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Finding Meaning in Life

The concept of finding “meaning in life” can be overwhelming to consider. However, this oft-studied component of psychological health is vital in our everyday life. For some, meaning in life previously stemmed from identifying with one’s religion or job; however, church membership for U.S adults has decreased below 50% for the first time. Similarly, jobs have become less permanent with nearly half the job force considering leaving their current position within the next 3-6 months. With these societal trends, it's unsurprising that people are searching for meaning within their own lives. Some people may even be reevaluating their entire belief systems.

Dr. Clara Hill, a psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, has explored the process of finding meaning in life. Some of her research intersects with a common psychological concept: the just world belief. For people finding themselves reevaluating meaning in life, this belief (or a version of it) has likely been challenged. The just world belief claims that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.” This belief can be extended to our behaviors (“you get what you deserve”) or in a number of other domains. At the outset of life, a time in which we are learning how to behave within a family or society, this belief is typically functional. Yet, this belief often breaks down as we age and gain more experience in the intricacies of the world. Sometimes we witness others benefit from deceit while we fall behind despite playing by the rules.

When our beliefs are challenged at such a core level, we’re asked to evaluate our values, the heartbeat of our “why?” Why do we put forth time, energy, and other resources on a daily basis? Why do we sacrifice for others? By asking (and answering) these questions, some people find their core values. Dr. Hill operationalizes this mental exercise by looking at more mundane daily tasks. We need not have some momentous impact on society to find meaning. Rather, we can evaluate how we are making choices on a daily basis and make slight changes. Are we doing tasks begrudgingly or with intentionality (e.g., to care for/provide for someone else)?

A recent study of meaning in life suggests our perception of meaning is incredibly powerful: it is associated with positive health outcomes (in nearly every aspect of life). An ongoing British study of older adults known as the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (or ELSA) suggests that meaning may boil down to how much/little we engage with society. Per Dr. Andrew Steptoe (director of ELSA), individuals in this study were asked to rate how much their own life was “worthwhile.” Responses with higher ratings were associated with stronger personal relationships and broader social engagement, while lower ratings tended to reflect more time alone. Activities leading us to be alone included more passive acts (e.g., watching television); these activities can separate one from society, rather than connect. Although trends such as church membership and job permanency have changed, science and research are also helping us understand how we can best adapt to these changes.

If you find yourself asking these existential questions, that’s great! Engage with them as they can function as pivot points in life. You may not find the same purpose in your job as you have in the past. But, these questions about meaning and values are questions that only we can answer for ourselves. Therapy is a tool that can help us when we are feeling stuck in this process. Self-exploration can help us find our values and our meaning at this particular juncture in our lives. If you’re looking to better understand yourself and improve your mental health, contact Roswell Psychology today.

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