizens’ behaviour how they want, for example via the Behavioural Insights Teams -nick-named ‘Nudge Units’- and COVID-19 Communication Committees (Vos, 2021, 2020). Several critical philosophers and sociologists have argued, in line with the philosopher Michel Foucault, that western governments increasingly use propaganda and mass gaslighting, like communist countries already seem to have a longer tradition of doing, to make individuals conform, for example during the COVID-19 pandemic (Vos, 2021; Agamben, 2020; Espito, 2020). The reason that companies and governments are increasingly prescribing and manipulating the sense of meaning in life of individual consumers and citizens, is that meaning in life is a strong motivator for socio-economic behaviour. For example, the EPI-WIN Committee from the World Health Organisation recommended during the COVID-19 pandemic to appeal to the meaningfulness of doing our citizens’ duty to make individuals follow the governmental COVID-19 guidelines and use Protective Personal Equipment such as mouth-masks and social-distancing (Vos, 2021).
Consequently, the World Economic Forum concluded in 2016 that ‘meaning in life’ will be the most important topic in economics from 2020 onwards. They predicted that more than half of all economic behaviour will be predicted (and possibly manipulated) via the individual sense of meaning in life. This functionalistic approach from companies and governments seems reflected in the agenda of other supra-governmental bodies, such as UN agenda 2030. (Vos, 2020)
How has meaning in life developed in human history?
This section answers the question: How do the dominant types and approaches to meaning change over time in a culture? Obviously, each culture will have its unique history, and details about the start seems relatively speculative. The world history of meaning in life may be summarised as follows (see details in Vos, 2020).
In contrast with popular belief, animals do not merely focus on their survival, they also look after each other and show signs of moral behaviour (Van Waal, 2013). For example, when there is fire in a forest, animals will help other animals to get out safely -even other species or enemies. Similarly, archaeological and anthropological research indicates that in the early hunter-gatherer societies and early settlements, individuals focused on social and larger types of meaning, which often trumped functionalistic survival-of-the-fittest; individuals focused most likely on the community, helping others, being connected with nature, and worshipping higher deities.
Most of the oldest texts known to mankind are religious and spiritual texts, describing the importance of social and larger types of meaning in life, and denouncing materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meaning in life. The early gurus, prophets and philosophers may have intuited the psychological and social benefits of focusing of social and larger types of meaning in life (remember that the before-mentioned empirical research have shown that social and larger types of meaning are the best for our mental and physical health). Whereas the oldest Vedic religions and Confucianism seemed to have both phenomenological and traditional approaches to life, the three book religions introduced a more traditional approach. An emblematic story is how Moses broke the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written when he saw that his people were worshipping the golden calf. Instead of following materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meanings, individuals were explicitly instructed to listen to what the religious authorities told is truly meaningful, as directly communicated by the ultimate transcendent authority: God. The Thora included an elaborated set of behavioural rules, which some anthropologists have explained for their health benefits (Vos, 2020).
The general spirit of these rules seems existentially and psychologically beneficial as they promoted individuals to focus on social and larger types of meaning, but empirical research also indicates that it less mentally beneficial to follow these rules in a traditional or functionalistic way (Vos, 2020). However, the Terror Management Theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyzscinski, 2018) may explain the shift towards a traditional focus, as countless empirical studies show that in times of existential crisis and social transition, like the Jewish people were at that time when they were for many years living in the desert or the early Christian communities were prosecuted, individuals may feel so existentially threatened that they will become more conformist, conservative, form more rigid identities, and follow authoritarian figures.
Philosophy students and neoconservative authors sometimes seem to idealise the Ancient Greek society and seem to overestimate the influence at the time of Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. The majority of the population could not read, and were told by others what their socio-economic position and meaning in life was: women, slaves, and ethnic minorities. Only a very small minority of ‘academics’ (those studying at Plato’s Academy) was able to get rid of this traditional approach and of this materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented focus. The early philosophers seemed to understand the limitations of the traditional approaches to life, and they seemed to be looking for a phenomenological approaches to life, such as Plato’s cave allegory or some Stoic philosophers. However, we should not generalise these philosophers, as other philosophers were more functionalistic and seemed to embrace materialism and hedonism, such as Democrites and Epicurus. However, some neoconservative philosophers in the 20th and 21st century, such as Leo Strauss and Jordan Peterson, seem to idealise Ancient Greek philosophers and call us to return to their ideals, even though they seem to interpret the Ancient Greek through a traditional or functionalistic lens, and seem to ignore that these texts were written by the privileged few who used the oppression of minorities to dedicate their time to philosophising (Vos, 2020).
Flash forward to the European Middle Ages, which was dominated by the church who seemed to prescribe a cosmic-divine-social order: the position that an individual happened to be born into determined their meaning in life, and they were not allowed to question their position and the rules of the church and the king. In most European languages, this traditional approach is reflected in the etymology of the word ‘meaning’ which comes from the German word ‘Meinung’ or ‘meniti’, which originally described ‘something being communicated through oneself’, such as being-communicated-to, being-given-an-opinion, being-signified, being-given directions. Until the Middle Ages, the word ‘Meinung’ was often used to describe the traditional approach of how God’s will was ‘communicated’ (‘ge-meint’) through their work, by being in service to the community. However, during the Reformation, the word ‘Meinung’ transformed from implying a traditional attitude to a functionalistic attitude; in most European, Slavic, and Arabic languages, the word ‘meaning’ started to refer to negative and mundane connotations, such as subjective random opinion, vulgarity, childish desires and so on. To compensate for the loss of the traditional meaning of the word ‘meaning’, in several European languages, the word ‘vocation’ emerged to refer to a traditional approach to meaning, by which God, a higher power or destiny communicates someone’s meaning. The new word ‘vocare’ literally means being-called; Luther used a visual metaphor to explain how individual meaning was about being called by God: God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.
However, at the same time as the increased functionalistic usage of the word ‘meaning’, a phenomenological word emerged in European languages by the end of the Middle Ages. The phenomenological approach is reflected in the word ‘Sinn’ in Continental European, Slavic, and Russian languages (‘Sinn’, ‘Zin’, ‘Sense’, ‘Sensida’, ‘Smesl’) with very similar meanings across languages, except for the English word ‘sense’ which seems unrelated to ‘Sinn’ in the other languages. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart and the church reformer Martin Luther started to use the term ‘Sinn’ to describe meanings that are neither pre-determined by a cosmic-divine-societal order (i.e., the traditional approach behind the term ‘vocation’) nor purely subjectively and randomly chosen (i.e., the functionalistic approach behind the term ‘meaning’). The word ‘Sinn’ is derived from the Latin word ‘sentire’, which means perceiving and is associated with using all our senses, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It is this term ‘Sinn’ that the phenomenological or critical-intuitive attitude refers to, and which is a more dominant approach to meaning in non-western and non-neoliberal countries, whereas the functionalist approach to meaning is primarily dominant in Anglo-Saxon countries which only use the word ‘meaning’ (Vos, 2017).
By the end of the European Middle Ages, a middle class emerged which became more educated and literate. This also meant that individual citizens started to read the Bible themselves and questioned the legitimacy of traditional authorities such as clergy and kings. The traditional approach to meaning in life started to fade, individuals started to question their allocated position and identity, and the growing middle class developed more opportunities to determine their own life. Possibly for the first time in history did large masses start to ask themselves the question ‘what is my meaning in life’ (Berman, 2009). Thus, the question ‘what is my meaning’ seems to be a result from modernity, and is maximum four centuries old; before that time, it did not occur to most ordinary people to ask a question like this (Vos, 2017).
The Industrial Revolution brought a functionalistic approach to life, by which ordinary workers seemed to become a traditional or functionalistic tool in a large socio-economic machine. The ideal of machines occupied the minds of intellectuals, and human beings were envisaged as ‘human machines’, and consequently a highly functionalised approach to life was propagated, which seems to last until today in most western countries (Vos, 2022a, 2020).
Similarly, both neoliberal and Marxist ideologies seemed to build on this functionalistic and materialistic approach to life, -obviously with clear differences. Adam Smith described how individuals are driven by a broad range of meanings, including social and larger types of meaning and the latter should trump the materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meaning that he saw in the industrial society. However, Smith’s texts were reinterpreted by neoliberals at the start of the 21st century, and in contrast with this plurality of Smith’ meanings, the neoliberal utopia seems to be one in which individuals can make their own meaning in life, preferably by buying materialistic stuff, hedonistic services and self-development. The Marxist/Communist idea of revolution also seemed to have a relatively functionalistic focus on taking over the materialistic means of production, but the materialistic functionalism of the revolutionary stage was regarded as the temporary condition for the final Marxist utopia in which each individual can determine their own meaning in life, -regardless of their individual type of meaning and of the approach to life.
As described before, we seem to live in an era dominated by the neoliberal paradigm, that seems to export the materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented functionalism to traditional and phenomenological societies. Former communist countries such as China also seem to transform their traditional communist approach into a materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented functionalism. Former traditional countries seem to respond by embracing some of these neoliberal approaches, or by defending their own approaches by radicalising in their traditional approach. The extreme response to the existential threat of a traditional approach to life, is the religious radicalisation of individuals who decide to hurt or kill those who they consider to be the threat to their way of life (Vos, 2020). As described before, to some extent this radicalisation may be understood against the research background, that the neoliberal/western functionalist focus on materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meaning seems to be mentally unhealthy. Furthermore, as Terror Management Theory implies, when individuals perceive a threat to their very existence -physically, mentally, socially, or spiritually-, these individuals may respond by radicalising in their views, and becoming more traditional, conformist and conservative in their approach and supporting authoritarian governments and military interventions more.
How do individuals develop their individual meaning in life?
How does meaning develop and change over an individual’s lifespan? As the previous sections have shown, individuals are exposed to many messages about meaning in life, during their upbringing, education and socio-economic life in countries that seem increasingly dominated by meaning-manipulating propaganda. More empirical research is needed on how individuals develop their sense of meaning in life, particularly children and young people (e.g. Russo-Netzer, 2022). In the last decade, more studies have emerged on the neurobiology of meaning in life, but it seems that there are still many open questions and speculations, and that there is no scientific consensus yet about a comprehensive evidence-based model of meaning in life.
A scoping review of the empirical literature was summarised with ‘the triad of the development of meaning in life’ (Vos, 2017): individuals seem to develop their individual sense of meaning in the interaction between what they can(not) do, must(not) do and what they do (not) want. For example, individuals are influenced by what they can(not) do, such as their social-historical context, biology, personality, genetics, long-term physical and mental problems, early life experiences, attachment styles, life stage, and life experiences. Individuals are also influenced by what they must (not) do, such as following the rules set by parents, schools, governments, judges, tax offices; this also involves behavioural conditioning, reinforcements, and nudging, such as rewards and punishments can make individual follow certain rules. The psychological process of cognitive dissonance reduction may explain that individuals adjust their sense of meaning to a situation that they cannot avoid; for example, as individuals cannot avoid tax officers, they have to pay taxed and to avoid feeling bad about this, they may start seeing paying taxes as meaningful and ‘for the common good’. Furthermore, within the restraints of what individuals can(not) and must(not) do, individuals have their own wishes, and they may have some bandwidth to make their own free decisions.
How free are we to decide our own meaning in life?
This section answers the question: How much freedom does the individual experience to determine their own meaning in life? How does the individual find meaning in times of adversity, and cope with existential boundary situations? Empirical research shows that individuals can experience a sense of freedom and transcendence, even in the most adverse life situations, where there is not much they can do and they are told by others what they must do, such as being imprisoned in a concentration camp (Vos, 2016a-b; Frankl, 1948/2013). Individuals who are able to feel some sense of freedom to determine their own meaning in life are more resilient in stressful life situations. For example, countless studies have shown that individuals who experience a sense of meaning experience lower levels of psychological stress when coping with a stressful life event (Vos, 2016a-b). The sense of meaning could function as a resource to cope with difficult life situations, such as a chronic or life-threatening disease. However, the ability to live a meaningful life in the face of life’s inevitable struggles does not imply a naïve denial of reality. Meaning without acceptance of one’s realistic constraints is likely to fail and lead to frustration, demoralisation, and hopelessness. Therefore, Viktor Frankl promoted the idea of ‘tragic optimism’, which is a dual attitude towards life that fosters a realistic acceptance of one’s life situation, while optimistically focusing on what remains meaningful, -like his love for his wife gave him the strength to get through his ordeal in concentration camps (Vos, 2015).
How can I live a meaningful life despite my struggles in life?
what is the existential impact of meaning in life, and how does meaning in life relate to existential givens, such as our finitude, isolation, and suffering? As described in the previous section, all of us inevitably face boundary situations in life, when we suffer and struggle: there are things we cannot do and things we must do, even though we may have different wishes. Countless studies show how individuals can respond in many ways to these existential limitations. In general, individuals seem to have the option to get into an existential crisis, deny or avoid the existential limits, or accept the existential limits.
For example, when individuals are struggling with existential topics -such as their finitude, suffering, or the loss of loved ones-, they may experience a latent or manifest crisis in their meaning, identity, existence, and spirituality. Often, a latent crisis starts with small feelings of discomfort or low satisfaction in life, without understanding their precise cause. This could escalate into a larger crisis, where individuals question everything in life and feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges (Vos, 2017).
Many studies on Terror Management Theory have shown how in response to existential terror such as confrontation with loss and finitude, many individuals seem to experience an existential anxiety. An existential mood is not about a specific object -like a dog phobia is about dogs- but this is about life in general: life in general seems frightening. Whereas dogs can be avoided, life cannot. Therefore, individuals can avoid or deny their finitude and limitations, for example by minimising the severity of a physical disease such as COVID-19. Alternatively, individuals can rigidly clasp onto stable beacons in times of crisis; for example, in response to collective crises such as 9/11 or the COVID-19 pandemic many individuals became more nationalistic, supported more authoritarian governments, and focused more on conversative values in life. Thus, in response to existential crisis, individuals can develop a more conformist, traditional view on life. However, individuals may also learn to tolerate their existential moods, and not defend themselves against the existential terror, but instead accept their life situation.
Many existential psychotherapists seem to stimulate experiential acceptance in their clients, which means that they accept the reality of life’s limitations and the discomfort that this provokes. However, meta-analyses show that it is ineffective if therapists merely focus on having clients face life’s limitations (Vos, 2019, 2015; Vos, Craig & Cooper, 2015). The most effective existential therapists are those who stimulate a dual attitude in clients: living a meaningful and satisfying life while facing and accepting life’s limitations (Vos & Vitali, 2018).
Why is meaning in life good for my mental and physical health?
How does the experience of meaning in life influence mental and physical health? This answer can be very short: countless empirical studies show that individuals who experience life as meaningful experience better mental and physical health (see reviews in Vos, 2016a-b, Ryff et al, 2016). For example, a sense of meaning is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, and with a larger quality-of-life. Perceived meaning is also associated with biomarkers, such as better immunological functioning, healthy blood pressure and lower risks for cardiovascular disease, -although more research is needed (Vos, 2021c, 2016b). As described in previous sections, individuals seem to particularly benefit psychologically from a phenomenological approach and a focus on social and larger types of meaning in life, while realistically accepting life’s limitations. For example, although the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to experience meaning in activities that we may have found meaningful in the past, the pandemic may also have helped us reflect on what is truly meaningful in our life; individuals with a stronger pre-pandemic sense of meaning experienced a better mental health during the pandemic (Vos, 2021). Meaning can also be an important source to cope with crises, lack of privileges, structural injustice, moral injury, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Vos, 2020).
How can psychological therapists and coaches help me discover my meaning in life?
What can practitioners do with this knowledge about meaning in life? Individuals seem to benefit from systematically exploring their personal meaning in life, on their own or with the help from a psychotherapist. A meta-analysis of 60 clinical trials has shown that meaning-centered therapists can help clients to live a more meaningful and satisfying life, accept life’s givens, tolerate existential limitations, and as a consequence experience large improvements in their mental and physical health (Vos & Vitali, 2018; Vos, Craig & Cooper, 2015). This has also shown that meaning-centered therapists often use five groups of competencies in their work with clients, each of which are supported by empirical evidence for their effectiveness: meaning-centered, assessment, relational, existential, and phenomenological/experiential competencies (see Vos, 2017).
However, most treatment manuals are not systematically based on empirical evidence about meaning in life, and little is known about the precise underlying mechanisms of change. For example, although Viktor Frankl’s work seems very inspiring, many of his assumptions are still waiting for empirical validation, and therefore logo-therapists may benefit from embedding Frankl’s work in empirical research on meaning and psychology.
Therefore, Systematic Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy (SMCP) was developed on the basis of the systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses described in this chapter (Vos, 2015). SMCP helps clients live a meaningful and satisfying life despite life’s challenges, via the five groups of therapeutic competencies. The core SMCP sessions systematically explore six evidence-based types and 29 sub-types of meaning via didactics, self-reflection, experiential-exploration, and homework (the treatment manual can be found in: Vos, 2017). A clinical trial in 70 cancer patients showed that large short-term and long-term pre-post therapy effects on psychological well-being and quality-of-life. Clients largely achieved therapy goals, were satisfied about therapy, and described large important life changes dominantly attributed to therapy. Patients described improvements in overall meaningfulness and life satisfaction. As expected, materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meaning had become less important, whereas social, and larger meanings had become more important and more often achieved. Patients approached meaning less functionalistically and more phenomenologically. The improvements in psychological well-being and quality-of-life were predicted by the clients’ meaning-centered changes and the therapists’ use of meaning-centered, relational, and phenomenological/experiential competencies. Thus, SMCP had larger effects than other meaning-centered therapies.
Therefore, it is recommended to systematically focus meaning-centered therapies on evidence-based mechanisms of change and therapeutic competencies, and not merely on trying to fit the popular paradigms in a field -e.g., traditional logotherapy by Frankl-, or mainly ground the treatment in a philosophical approach instead of an empirical approach -e.g., existential-analysis by Langle (Vos, 2022c).
What can governments, economists and teachers do with this scientific knowledge about meanin in lif
What can others do with this research on meaning in life? Teachers may want to guide children and young people to listen critically to their intuition about their own meaning in life, and help them develop a sense of meaning in life. Several countries have for example already been successfully experimenting with Meaning in Life Education (Vos, Roberts & Davies, 2019). Governments may want to limit the detrimental meaning manipulation by commercial adverts and propaganda, and limit their own usage of meaning manipulation to the bare minimum. Most of all, governments may want to empower individuals and give them opportunities to determine their own meaningful life.
Sociological and socio-economic research seems to indicate that many countries are transitioning from neoliberal and communist economic systems towards a meaning-oriented society, as was reflected in the final conclusions by world leaders in the World Economic Forum in 2016 (Vos, 2020). It seems unavoidable that societies become more meaning-oriented. The functionalistic focus on materialistic, hedonistic, and self-oriented types of meaning in life does not seem sustainable on the long-term, as this approach and these types of meaning are associated with worse mental, physical, and social health. Individual citizens and customers may feel frustrated, unsatisfied, and discomfortable with these limiting societal answers about meaning in life, and they may start changing their own life; if enough individuals change their lives, together they may become a global social revolution towards a meaning-oriented society (ibidem).
In line with Eric Olin Wright (2010), individual citizens and consumers seem to have four options to respond to the popular approaches and types of meaning in their society. Individuals can try to find meaning within their socio-economic system (e.g. mostly follow the meanings that others have imposed onto them, but for some small parts follow their own meanings), creating alternatives to the system (e.g. work in coops, or live in self-sufficient off-grid communities and communes), fighting the system to create a more meaningful system for all, and dreaming about meaning-centered utopias (Vos, 2020). In this transition process towards a utopian meaning-oriented society, nations may want to formulate the ability to live a meaningful life as a human right. As the motto of the IMEC International Meaning Events & Community states: ‘Because everybody deserves to live a meaningful life’ (meaning.org.uk).
How can I learn more about meaning in life?
Well, you have come at the right place! IMEC offers many opportunities to learn more about meaning in life, regardless of your background. We have training and courses for people who have no knowledge about topics like these, and we organise training and scientific conferences for researchers and practitioners in the field.
At the last Wednesday evening of the month we meet together to learn more about meaning from experts, share our own experiences, and enjoy each other's company: read more
If you are serious about discovering your meaning in life, you may want to consider following the ten weeks' course entitled 'Discover your meaning in life: learn how to make decicions, enjoy and live life to the fullest'. Read more
Do you want to be trained as an Evidence-Based Meaning-Centered Practitioner or an Evidence-Based Existential Practitioner? Check out our Certificate and CPD training: Read more
Want to join a conference or share your work at a conference? Read more
Want to give a training yourself? Contact us on [email protected]
Some short & long videos from IMEC presenters
The science of a meaningful life
Meaning and mental health
Enjoy the small things
Living towards death
Discover your inner bear
The metaphor of the river
Sense of awe
Life is like climbing mountains
The age of the trees
The selfie stick tourist
Joel Vos' 12 rules for life
Engaging with life: using experiences
The psychology of fascism
Roy Baumeister about meaning
Want to learn more about meaning in life?
Join our self-development groups!
Our monthly groups are for anyone to learn more about how to live a meaningful life, to learn, share and support each other.IMEC Self-development groups
Join our training 'discover your meaning in life'!
Discover in ten weekly online sessions how to live a meaningful life. For anyone seriously interested in living a meaningful life.Training 'Discover your meaning in life'
Get a certificate in 'Evidence-based meaning-centered practice'!
Discover in ten weekly online sessions how to help clients live a meaningful life. For anyone in the helping professions. CPD credits available.Certificate 'Evidence-based meaning-centered practice'
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