The permanent address of this page is:

draft one of
The experience of meaning in life from a psychological perspective


Colin Leath

Junior Paper, Psychology Honors Program

U of W

January 6, 1998


Table of Contents

The experience of meaning in life from a psychological perspective *

Table of Contents *

Abstract *

Introduction *


Meaning in life research history *

The experience of meaninglessness *

A brief history of meaning-in-life research *

Why study meaning in life? a review of meaning in life research *

Meaning in life and well-being *

Meaning in life as a developmental concern *

During adolescence and young adulthood *

old age *

general stressful events *

Situational Factors in the experience of meaning *

Categories of individuals’ experiences of meaning in present existence *

Nature of the experience of meaning in the present *

O’Connor and Chamberlain, 1996 *

Debats, Drost, & Hansen, 1995 *

Harlow & Newcomb, 1990 *

Categories of past meaningful experiences *

Nature of past meaningful experiences *

Developmental- the transition to meaning and purpose *

Invariant constituents *

Manifest constituents *

General process structure of the transition *

Conclusion *

Correlates of positive life regard/meaning in life *

Why study the experience of meaning in life? conclusion *

THEORY (general-to-specific) *

Intro *

The personal meaning system and its development *

description *

structural characteristics of the personal meaning system *

Situational factors affecting the personal meaning system *

Independence *

Possible choices *

constraint: general limitations on the variability of personal meaning systems *

The development of the personal meaning system *

values *

Assimiliation and accomodation *

like identity development *

Domains of the personal meaning system *

Adolescence and the foundations of the personal meaning system *

Successful resolution and stable orientation *

Construction/destruction of the personal meaning system *

Historical, lifetime change *

Relationship between situation and personal meaning system *

the Hierarchical motivational nature of the personal meaning system *

Energization of meaning-seeking behavior and energization of the construction of the personal meaning system--physics *

Intro *

Not a clear situation *

Research methods *

Motivator of meaning finding possibly the same as motivator of perception of Gestalts *

Why exactly would inability to find meaning be anxiety producing? *

Feelings of meaning are described in terms congruent with gestalt conceptualization of will to meaning *

The motivation to live meaningfully appears to be very strong in some situations *

If people will die for what they believe is meaningful, how could such a motivation (if biologically based) be selected for? *

The possible ‘will to meaning’ should be studied more *

Meaning seeking appears to be related to the defining characteristic of development- maybe growth? *

Meaning seeking may be a manifestation of the fundamental process whereby things come to exist. *

summary/conclusion *

SUBSET- concerns with meaning *

Meaningful experience--environment-predominantly *

Aside: archetypal experience *

Positive emotional connections *

Identity relevance *

How do we create emotional connections? *

Further distinctions *

Meaning and purpose *

The experience of meaninglessness.-environment--predominantly *

description *

Aside: *

Is it simply a matter of attitude? *

not just attitude *

some of the tragic sense of meaninglessness is due to lack of reinforcement *

transition to transition *

Transition---- both transition and states are combos of env and attitude. *

Transition to meaninglessness- a spreading lack of satisfaction *

Transition to meaning perhaps not due only to change in environment *

There is a difference in the two types of transition *

Transitioning to experience meaning involves two components- the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to live. *

Meaninglessness may be the motivator of accomodation- redundant? *

Transition is gradual for those who have known meaninglessness long *

predispositions for meaning/meaninglessness *

Conclusion for transition *

The meaning of life *

the prize *

Conclusion *

Suggestions for future research *

conceptualization and operationalization *

Meaning in life without organized religion *

Transitions to meaninglessness and vice versa in a developmental context *

Motivational significance of the personal meaning system *

Conclusion *

References *




This paper is a review of past psychology research in the area of the experience of meaning in life. A conceptual framework which could be used to organize past and future research in this area is presented. Suggestions for future research a re also made.



Questions related to meaning and purpose in life occupy many people at least occasionally during their lifetimes. It is often assumed that such questions cannot be approached from an empirical perspective, i.e., that such questions are the p rovince of philosophy and religion, not science. I believe that questions relating to meaning in life are most usefully approached using scientific research methods. While we cannot work on the question of the meaning of life solely from wit hin the field of psychology, we can address the questions: "What is the nature of an individual’s experience of her/his life as meaningful?" and "What are the conditions under which an individual will experience his/her life as meaningful?" (Battista & ; Almond, 1973, p. 409).

The present paper is my attempt to present a partial picture of the present state of psychology research into the experience of meaning in life. I review past research and then present a conceptualization of some of the aspects of the experience of mea ning in life.


In this section, I review past research and theory on the experience of meaning and purpose in life. I first present a chronological index of the past research in the area meaning in life, and then review specific areas of meaning in life re search in detail.

Meaning in life research history

The experience of meaninglessness

The study of meaning in life begins with the experience of meaninglessness, or nothingness (Novak, 1970). What I call the experience of nothingness, in its most acute manifestation, might be described as feeling as if one has zoomed backward away f rom the earth, solar system, and universe, until all light sources have faded to a tiny point. . . and one has then turned around to face an absolute nothing. This is a dark, cold, experience of isolation from all things, including one’s self. One of my f riends has described the experience as if she wanted to take off her shoes and squish her toes in the mud, but the most she could do was watch someone else (herself) do it. For her it was as if there were many cameras flashing white light, taking snapshot s, which were all that she saw. Things continued to happen, and that was all. While in the example I gave earlier, there is still an ‘experiencer,’ in her description, if there is an experience at all, it is reduced to the passive, emotionless observation of a sequence of motion picture stills.

Past writers have also described the experience as powerfully immobilizing. Tolstoy (1879/1981) wrote of his experience, "So long as I did not know why, I could not do anything. I could not live" (p. 10). Novak (1970) writes that the experience "seems like a kind of death, an inertness, a paralysis. . . Even more vivid than the dark emotions [e.g., rage] are a desert-like emptiness, a malaise, an illness of the spirit and the stomach" (p. 11). Nietzsche (Novak, 1970, p. 12) and William James also descr ibe something similar (Novak, 1970, p. 59), as have many others (see Yalom, 1980).

The successful resolution of the experience of meaninglessness, often by accepting the responsibility to create or find the meaning in existence (although it is not that simple), can be a powerful and life-changing experience (Tolstoy, 1981; Novak, 197 0; Yalom, 1980; Denne & Thompson, 1991). However, if one continues to to experience the meaninglessness of existence, the outcomes are different. One might remain powerfully immobilized and commit suicide passively (e.g., through self-starvation), as is described so well in Melville’s (1853/1994) "Bartleby the Scrivener"; one might commit suicide actively (Klinger, 1977, p298); or one might continue to go through the motions of living in an apathetic way (Maddi, 1967).

A brief history of meaning-in-life research

Just as the experience of nothingness can lead to the affirmation of meaning within the individual, the same phenomenon can occur on the societal level. An early and influential example of this is when, in reaction to the nihilistic and mechanistic life-views present in Europe in the early 1900s, Viktor Frankl formulated Logotherapy (Fabry, 1980). Logotherapy consists partly of helping people to find meanings to be fulfilled in the future (Frankl, 1946/1962).

Based on Frankl’s theories about the experience of meaning in life, Crumbaugh and Maholick (1964) developed the Purpose-in-Life Test (PIL) to measure the participant’s experience of meaning in life. Their questionnaire has been widely used in meaning i n life research. The PIL can be found in (Garfield, 1973).

In the humanistic atmosphere of the 1970s, Maddi (1967, 1970) constructed a theory about the developmental psychopathology of the existential sickness and about healthy development. Additionally, Battista and Almond (1973) discussed several possible th eories for the development of the experience of a meaningful life, and constructed a new questionnaire, the Life Regard Index (LRI), to address some of the problems of the PIL, as well as their conceptualization of the meaningful life. The LRI can be foun d in (Battista and Almond, 1973). Also within this time period, Novak (1970), and Fabry (1968/1980) explored the historical context of the experience of meaninglessness in the United States, and Blocker (1974) discussed the experience of meaninglessness f rom a philosophical perspective.

Beginning in the late 60s there have been movements within the field of education which address the experience of meaning. These movements have included values clarification (e.g., Raths, Harmin, & Simon, 1966), and confluent education (see Shapiro , 1976 for references). Shapiro has mentioned that he is developing the details and processes of meanings-oriented education concerned with how experiences facilitate understanding of self, the world, and self-in-the-world (Shapiro, 1988).

Coming from the field of sociology, and for the most part independently of previous work on meaning in life, Antonovsky (1987) developed the Sense of Coherence (SOC) construct in an attempt to understand why some people are less likely to be adversely affected by stressful environments than others. The SOC consists of an individual’s perceptions of the comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness of her/his environment. Antonovsky has developed a SOC questionnaire which can be found in (Antonov sky, 1987).

Ebersole and his colleagues have been conducting research on meaning in life since the early 80s, primarily on individuals’ categorization of meaning in life over the life-span, and depth of experience of meaning in life using observer ratings of parti cipants’ essays instead of questionnaires. (Ebersole & De Vogler, 1981; Ebersole & Quiring, 1991; Taylor & Ebersole, 1993)

Yalom (1980) discusses the existential anxieties about death, groundlessness, isolation, and meaninglessness, and the implications these anxieties have in clinical work. He has reviewed and synthesized much of the pre-1980 research relating to those an xieties, as well as presented some exploratory research of his own and numerous case studies clarifying and exemplifying the theories of existential psychotherapy. I think of his book as a presentation of questions to have people consider in order to faci litate fundamental life changes.

Reker and Wong (1988), in developing their concept of the "personal meaning system," have expanded Maddi’s and Frankl’s conceptualizations of personal meaning and combined them with Kelly’s personal construct theory. Reker and Wong define postulates ab out the motivation of the construction of the personal meaning system; the breadth, depth, and the degree of differentiation and integration (complexity) of the system; an individual’s freedom of choice in the construction of her/his meaning system; the d is-integration of the meaning system during a major change of the system; and they have provided hypotheses about the change in integration of the meaning system over the life-span, as well as the difference in complexity between the meaning system of an individualist and that of a conformist.

Additionally, Reker and Wong (1988) have provided measures for many of the aspects of their personal meaning system theory: The Sources of Meaning Profile (SOMP) can be and has been used to test their postulates about the depth, breadth, and complexity of an individual’s meaning system; the implication ladder, which they suggest can be used to determine both the structure and complexity of an individual’s meaning system; and the Life Attitude Profile (LAP), a questionnaire based on Frankl’s theory whic h has seven dimensions: Life Purpose, Existential Vacuum, Life Control, Death Acceptance, Will to Meaning, Goal Seeking, and Future Meaning. The LAP items can be found in (Reker and Peacock, 1981), and revisions to the scale are noted in (Peacock & Re ker, 1982); the SOMP items can be found in (Prager, 1996 or 1997).

Harlow and Newcomb and colleagues have approached the concept of meaning in life using latent variable and structural models. They have assessed the PIL (Harlow, Newcomb, & Bentler, 1987) and created a revised version for use in their research. The y have examined purpose in life as a mediational factor between depression and self-derogation, and substance use and suicide ideation (Harlow, Newcomb, & Bentler, 1986). They also have examined purpose in life as a mediational factor in the chain of events from [uncontrollable stressful events] to [perceived loss of control] to [meaninglessness] to [substance use] (Newcomb & Harlow, 1986). And they have also developed a heirarchical model of meaning and satisfaction in life (Harlow & Newcomb, 1990).

As another means of developing theory about different aspects of meaning in life, several researchers have conducted semi-structured interviews. Denne and Thompson (1991) examined the characteristics of the transition from the experience of meaningless ness to meaning in life. Debats et al. (1995) examined the nature of the experience of meaninglessness and the experience of meaning. O’Connor and Chamberlain (1996) attempt to better organize previous work on "sources" of meaning (e.g. De Vogler & Eb ersole, 1981) using Reker and Wong’s (1988) theory about the structural components of personal meaning.

The most recently active researchers I am aware of in the area of meaning in life who also have a history of study in the area include Kerry Chamberlain (Chamberlain & Zika, 1988; Zika & Chamberlain, 1992; O’Connor & Chamberlain, 1996) and Dominique Debats (e.g., Debats, 1990; Debats, Drost, & Hansen, 1995; Debats, 1996). Edward Prager has also been active recently in exploring the types of experiences people find meaningful (1996, 1997).

Why study meaning in life? a review of meaning in life research

Meaning in life was originally of interest because a lack of meaning was believed to be a fundamental cause of much of both psychological and larger social problems (e.g., Frankl, 1965; Maddi, 1970). Others are not as grandiose in their clai ms, but do agree that it is a significant problem faced by clinicians and counselors (e.g., Yalom, 1980; Ruffin, 1984).

For example, a recent study by Debats (1996) supports the clinical relevance and demonstrates the predictive power of meaning in life. Debats found that patients’ pre-treatment levels of meaning in life, independently of pre-treatment levels of well-be ing, were found to significantly predict the outcome of treatment in terms of well-being measures. Debats also found support for Yalom’s (1980) and others’ contentions that regular psychotherapy does not adequately address meaning in life concerns.

In addition, past researchers have demonstrated that meaning in life or its absence are related to psychopathology (e.g. Crumbaugh & Maholik, 1964), criminality (Reker, 1977), substance use (Kinnier et al., 1994; Nicholson et al., 1994; Padelford, 1974; Newcomb & Harlow, 1986; Harlow, Newcomb, & Bentler, 1986), and prosocial behavior (Shek, 1994). The list continues. For a review of the older literature, see (Yalom, 1980, pp. 455-460).

Meaning of life has also been studied as a component of psychological well-being, as an outcome of optimal development, and as a construct related to successful coping with stressful or traumatic life events.

Meaning in life and well-being

Zika and Chamberlain (1992) have explored the relationship of psychological well-being and meaning in life; well-being being defined by psychological functioning, affect, and life-satisfaction. They found in two different samples that there was a s trong association between meaning in life and well-being. Additionally, they found that meaning in life has a stronger association with positive than with negative well-being.

Ryff and Keyes (1995) contend that previous conceptualizations of psychological well-being have little theoretical rationale, focusing primarily on affect and the absence of psychological dysfunction, and neglecting to conceptualize what positive psych ological functioning may be. Thus Ryff has developed and found support for a six-factor model of psychological well-being based on the work of Maslow, Rogers, Allport, Erikson, Buhler, Neugarten, and Jahoda. The six factors in Ryff’s (1989) theory-guided model of psychological well-being includes self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth.

Other work supports the relation of meaning in life to psychological well-being throughout the life-span. For Allport (1967), psychological maturity is indicated in part by an individual having developed "some form of a unifying philosophy of life" (p. 294). Moreover, being able to make and maintain meaningful commitments, while at the same time continually re-evaluating them, as well as evaluating potential new commitments, appears to a central process in both continued identity development (Stephen, Fraser, & Marcia, 1992; Marcia, 1980; Erikson, 1979), and personal growth.

Meaning in life as a developmental concern

In addition to there being a general relationship between meaning in life and well-being, many researchers approach the study of meaning in life from a concern that finding meaning in life is an important developmental issue for adolescents, for th e elderly, and for any individual undergoing significant life-changes, especially stressful or traumatic life events.

During adolescence and young adulthood

There is considerable evidence that meaning in life becomes an important issue during adolescence and early adulthood (Adamson & Lyxell, 1996; Kinnier et al., 1994; Newcomb & Harlow, 1986;Shek), primarily because adolescence is the beginnin g of identity development which involves attempting to make life-long commitments to, among other things, a personal ideology (Erikson, 1979; Marcia, 1980). Whenever an individual is attempting to determine what commitments to make, the issue of meaning i n life is an underlying concern. Although there has been little research in the U.S. concerning adolescents’ questions about existence, it has recieved greater attention in Sweden and Finland (e.g., Adamson & Lyxell, 1996).

Adamson and Lyxell (1996) studied a group of late adolescents (age 18-20), and found that the most prevalent questions were those about the future, as opposed to questions about death, religion and philosophies of life, meaning of life in general, or c oncerns with who they are. While consciously questioning the nature of meaning in life was not the predominant concern of these adolescents, a sense of meaning in life was of definite importance, as demonstrated by the finding that those adolescents who h ad a ‘certain’ or ‘great’ need of finding something to believe in had a more negative self-concept than those who believed in some kind of higher existence. Adamson and Lyxell also found that a positive self concept was strongly related to the participant s believing adults to be genuinely interested in their existential questions. They found that even those adolescents who did not feel lonely facing existential thoughts wanted more opportunities to talk about them with adults.

Debats, Drost, & Hansen (1995) in their combined qualitative and quantitative study of meaning in life, found that the experience of meaninglessness was mentioned as occurring most frequently during the period of adolescence relative to youth or ad ulthood. However, their sample consisted of students with a mean age of 23 years, and the experience of meaningfulness was also mentioned as occurring more frequently in adolescence than youth or adulthood. While this finding could be due to the participa nts remembering their adolescence better than their youth, it most likely indicates a heightened concern about the meaningfulness of experiences beginning in adolescence.

Most of the research exploring meaning of life in adolecence is related to drug use and other negative outcomes. Padelford (1974) found a significant negative relationship between drug involvement and purpose in life (r = -.23; p < .001) for a group of 416 tenth graders. Harlow et al. (1986) found support for their model (which is based on the work of Kaplan and Frankl) that depression and self-derogation serve as a precursor to a lack of purpose in life for young adults. Moreover, they found that p urpose in life (as measured by the PIL) mediated between depression and substance use for women, and between self-derogation and suicide for men. In a younger sample, (Kinnier et al., 1994) replicated Harlow et al.’s finding that depression and self-derog ation can lead to a lack of purpose in life. They also found that PIL mediated between depression and both suicide and substance use, and was itself a strong predictor of substance abuse (accounting for 33% of the variance [isn’t that a bit much? I’m not sure about the quality of these people’s work])***.

In two other studies with adolescents and young adults, Newcomb and Harlow (1986) found that the relation between stressful life events and substance use can be partially understood as being due to stressful life events leading to perceived loss of con trol, which in turn results in feelings of meaninglessness, from which distraction is sought by substance use. An interesting difference between the two studies was that in the study involving older participants (ages of 21 - 23 years), there remained a d irect effect of stressful life events on substance abuse, while in the younger sample (ages of 12, 15, and 18 years), the effect of stressful life events on drug use was mediated by perceived loss of control and meaninglessness. Newcomb and Harlow believe d this difference might be the result of the older participants having established substance use as an automatic response to stressful events. This suggests to them that an effective means of reducing substance use might involve addressing alternatives to substance use as means for coping with feelings of meaninglessness early in adolescence.

In addition, there have been several studies demonstrating that adolescents and young adults experience their lives as less meaningful than older individuals (Van Ranst & Marcoen, 1997; Meier & Edwards, 1974). However, Ryff and Keyes (1995) hav e found the opposite trend. Reker, Peacock, and Wong (1987) have found that while life purpose increases with age, the experience of the existential vacuum (meaninglessness) is greater for both young adults and old-old adults than for the middle-aged. The se unusual findings may be due to the construction of the LAP, Reker et al.’s measurment instrument. Unfortunately, all of these studies are cross-sectional, and many of the effects may be historical artifacts or related to other third variables.

old age

Gerontologists have emphasized the importance of helping the elderly find or create meaning in life and have made suggestions about how it could be done (e.g., Courtenay & Truluck, 1997; Wong, 1989). However, there has been little research to e xamine the importance of meaning in life to psychological well-being in old age. One indication that meaning in life may be important during old age is that the suicide rate is higher for the elderly (and for adolescents) than for the rest of the populati on (Reker et al., 1987). Klinger (1977, pp. 298-299) has reviewed research reporting that meaninglessness occurs as a reason for suicide in 57% of men’s notes and 75% of women’s notes left by people age 60 and over. However, it is not clear at this time h ow different from the rest of the population the elderly are with respect to the experience of meaning in life.

general stressful events

Perhaps the most clear-cut reason the experience of meaning in life has been of interest, besides its hypothesized relation to overall psychological well-being, is that it is believed to be positively related to psychological well-being in times of crisis. One example of this may be Frankl’s survival of the concentration camps (Frankl, 1965). It has been fairly well established that individuals who are able to find meaning in traumatic and highly stressful life-events are psychologically healthier than those who do not find meaning in what has happend to them (see Debats et al., 1995, pp. 371-372 for references). For example, Debats et al. (1995) found that individuals who had overcome a crisis in the past and derived from that experience a clear s ense of meaning experienced higher current levels of meaning in life. Newcomb and Harlow’s (1986) work which demonstrated that meaning in life mediates between stressful life events and drug use also supports this idea. Antonovsky’s (1987) theory about hi s "sense of coherence" construct is at least partly, if not primarily based on the idea that those who find meaning in life or an event are both psychologically and physically healthier than those who do not.

In addition to Logotherapy (Frankl, 1965), there have been other efforts to make meaning-finding or -making a more central aspect of therapy (e.g., Carlsen, 1988). Sherman’s (1987) work, which explores mid-life crises and transitions by focusing on the meaning of the crisis or transition to the individual, is also related.

In spite of the demonstrated advantages of finding meaning in a stressful life event, it is important to realize that finding too much meaning in life events may make events unnecessarily stressful (Caltstock, 1997; Sherman, 1987, p. 218). Moreover, ma ny of the problems of the world may be related to individuals finding or seeking meaning in interactions which are not as conducive to the experience of meaning as other interactions. Also, the process of trying to find meaning may exacerbate the experien ce of meaninglessness until a workable meaning is found.

Situational Factors in the experience of meaning

A significant amount of research in the area of meaning in life has explored what kind of experiences people have found meaningful or meaningless in the past, as well as what people find most meaningful in their present existence.

Categories of individuals’ experiences of meaning in present existence

Ebersole and his colleagues (e.g., 1987) have conducted much of the research in this latter area, investigating experiences of meaning in present existence for individuals ranging in age from childhood to old age. Of children in first grade they as ked the question, "What is most important in your life?" (Taylor & Ebersole, 1993). Other age groups were asked to write about, and rank in order of importance, the three strongest meanings in their lives. However, the later-life couples were only ask ed to write about their strongest life meaning. De Vogler and Ebersole (1980) then constructed categories that allowed for the greatest amount of interrater reliability.

They have found that in all of the groups of people studied, the category the raters most frequently selected to describe participants’ answers was the category of relationships. The relationships category includes interactions with family, friends, an d romantic partners. Approximately 40-50% of the answers Ebersole and his colleagues rated were placed in the relationships category, while the other categories were selected rarely more than 20% of the time. The exception to this finding were ‘eminent’ p ersons who generally ranked meanings related to the category of life work as more important than relationships (Ebersole & DeVogler-Ebersole, 1985).

For later-life couples (mean age 76), health (wanting to maintain phsyical health) became a more frequently rated meaning category (Ebersole & DePaola, 1987), while for first graders (Taylor & Ebersole, 1993) and young adolescents (De Vogler &a mp; Ebersole, 1983), activities (some form of recreation, sport, or hobby) were a more frequently rated category, as compared to undergraduates (De Vogler & Ebersole, 1980; Ebersole & De Vogler, 1981) and an adult sample (mean age 46 years; De Vog ler & Ebersole, 1981). Service (a helping, giving orientation), belief (living according to one’s social, political, or religious beliefs), and growth (a striving towards developing potentials), were also fairly frequently chosen by the raters, after relationships. Two other categories used by Ebersole and his colleagues were ‘obtaining’ (emphasizing a pure materialistic preference), and ‘pleasure’ (expressions that happiness, contentment, or experiencing daily life are most meaningful). Additionally, the categories of school (centering upon school grades or advancement) and appearance (focus upon how one looks to others or the clothes one wears) were added to account for some of the adolescents’ essays.

Ebersole and his colleagues have also addressed the issue of the hypothesized widespread lack of meaning in life (e.g., Frankl, 1965). Usually less than 5% of the participants in their studies mentioned a lack of meaning in life. However Ebersole and h is colleagues note that differential response rate, and answers reporting superficial levels of meaning, which their experimental design does not take into account, may bias their results against reporting a lack of meaning in life. (Ebersole & De Pao la, 1987)

Prager (1996, 1997) has also explored categories of individuals’ experiences of meaning in present existence by administering Reker and Wong’s (1988) Sources of Meaning Profile (SOMP) to different age groups. Like Ebersole and his colleagues, Prager ha s found that relationships are percieved as contributing the most to participants’ experience of meaning. Also important to the participants’ present experience of meaning were meeting personal needs, leisure activities, preserving human values and ideals , and personal growth. Least important to participants’ present experience of meaning were religious activities, leaving a legacy for the next generation, and being acknowledged for personal achievement.

Additionally, Prager has found little support for hypothesized changes in value and meaning orientations with age, consistent with other findings that older clients rarely describe themselves as changing significantly since early adulthood (see Prager, 1996 or 1997 for reference). He suggests that later-life reductions in involvement in specific activities and areas of interest may be accompanied by a maintenance of meaning importance in those very areas (Prager, 1996, p. 134).

Nature of the experience of meaning in the present

O’Connor and Chamberlain, 1996

O’Connor and Chamberlain (1996) have also investigated individuals’ experience of meaning in the present. They conducted structured interviews in order to test the validity of Reker and Wong’s (1988) conceptualization of the personal meaning sys tem. Specifically, O’Connor and Chamberlain examined participants’ reports of meaningful experiences to see if "sources" of meaning exhibited affective, cognitive, and motivational components, as well as to determine if participants’ meaning structures ex hibited breadth and depth dimensions. Each participant was asked, "What do you think of as an important source of meaning in your life?", and questions were asked to clarify the response. This process was repeated until the participant no longer had any s ources of meaning to add.

These sources of meaning were divided into categories, again with the finding that the highest frequency of meaningful interactions involved relationships with people. Also, O’Connor and Chamberlain found it necessary to add a new category, "Nature," f or the nature-related interactions which participants reported as meaningful to them. The other categories of meaningful experiences were those related to creativity, personal development, politics and social change, and religion and spirituality.

Politics and social change was the least frequently selected category by the raters of the interview. O’Connor and Chamberlain suggest that perhaps this occured because ‘sources’ of meaning in this category often have a lack of immediate rewards, and i t may be that if an interaction or activity is not associated with strong positive affect, it is less likely to be mentioned as a source of meaning in life.

In O’Connor and Chamberlain’s examination of the reports of sources of meaning for affective, cognitive, and motivational components, they were able to find these components for each source of meaning mentioned by all but one of their 38 participants. Here is an example of description of a source of meaning which shows (C)ognitive, (M)otivational, and (A)ffective material:

I’ve chosen an occupation (C), nursing, where I can exercise interacting with people (M) in a way that gives me satisfaction (A), and as well I can apply skills that learn along the way (c) to those interactions and at the same time get paid for it (m) . (p. 471)

O’Connor and Chamberlain concluded that their findings confirm Reker and Wong’s (1988) model of the structural components of personal meaning.

Debats, Drost, & Hansen, 1995

Debats, Drost, and Hansen (1995) have asked participants to describe situations or times they felt strongly their lives had meaning or was meaningless, as well as how the feeling came about. They conducted their research based on these assumptio ns:

(1) A sense of meaningfulness in life is associated with relatedness, active engagement, well-being and general life satisfaction and happiness, high self-esteem, a generous attitude toward others, as well as a positive attitude towards life in general ; And (2) a sense of meaninglessness is related to a loss of social identity, alienation and social isolation, disengagement, and psychopathology (pp. 360-361).

Following a phenomenological analysis of the responses, Debats and colleagues concluded that their results are consistent with the idea that meaning and meaninglessess are essentially the states of being in contact and alienation respectively. That is, the experience of meaningfulness is the state of being in contact "with the self, with others, and with life or the world," and the experience of meaninglessness is feeling alienated from "self, others, and life or world" (p. 371). Debats et al. also fou nd a strong relationship between having a partner and positive life regard.

Harlow & Newcomb, 1990

In Harlow and Newcomb’s (1990) latent variable analysis of meaning and satisfaction in life, they found that 25 questions could be organized into a hierarchical model, purportedly of meaning and satisfaction in life. These 25 items composed nine factors which in turn composed 3 factors, relationship satisfaction, purposeful living, and work and health satisfaction, which composed the first order factor of meaning and satisfaction in life. Consistent with previous research, Harlow and Newcomb fou nd that relationship satisfaction loaded more strongly (.98) onto the primary factor than purposeful living (.89) and work and health satisfaction (.84). Harlow and Newcomb’s model was based on the empirical work demonstrating the importance of relationsh ips to meaning in life; existential literature emphasizing the importance of purpose in life, freedom, choice, and opportunity to meaning in life; empirical work demonstrating the negative effects of powerlessness and lack of control; and research emphasi zing the importance of physical well being and work to a sense of satisfaction in life.

Categories of past meaningful experiences

Baum and Stewart (1990) have asked participants of different ages (range of 17-96) to report the "most meaningful events" in their lives and the age of occurrence of the event, as well as reasons why the event was meaningful. They divided responses into the following categories: Work, love and marriage, births of children, independent pursuits (military service, travel, personal accomplishments), accidents, illnesses or death, separations and/or divorces, and major purchases. They found that the me n most commonly mentioned events in the work, love and marriage, and independent pursuits categories, while the women most commonly mentioned births of children, love and marriage, and work. Baum and Stewart also suggest, based on their findings, that in many cases the same events are held to be meaningful irrespective of age, i.e. both the 25 year old and 85 year old consider marriage to be meaningful. It is also interesting to note that, consistent with previous findings, Baum and Stewart found that the age of occurrence for the onset of all meaningful events mentioned ranged from 17 to 43 yrs, with a mean of 30 years. That is, no ‘most meaningful events’ were reported occurring after age 43.

Nature of past meaningful experiences

Baum and Stewart’s (1990) work suggests that past experiences involving both positive and negative valence of affect are considered meaningful. Both births and deaths were considered to be most meaningful events. This is different from the experien ces participants described as giving meaning to their present existence, none of which appear to involve primarily negative affect (e.g., Ebersole & DePaola, 1987; Prager, 1996).

Developmental- the transition to meaning and purpose

Denne and Thompson (1991) have taken a phenomenological approach to studying the experience of transition from a feeling that life is meaninglessness to a feeling that life is meaningful. They recruited 19 persons who believed they had experienced "a transition from a prolonged state of despair at the meaninglessness and purposelessness of life to a prolonged state of strong, clear, and satisfying meaning and purpose in life" (p. 115). These 19 participants were then interviewed and the interviews were taped. Of the 19, 10 were selected for further analysis based on the criteria in the list below. Five of the ten met each criterion, the other five met all criteria but that of completeness of the transition (c):

(a) the participants described their experiences in terms of meaning and purpose independently of interviewer prompting.

(b) Participants had experienced meaninglessness and purposelessness for at least two years.

(c) Participants described their current meaning and purpose in at least two of these terms: clear, strong, satisfying, without limiting qualifications.

(d) Participants did not speak of seeking new meaning content in the future but of the huge difference between their current experience and that of their despair period.

(e) Participants did not describe their current meaning and purpose as fluctuating but as having survived challenges and difficulties that would have previously been linked to a sense of meaninglessness. (p. 116)

Seven of the ten participants were women. The age range of the participants was 20 - 50, and most of the participants had experienced the transition during their 20s.

In developing the inclusion criteria, Denne and Thompson noticed that participants experienced despair at the experience of meaninglessness without searching for meaning in existence. They also found that the transition to an experience of meaning does not have a definite beginning and end, instead the transition appears to continue "even after a person has come to prolonged, clear, strong, and satisfying meaning and purpose in life" (p. 116).

Denne and Thompson then analyzed transcripts of the interviews to determine the invariant constituents of the transition, which were present in all transitions, and the manifest constituents of the transitions, which were not present in all transitions . They also compared the transition descriptions in order to determine the general process structure of the transition.

Invariant constituents

Denne and Thompson found five invariant constituents of the transition (paraphrase & quotation (where noted) of pages 119-124):

(1) They found that, during the transition, individuals accepted responsibility for themselves and their lives, i.e. they took responsibility for creating meaningful lives rather than depending on others or the environment to do it for them. In taking responsibility for the self, individuals also became more emotionally self-reliant. Each individual went from primarily reacting to the demands of the environment (others, or society), to living proactively according to their self-understanding.

Manifest constituents

The manifest constituents of the transition related to this invariant constituent include: Participants adapted an orientation to live either toward future goals or for present experience; Some participants needed the development of greater self awareness by either simply recognizing their self as existing and special, or by developing personal values and beliefs rather than conforming with those of others; Some participants needed increases in self-esteem and self-efficacy before they were able to take responsibility for their selves and lives.

Participants’ acceptance of greater responsibility for their existence always occurred in a social environment. The development of self-awareness and values occurred while reading and talking with others.

Self-esteem developed through interactions between accepting and enacting responsibility for the self and affirmations of significant others.


(2) The acceptance of resisted aspects of experience. Participants came to accept positive and negative aspects of themselves or of existence, and if they had not done so already, they admitted an awarenss of non-material aspects of reality (e.g. e motions).

(3) Congruence between personally meaningful concepts and experience. There had to be both an emotional experience of meaning, and a cognitive conceptualization of why the experience was meaningful. Either a meaningful experience or a conceptualization of meaning could come first, but the conceptual structure had to be congruent with meaningful experience.

(4) Decisional turning points. Transitions involved making a decision, risking/accepting possible negative outcomes, and then later feeling that the right decision was made. Sometimes the decisions would be dramatically life-changing events, other time s they occurred more gradually. Decisional turning points had different effects depending on which other constituent of the transition process they occurred in relation with. They might result in publicly observable effects, such as changing one’s life to live in congruence with one’s ideals, or more private effects, such as accepting emotions as an important part of existence.

(5) Progression toward a balanced relation between self and world. Participants underwent a transition from an anxious or alienated relation with the world to a relation which was experienced as "an easy and satisfying balance of give and take, of self - and other-awareness, and of self- and other-responsiveness" (p. 123). What was interesting was that those who had been more externally focused and reactive felt more alienated and were more self-absorbed. As they became more self-aware, and began to tak e more responsibility for their situation, they became more creatively involved in the world. This hearkens back to what was mentioned in Adamson & Lyxell (1996), that identity development may involve first the task of self-differentiation (awareness of one’s self as capable of thinking and acting independently) and then the task of integrating one’s concept of self with one’s concept of the larger social world. Denne and Thompson also found that "as each person became self-reliant and self-responsive , previous difficulties in relating to the external world seemed to disappear automatically" (p. 123). One man, by focusing on himself first and on being happy with himself, seemed to take care of improving his relationships with others.

In addition, in their descriptions of meaningful experiences, participants described feeling the integration of one’s self with the world. For example, one participant mentioned feeling like the ego was gone, and another that he felt that he and what h e was doing was "just part of the whole thing that happens" (p. 123).

The progression toward a balanced relation between self and world did not appear to result from environmental changes, but primarily from "new attitudes, decisions, and activities, which developed in a spiral of increasing openness to both the self and the life-world" (pp. 123- 124).

General process structure of the transition

Denne and Thompson found that the relationships between the aforementioned invariant constituents varied from person to person. Moreover, the constituents were often linked as a gestalt, "with one episode illustrating all constituents" (p. 124). Su pporting the gestalt conceptualization, Denne and Thompson found that "a change in one constituent seemed to generate the need for complementary changes in other parts of the individual’s system of being-in-the-world" (p. 124).

It is important to note that while idiosyncratic content was not essential to the general structure of the transition, it was experienced as essential by individuals. Also, internal locus of control appears to be a necessary for the transition to occur .

Denne and Thompson contend that their results do not support theories which emphasize environmental determinants of behavior, but they realize that, "It could be argued that the subjects in this sample possessed the means of restructuring their life-st yles because of the society in which they live" (p.126). They suggest that future research compare persons of different of cultures and socioeconomic groups.

Their work supports the idea that individuals must explore, find, and create their own values and meanings, rather than accepting the prescriptions of society, mass media, or the environment. Their work does not support Frankl’s belief that commitments to self-actualization or self-expression (as opposed to commitments to something outside of the self) are not conducive to the experience of meaning. Nor do their results support Heidegger’s belief that orienting one’s existence toward the future is requ ired to experience meaning. Denne and Thompson’s results suggest that having a religion is not required for the experience of meaning, rather an "underlying commitment to a construct and life-style which seems experientially and intellectually valid to th e individual" (p.127) is what is necessary.

In their article, Denne and Thompson also review many theories about meaning in life, and test some of the hypotheses suggested by these theories.


Denne and Thompson’s work suggests many future research projects. For example, it would be interesting to determine which of the invariant constituents (or perhaps environmental characteristics that were not mentioned) are necessessary for the tran sition to meaning to occur—why is it that some individuals continue to experience meaninglessness for two years or more? Also, whether the changes which facilitated the transition to meaning and purpose are changes in attitude or changes in environment is probably not as clear as Denne and Thompson suggest. Indeed, Denne and Thompson mentioned that social interaction was a basic part of one of the invariant constituents. It is most likely that a certain combination of internal attitudes and external envir onment and certain types of interaction and reciprocal change of external and internal environments are more conducive to the experience of meaning. Further research could attempt to further differentiate and integrate the components of the transition to meaning and purpose.

Correlates of positive life regard/meaning in life

Debats, Van der Lubbe, and Wezeman (1993) have examined the properties of the LRI and its correlations with demographic and personality characteristics. They found no difference on LRI scores by sex, age, or education. The difference between scores of married and unmarried persons was significant, as was the difference between married and divorced persons, and the difference between those with a partner and those without a partner, suggesting that the presence of an intimate relationship might acco unt for higher positive life regard in each of these instances. They also found that the LRI discriminated between persons with high and low well-being. Debats et al. also tested whether the LRI showed any substantial associations with the 36 values in th e Rokeach Value Survey (RVS; Rokeach, 1973; pp. 44-45), and found the only significant correlation to be with an orientation reflecting an "ambitious, hard working, or aspiring" mode of conduct (p. 343). Debats et al. did this to test Battista and Almond’ s (1973) hypothesis that the LRI would be an ‘independent’ measure of meaning in life, i.e., not being dependent on a particular value system or ideological content for it’s view of what the nature of meaning in life is.

Debats et al.’s findings are similar to the findings of researchers using other instruments to measure meaning in life in that the only robust finding is that people who have intimate relationships generally experience more meaning in life than those w ho do not. However it seems unlikely that the experience of meaning in life would not correlate with any value orientation. For example, Kasser and Ryan (1993) have found that financial success as a central life aspiration correlates with reduced vitality and enjoyment in life. It could also be the case that those who do not value intimate relationships are less likely to have intimate relationships and also less likely to experience meaning in life. At any rate, further clarification about what is meant by the experience of meaning in life, as well as by ‘value orientations’ should assist us in improving our understanding of the experience of meaning in life.

Why study the experience of meaning in life? conclusion

The experience of meaning in life has been demonstrated to have a relationship to desirable psychological and behavioral characteristics such as psychological well-being, and positive self-concept, less substance use, depression, and suicidal behav iors in adolescents. Past research has explored the nature of the experience of meaning and meaninglessness as well as the transition from the experience of meaninglessness to the experience of meaning.

THEORY (general-to-specific)


After having reviewed much of the past research in the area of meaning in life, I will now present a conceptual framework which may help to organize the results of previous research and to develop hypotheses for future research. Reker and Wo ng (1988) suggest that every human creates a personal meaning system which is a cognitive organization of all the things/activities/beliefs in life that is important to her or him. Here I refine and build upon Reker and Wong’s personal meaning system conc ept.

First, I will discuss characteristics of the personal meaning system and the process of its development, as well as the energization of its development. Next I will discuss a subset of the personal meaning system—the part of an individual’s personal me aning system which addresses concerns about the assumptions on which the rest of the meaning system is based. These are concerns about the meaning and meaninglessness of experiences, and the nature of meaning. I then explore the conditions under which mea ning or meaninglessness is likely to be experienced, and characteristics of both types of experiences. Finally, I discuss the transition from experiencing contentness and meaning to meaninglessness and from experiencing meaninglessness to meaning.

The personal meaning system and its development


The personal meaning system is a cognitive structure which people can be consciously aware of and use to assist them in achieving reinforcing experience. The successful meaning system in a given situation allows the individual to maintain the great est psychological well-being in that situation. The unsuccessful meaning system for a given situation leads the individual to despair, depression and suicide. The ease of developing a successful meaning system is influenced by an individual’s physical and biological environment as well as past experience.

structural characteristics of the personal meaning system

The basic contents of the personal meaning system are a record of past (most often the recent past) decisions the individual has made. ‘Past decisions’ encompasses the concepts of skill and logic. A skill is fundamentally a decision to act in a cer tain way in a given situation. Skill is acquired primarily through practice, while logical structure is achieved primarily by a careful thinking through of situations. Skill and logical structure are not independent of eachother. Thus, an ineffective pers onal meaning system could be both the result of lack of skill, as well as faulty logic.

Behaviors which an individual engages in, but has not consciously or freely decided to do, are not part of the personal meaning system. Thus reflexes, the ability to use language, and even basic reading ability are generally not a component of the pers onal meaning system, nor would be reflexive attitudes. Nor are the components of a skill which were once conscious decisions. For example, playing ‘Jingle Bells’ once involved the conscious decision to strike a particular sequence of notes. Through practi ce, the decision is no longer to strike a sequence of notes, but, simply, to play ‘Jingle Bells.’

The contents of a personal meaning system range from the very general (education is important) to the unique (I want to spend my life with Jane/John Doe).

The personal meaning system might be best visualized as a branching tree, or possibly a web, in which there is a hierarchy designating some activities or ideas as more important than others. The web or tree, in addition to containing hierarchical infor mation, also contains information on how the activities which are considered to be important are logically related to each other. For example, finishing this paper is important to me. Being able to type well is also important to me. Typing is important to me because writing papers is important to me, and not vice versa.

Peoples’ personal meaning systems vary in their complexity; one person may have a very clear understanding of how their every action relates to the greater purpose of the universe, while others may be able to mention a few things that are important to them in life and have no comment about the purpose of the universe. Those who have more complex personal meaning systems are generally those who have most recently thought out what their meaning system is. However, a lack of meaning system complexity may also co-occur with a lack of experience of positive engagement in existence. In this latter situation, the individual, upon trying to think of activities that are important to him, will come up with very little or nothing.

The personal meaning system in its everyday form, the form that is salient to most individuals, is simply the plan or goal that the individual has adopted and is working on at the moment. Individuals are rarely ever aware of the entirety of their perso nal meaning system at once. For example, my immediate concern is expressing this thought coherently. If I stop to consider the relation of my work on this paragraph to the rest of my life, I am able to review other areas of my personal meaning system. The personal meaning system is not always salient. It is most salient when we are asking ourselves why we are doing something, or what is the best way to carry out a plan in order to stay true to the larger purpose underlying the plan.

This last characteristic suggests that the personal meaning system is not something that a person has, but something that a person could be asked to create. Often after we have decided on a plan of action, the larger plan fades into the background as w e live it out. We can occasionally recall the plan to revise it or to communicate it to someone else. So, the personal meaning system is a story we create about who we are, and what we are doing, a story which we revise or recall at will.

Situational factors affecting the personal meaning system


The more independent a person becomes, the greater the importance of the development of a sound personal meaning system, because the greater the number of independent choices that must be made. Thus, a well-developed personal meaning system is i n general more important for the adult than for the child, and more important for the creative, independent thinker than the conformist (so long as conforming provides meaningful experience). The failure of the adult’s personal meaning system to help the adult experience continuing meaning is more likely to have catastrophic effects than a child changing her mind about her future career or favorite flavor of ice cream. The difference is in the magnitude and number of behaviors organized by the adult’s mea ning system as opposed to the child’s, as well as in the ease of forming an alternate meaning system.

Possible choices

Likewise, the greater the number of choices available to an individual, the greater the importance of a personal meaning system. The proliferation of possibilities for average individuals and the demise of traditional pre-packaged meaning system s (i.e. western religion, puritain-type family values) in industrialized countries is probably related to the hypothesized increasing concern with meaning and meaninglessness in those countries (cf. Fabry, 1980; Novak, 1970). However, this could also be d ue to changes in the environment of the average person making it less likely that they will experience meaning (i.e., fewer relationships like those that might be experienced in a tribe, freedom from motivating emotions like hunger or fear, and less of an opportunity to be creative).

constraint: general limitations on the variability of personal meaning systems

While people have wide latitude in the creation of personal meaning systems, generally the only personal meaning systems that stay intact for long are those which allow the individual to satisfy basic biological and psychological needs. For example , it is not likely that people will decide that celebacy is more important to them than sex. Meaning systems which help an individual to happily survive are the ones most likely to have a general structure which remains intact over the life-span.

It is illustrative to consider Ryff’s (1995) theory-based conceptualization of psychological well-being. Ryff provides support for the idea that self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and pers onal growth are each important facets of well-being. If this is correct, the most successful meaning systems should, in general, be a cognitive structure which holds each of these facets (in a way unique to each person) to be important.

Also, the variability of an individual’s personal meaning system is restricted, in part, by her or his past experience. For example, if an individual has been tricked all their life by green aliens, it would be more difficult for that person to restruc ture their meaning system to trust green aliens.

These limitations on the variability of personal meaning systems mean that while there may be an ideal person and an ideal meaning system for the environment one is in, one may not be capable of entertaining the ideal meaning system for that situation. If that is the case, the most effective way of improving this situation is to change one’s environment, rather than one’s programming.

The development of the personal meaning system


The development of the personal meaning system occurs whenever an individual has made a choice and then decided that that choice was a good one, and that in the future, he or she would make the same choice again. This has been called the process of forming values (Yalom, 1980). People necessarily form values, as it would be very difficult to live if we had to continually re-decide if we wanted to stay with our spouses or careers, or what kind of food we liked to eat.

Assimiliation and accomodation

The personal meaning system also develops through the processes of assimilation and accomodation (cf. Piaget, 1952). Accomodation occurs whenever we are driven to question the assumptions upon which we have based portions of our personal meaning sy stem. The process of rejecting the religion one was raised with and developing a new, more personal life-philosophy is the process of accomodation. Assimilation occurs whenever we are able to build on our existing personal meaning system without questioni ng our underlying assumptions. For example, if one has decided one loves to windsurf, assimilation occurs as one decides in more specific detail how exactly one will go about windsurfing.

like identity development

The development of the personal meaning system is similar, if not the same as identity development (cf. Marcia, 1980; Stephen, Fraser, & Marcia, 1992; Erikson, 1979; Adamson & Lyxell, 1996). The process of personal meaning system developmen t involves establishing and maintaining commitments, as does identity development.

Domains of the personal meaning system

The construction of a personal meaning system occurs in different life domains at different times. For example, adolescents these days are faced with a huge range of choices in how they will live and take care of themselves. One life-domain is eati ng. For some people, it is no small task to find a way of feeding themselves that they are contented with. Progress in this domain may occur independent of progress in the domain of personal relationships, religious beliefs, and life-work, but each affect s the other to some extent. Also, it is often the case that the construction of a personal meaning system proceeds from general decisions to the more specific, i.e., a person will decide to be a vegetarian before figuring out exactly how to do that. The s pecific effects of a general decision will also affect the general decision (‘maybe being a vegetarian is not what I want to do after all,’ or, ‘I like being vegetarian alot, perhaps I will try being vegan’).

Adolescence and the foundations of the personal meaning system

While children are continually constructing personal meaning systems, e.g. "I want to be a doctor/artist/president/etc.," the construction of one’s personal meaning system becomes of primary concern when one has to make independent decisions which will affect much of one’s day-to-day existence. The first time this is likely to occur in western society is adolescence. Adolescence may also be the first time that individuals have the cognitive capability to contemplate their entire life-span and to co nsider which life-behaviors they will undertake (Marcia, 1980).

Thus, adolescence/young adulthood is generally the time when much of the basic framework of an individual’s personal meaning system is put into place. The size of this job varies depending on how many of the values held by the adolescent’s parents and society appear meaningful to her/him. On one hand we have the individual who accepts most of her parents’ values (i.e., their religious beliefs, political orientation, hobbies, career, etc.) and on another hand we have the individual who does not find any satisfaction in believing in what her parents or society holds to be important.

The individual who accepts most of her parents’ values runs the danger of some day finding those values empty, and then, largely because she has not had much experience questioning the assumptions of her personal meaning system, being afraid or not ver y motivated to try to find more fulfilling values. The individual who has found no satisfying things to believe in is in danger of no longer being motivated to even take care of himself. Both of these adverse outcomes can result in the experience of meani nglessness. The experience of meaninglessness will often spur the individual to question the assumptions upon which his or her identity has been based. If it does not, however, the individual may continue living, but in an apathetic, adirectional, and une nergetic way (cf. Maddi, 1967), or commit suicide.

Successful resolution and stable orientation

Those who successfully resolve the period of identity development/personal meaning system formation, do not neccessarily acquire a set of foundation assumptions upon which the rest of their identity will be built, although that does often occur. Pr imarily what is gained through the process of identity development is an understanding of, and ideally, a degree of comfortableness with the process of questioning the assumptions one has based one’s life on, especially when it occurs that one’s life is n o longer as fulfilling as one would like it to be.

Thus, rather than being mindlessly devoted to previous commitments, or being so open-minded and non-committal that one makes no commitments and is constantly searching for something to believe in, the more stable orientation appears to be always mainta ining a degree of openess and expectation of change, while maintaining, growing in, and expanding upon previous commitments (Stephen et al., 1992). Moreover, as we have seen (Baum & Stewart, 1990), most of an individual’s major life-commitments will b e made before the age of 40. I think that what many of us hope for is that we are able to make general commitments fairly early in life, and then build on, and continue to grow in those commitments throughout our life-times. This is an alternative to the life in which we never find a person we want to love for long, or work we like to do, or anything to live for for a significant period of time.

Construction/destruction of the personal meaning system

The construction and destruction of personal meaning systems is not limited to adolescence (Stephen et. al., 1992). Specifically, many identity development theorists refer to varying levels of commitment and exploration throughout the life-span (e. g., mid-life crises).

Historical, lifetime change

Just as there are biological, psychological, and social changes throughout a person’s lifetime, it is likely that the content of a successful meaning system will change throughout a person’s life through both assimilation and accomodation.

Relationship between situation and personal meaning system

While many of the changes to a personal meaning system are largely changes in ways of thinking about a given problem, these changes in attitude are often resolutions to alter environmental conditions which one had not thought of altering before, bu t accepted as unchangeable. Thus, just as the development of a person’s meaning system is affected by the situation the person is in, a personal meaning system also affects the environment it is in.

the Hierarchical motivational nature of the personal meaning system

There is a peculiarity of the human meaning system, and that is that the most general, fundamental decisions can have radical effects on all of the areas heierachically below them. For example, deciding one no longer wants to be a vegetarian can ha ve the effect of "turning off" the motivation for all of one’s vegetarian-related values and behaviors. The most extreme example is the decision to or not to live. If the existence of a satisfying answer to the fundamental question of, ‘why live?’ is not found, the entire rest of a person’s motivational structure is in danger of being turned off. It is also interesting that those humans who do have strongly felt answers to their fundamental questions seem to be more motivated and to enjoy being alive more than those who do not. Moreover, it appears that in a lot of cases, humans have the propensity to want answers for fundamental questions.

For those reasons, the personal meaning system and how it is constructed should be a vital concern of motivational psychology. Moreover, it is a person’s cognitive organization of what is important to them in life which accounts for much of her or his life-long behaviors, or sustained efforts. However, the cognitive organization of activities as more and less meaningful is not independendent of the degree to which the activity is reinforcing. Thus, the psychological study of meaning in life should ask both what kinds of activities are likely to be experienced as meaningful, and what characteristics of an individual’s personal meaning system allow her or him to experience an activity as meaningful.

I have already addressed this latter concern— specifically, a personal meaning system which holds the facets of psychological well-being to be important is likely to be most successful, and there is already some research into what kinds of activities p eople find meaningful. In the following sections I address possible explanations for the motivation behind the construction of the personal meaning system.

Energization of meaning-seeking behavior and energization of the construction of the personal meaning system--physics


If what I have presented above is a useful description of a subset of human behavior, the question remains, ‘why does it happen?’ Why are we capable of creating a cognitive structure to help us experience a more rewarding existence, and why are we, sometimes, powerfully motivated to create a satisfying structure? What energizes the construction of the personal meaning system? Previous meaning theorists, especially Frankl (1965), have postulated that humans have a ‘will to meaning.’ That is, humans have a fundamental motivation to find meaning (whatever that is) in their existence. Unfortunately, this an especially suspicious thing to do—to postulate a will, or drive, as motivating a human behavior, especially without empirical demonstration of the explanatory power of the proposed "will" (Heckhausen, 1991; Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Not a clear situation

A good example of the nebulousness of this situation is Viktor Frankl himself, who attributes his survival of the concentration camps in part to his ability to find meaning in his existence. However, there is no doubt that his experience previous t o the concentration camps allowed him find a strong meaning in his existence. He had probably had a fairly good (affectively rewarding) existence and therefore was able to visualize the possibility of such an existence again (i.e., by returning to his wif e, or finishing his book). Whereas those who had less fulfilling prior existences may have been less driven to continue living.

Research methods

Motivation is a field in which I have little experience, but it appears that empirical means have been and are being developed to create some consensus about whether a behavior should be considered as due to a basic human motivation or a product of environmental conditioning (e.g., McClelland, 1987), so there is some guidance for the researcher who would like to explore the motivational issues related to meaning in life. Below I present past and present ideas about the nature of the hypothesized ‘w ill to meaning,’ which I hope will also be of assistance to the ‘will to meaning’ researcher.

Motivator of meaning finding possibly the same as motivator of perception of Gestalts

Crumbaugh (1963) suggests that the cause of a human’s motivation to find meaning is related to or the same as the cause of the Gestalt psychologists’ laws of perceptual organization, i.e., that humans have an inherent motivation to "organize stimul us elements into meaningful wholes" (p. 45). Crumbaugh mentions that a motivation to organize one’s perceptions has survival value, "for the greater the range of stimuli which can be comprehended and interrelated, the greater the chance of adaptive manipu lation." While we regularly differentiate and organize our visual input into a comprehensible whole (remember your behavior when you saw something that visually did not make sense to you... or imagine what your life would be like if you did not differenti ate and integrate your visual input.), it may be that we do the same thing when considering all that we are capable of considering, all of our past and what we imagine of our future, all that we know of human history and the history of the universe, and a ll that we imagine the future of humanity and the universe to be.

Why exactly would inability to find meaning be anxiety producing?

That it is anxiety producing when we cannot make sense of our life may be related to an experiment involving dogs who were trained to tell the difference between a circle and an oval in order to receive food. Apparently the dogs exhibited increasin g anxiety as the shapes were gradually changed to be more similar to each other. Unfortunately I do not remember where I read of this experiment, please let me know if you do. It seems similar that when we are unable to organize what we know of existence into a comprehensible whole that appears to offer continuing opportunity for enjoyment, we are anxious and motivated to find some meaning in it all.

Feelings of meaning are described in terms congruent with gestalt conceptualization of will to meaning

That finding meaning in existence might, as Crumbaugh suggests, involve integrating our awareness of our existence with what we know of the world around us, is congruent with both feelings and cognitions of meaning, i.e., ‘feeling at one with all t hings’ or the feelings of being in contact with self, other, and life or world as described in Debats’ 1995 study, or cognitively, in seeing the point, or how it all makes sense.

The motivation to live meaningfully appears to be very strong in some situations

Viewing one’s life and viewing being alive as an important part of something larger than one’s self may be the reason many people, like Frankl, have lived on through the most miserable conditions instead of simply expiring when the going got tough. Additionally, a desire to feel a part of and to believe one is a part of something larger than one’s self, or the frustration of that desire, may help account for the myriad of things people die for (or kill themselves because of), or endure intense tort ure to preserve. It appears that the desire to have lived a meaningful existence may be an even stronger motivator than the fear of death.

If people will die for what they believe is meaningful, how could such a motivation (if biologically based) be selected for?

The fact that people would choose to put themselves in dangerous situations, or even choose not to reproduce, to stay true to their personal meaning systems poses a difficulty for a hypothesized ‘will to meaning’ in passing the hurdle of natural se lection. While there are many reproductive-success-related benefits to being motivated to perceive one’s life behaviors as a coherent whole, and one’s life as a part of a coherent whole, many, many people may have died because they had that same motivatio n. I have only come up with one possibility: that the advantages, in terms of reproductive success, of a "will to meaning" outweigh the disadvantages, and that the fact that so many people will die to remain true to their meaningful beliefs attests to the magnitude of this advantage. Or it could be that a "will to meaning" is a by-product of the reproductive advantage of Gestalt perception and organization.

The possible ‘will to meaning’ should be studied more

Clearly, there is much we do not understand about the existence of a possible ‘will to meaning.’ If the will to meaning is as strong a motivator it appears to be, it is a bit frightening it has been studied so little. Perhaps our ignorance of our w ill to meaning has made the jobs of religious leaders, politicians, and military leaders a bit too easy, especially when they are not acting for the best. To further explore the nature of the possibility of a ‘will to meaning,’ it would be interesting to measure the effect of telling people that an activity is meaningful on peoples’ motivation to do the activity. It would also be interesting to look at the importance of meaning in different cultures and situations.

Meaning seeking appears to be related to the defining characteristic of development- maybe growth?

In any event, it seems that the human’s desire to find and create meaning in existence is in congruence with what seem to be a fundamental process in organismic development: the continuing differentiation of new sub-structures and the integration o f those new structures into increasingly complex wholes (Piaget and Werner as referred to in Deci & Ryan, 1985, p. 113-114). Deci and Ryan (1985) suggest that, "Change that does not represent increased complexity and coordination of structure would no t properly be termed development" (p. 114). More to the point of our discussion, Adamson and Lyxell (1996, referring to the theories of Erikson and Ramstrom) suggest that "developing an identity first involves a process of separation [individuation] with the result that the individual is able to see her/himself as a unique person, consistent in time and space. This constitutes a necessary condition for an integration into the adult world" (p. 570). The process of finding meaning in life appears to involve finding and creating both the feeling and the cognition of integration of one’s self and one’s activities into the processes of the larger world.

Meaning seeking may be a manifestation of the fundamental process whereby things come to exist.

It may be that the process of increasing differentiation and integration is more basic even than the process of natural selection. Somehow we got from subatomic particles to over 100 different atoms; from several different kinds of atoms to an infi nite number of different kinds of molecules; from whatever existed prior to our solar system to a differentiated and integrated solar system within a larger whole. It appears that something special happens when you add energy to a system. Our search for m eaning may be the manifestation of a fundamental characteristic of everything that exists.


To summarize, the nature, development, and motivating aspects of meaning in life and the personal meaning system were explored. However, one question which has not even begun to be answered is why there might be a dramatic hypothesized difference i n motivation, or zest for life, between the people who have a strong and clear feeling of meaning in life, and those who believe their lives are meaningless. Further research and clarification of concepts will be needed to further explore this question.

SUBSET- concerns with meaning

In the previous section, I suggested that the construction of the personal meaning system is motivated by a biologically-based ‘will to meaning.’ However, many individuals would not agree that they are organizing their existence to attain me aningful experience. They are simply trying to survive, to make more money, to be properly religious, etc. The fact is that individual personal meaning systems are based on a wide variety of assumptions of what is important. The person who is simply tryin g to survive assumes that survival is important; the person who wants more money assumes that money is what it is all about, and so on. I am now going to discuss what occurs when an individual questions the fundamental assumptions of their personal meanin g system.

We are capable of questioning the purpose in any behavior. When we have questioned enough that we decide to accept certain concepts as important because if we do not accept these concepts, the world about us is reduced to nothingness, then, I believe, we are defining what meaning is to us. Ideally, the psychological understanding of meaning will encompass all personal definitions of meaning, each with their unique variation. Thus while many people are concerned with feeding themselves, or making more m oney, and so on, and would disagree that there is reason to consider anything but those primary concerns, the following discussion is concerned with why a person would be concerned with anything at all. The atomic unit I have boiled meaning down to, is, a s you will see, ‘emotional connection.’ It remains to be seen if this will be a fruitful conceptualization.

The following discussion, especially that of the experience of meaninglessness, will probably only resonate with a certain subset of the population. Many people go through the process of restructuring their personal meaning systems without approaching the point of considering what makes an activity meaningful. Of those who do actually consider the nature of meaning, even fewer probably are driven to do so because of a tragic sense of meaninglessness.

Meaningful experience--environment-predominantly

Our mind is capable of connecting anything that has meaning to something else. Generally, we would consider a nonsense word meaningless, while we would consider a word like ‘red’ meaningful. What then are the connections our mind makes to th e word ‘meaningful,’ and ‘meaningful experience’? How is a meaningful experience different from a worthwhile one, an engaging one, a satisfying one, or an enjoyable one? This is no small question (try working on it for a while).

After working on this question for a while, it appeared to me that the meaningful experience is an experience which has happened in the past and has been designated meaningful by the person who had it. Furthermore, people will call a past experience me aningful whether it was positive or negative, provided that they value what they believe to be the outcome of that experience. For example, an individual might consider her mother’s death meaningful if she believes she became stronger by what she learned because of her mother’s death. It appears that people can also imagine different imagined future experiences to be more or less meaningful. And it also appears that there are even some instances in which a person can be asked if their present experience i s meaningful, and the person would say, ‘yes.’ What is even more puzzling is that when asked, ‘What gives you the most meaning in your present existence?’ people have answers. But what could they mean?

Aside: archetypal experience

It is interesting, although perhaps not significant, that most people can tell you what the most meaningful experiences in their lives have been. Meaning, in western culture at least, does not seem to need much explanation for people to understand what you are saying or asking about. If this situation does in fact exist, and across diverse cultures, it may signify that there is a sort of archetypeal experience we are referring to when we say, ‘meaning.’

Positive emotional connections

The common theme to the answers to all of these questions appears to be ‘positive emotional connection.’ The kind of meaning discussed in the beginning of this section is largely cognitive. We are able to make logical connections between the word ‘ red’ and other concepts. When we speak of a ‘meaningful experience’ in the past, however, not only do we make purely logical connections between what happend then and how we changed because of the experience, we also feel emotionally attached to the chang e that occurred. Likewise, when people describe what gives them the most meaning in their present existence, they are referring to what, in their everyday lives, they are most emotionally attached to. When people consider future events to be meaningful to them, i.e. graduation, they are also expressing emotional attachment to those imagined events.

On the other hand, when people consider a person to have lived a ‘meaningful’ life, this is largely because they are able to view the person’s life as a whole, a sum of behaviors, which has had a positive effect. This use of the word ‘meaningful’ is di fferent from the emotional attachment sense of the word. In this situation, ‘meaningful’ expresses a cognitive realization of the coherence of what is being called meaningful as well as the logical connection of the meaningful object to a desired situatio n.

Identity relevance

There is another theme which is strongly evident in people’s answers to questions about past and future meaningful experiences: ‘identity relevance.’ It appears that people develop emotional attachments to those experiences which they believe had o r will have the greatest impact on who they are (assuming they value the way they are). Also, when people speak of experiences which at the time of the experience they felt to be meaningful (present experience) (Debats et al. 1995), they are also probably speaking of identity relevant experiences, i.e. graduation, or any other intensely felt experience. The things in their present existence that give people the most meaning are those with which people feel the greatest emotional connection—these things ar e also identity relevant—i.e. work, relationships, activities. I am not sure how useful of a distinction the identity relevance theme is, but perhaps this paragraph will aid the thinking of another researcher.

How do we create emotional connections?

Now that the essence of meaningful experince appears to be emotional connection, the question of greatest importance to us should probably be, ‘How do we make our and others’ present existence full of positive emotional connections?’ I don’t really know. And while some ideas have been postulated (e.g. Maddi, 1967), there has been little research in this area. In spite of largely being ignored by researchers however, much of life appears to be the activity of making emotional connections.

Perhaps we should turn to artists, religious leaders, poets, and wise family members and friends to begin our empirical study of emotional connection. What makes these people wise or successful may in some cases be the ability of making emotional conne ctions that we are trying to understand. As an aside, N.C. Wyeth, the father of Andrew Wyeth, strongly emphasized the importance of emotional connection: "Anything less than total emotional involvement in work and in play is a denial of human life itself" (N.C. Wyeth as quoted in Corn, 1973). When studying the artists, however, we should keep in mind that being emotionally connected to one’s art is not always the same as being emotionally connected to the activites of daily life, which I think would be mo re valuable to learn how to do.

Emotional connection is probably in some cases the same as ‘love.’ Those who are well emotionally connected are probably those who enjoy being alive, and who also emotionally connect with us. I am strongly drawn to the question of how emotional connect ions can be made, and how the making of emotional connections could be studied, but I will leave those questions to other researchers and subsequent papers.

Further distinctions

As Reker and Wong’s theory and Denne & Thompson’s (1991) work suggest, that emotional connection alone is not enough for an activity or concept to be included in a personal meaning system. A conscious awareness of one’s own emotional connection to things in the environment or types of experience is important, or one is unlikely to preserve and seek meaning in one’s existence. This was one of the emphases of values clarification (e.g., Raths et al., 1966). It is also important to be aware of the insults to the meaningfulness of one’s life that exist—if one hates working on many projects at once, one should make an effort to arrange one’s life to avoid that situation.

One final caution is that it is misleading to speak of ‘sources’ of meaning as Reker and Wong (1988) and those who have built on Reker and Wong’s work (e.g. Prager, 1996; O’Connor & Chamberlain, 1996) have done. It is true people tend to find meani ng in similar types of interactions (intimate relationships, for instance), or in certain symbols or objects, but this is not because of the object itself, but because of how people relate to the object. For this reason it is more appropriate to speak of ‘meaningful interactions’ than sources of meaning.

Meaning and purpose

In reading this paper, you may have noticed that I have reviewed papers on the concept of ‘purpose in life,’ positive life regard, meaning in life, and various other similar-sounding concepts. I believe the concept of meaning in life which I have p resented here fairly accurately represents the phenomenon of interest. The other concepts also represent the phenomenon of interest but with varying degrees of accuracy. Ideally, I would go on in this paper to discuss prior conceptualization and operation alizations of meaning-in-life-related theories, as well as present measurment instruments for the ideas presented here. However, it is my hope that other researchers may be able to use this paper to assist them in creating new research instruments or in d eciding which already developed instrument is most appropriate for their research question. My current preference is to use the Life-Regard Index (Battista & Almond, 1963) to measure an individual’s degree of experienced meaning in life, and degree of development of her or his personal meaning system (cf. Debats, 1990; Debats et al. 1993; Chamberlain & Zika, 1988).

The experience of meaninglessness.-environment--predominantly


The experience of meaninglessness is pretty nearly the opposite of the experience of meaning. It is the absence of any emotional connection to anything. The cognitive component of experiencing meaninglessness generally involves the continuing asses sing of different possibilities for some sort of emotional draw or even rational reason for the possibility to be worthwhile. Generally the assessing continues until a problem with the idea is found, and the possibility is rejected, like every other, as m eaningless. Thus the individual creates or discovers a meaningless environment.

One interesting characteristic of the experience of meaninglessness is that it motivates change, or suicide in some cases, by the intensely bad feelings/experience it engenders. Maddi (1967) has suggested that if the experience of meaninglesness does n ot result in an improved understanding of the experience of meaning, and an improvment in one’s life experience, the intensity of the experience of meaninglessness (which I describe at the beginning of this paper) fades into an apathetic and passive exist ence. However, in many instances, an intensely negative experience of meaninglessness has led to positive life-changes.


It may be that despair, depression, and suicide are not solely the results of a phenotypically-based chemical imbalance, except in the rarest of cases, but the result of an ineffective personal meaning system, or an inhospitable environment, or bot h. If this is the case, treating despair and depression with antidepressants and nothing more postpones needed individual and social change and enables the maintainment of an ineffective individual and social meaning system. Ineffective individual and soc ial meaning systems, would in turn, increase the number of individuals experiencing depression, despair, and suicidal ideation.

Is it simply a matter of attitude?

Blocker (1974) and others have hypothesized that it is an individual’s awareness that there is no meaning inherent in the external world, i.e. that there is no meaning to life except what we impose upon it, that can lead to the intensely negative e xperience of meaninglessness. Furthermore, Blocker believes that awareness of the supposed arbitrariness of the meaning of all stimuli only leads to a negative experience in cultures which have assumed that there is an absolute/external/objective meaning in the world; cultures which entertain the "false ideal of non-projective meaning" (p. 115). On the other hand, for traditional Buddhists, who do not assume there is an objective meaning to life, the experience of meaninglessness is a liberating and joyfu l experience. What is perceived in one culture as tragic is perceived in another as a freedom to create.

I believe what Blocker is referring to is that in Western culture, questioning the meaning in life can lead a person to invalidate any emotional connections she might have simply because she cannot see any ‘point’ in making emotional connections. Where that individual differs from the Zen Buddhist, perhaps, is that she is operating under the assumption that there should be a ‘point’ to whatever behaviors she engages in, while the Zen Buddhist never held that assumption. For the Westerner then, question ing meaning and finding no answer will most likely lead the questioner to alienate himself, while for the Zen Buddhist, questioning meaning would most likely lead to a feeling of creative power.

not just attitude

I agree with Blocker that a certain proportion of the intense negativity of the Western experience of meaninglessness is due to our desire to find, or our assumption that there should be, some non-arbitrary meaning for our existence. However, as Bl ocker also suggests (p. 135), the process of transitioning from an experience of meaninglessness to meaning is not simply a matter of reliquishing one’s assumption or desire to find an objective meaning in life. By objective meaning, I mean a meaning that continues to exist independent of you. For example the word ‘red’ could be said to have a semi-objective meaning, in that if you declare the word ‘red’ to be meaningless, others will still find it meaningful.

some of the tragic sense of meaninglessness is due to lack of reinforcement

I believe that in addition to the desire for objective meaning, the tragic experience of meaninglessness is also largely a sign of a deficiency of reinforcers in the environment. The experience of meaninglessness is probably more likely to occur wh en one no longer percives opportunities to engage in reinforcing life-behaviors and activities. Thus the experience of meaninglessness is more likely to occur in a culture where people live isolated lives, not rooted to any particular place, people, belie f structure or value system, in a physical environment that is built for cars, not people and for economic growth, not quality of life (i.e. most industrialized countries).

transition to transition

Now that I have further delineated the concepts of meaning and meaninglessness, I will discuss the processes in which an individual transitions from experiencing meaning to meaninglessness and vice versa.

Transition---- both transition and states are combos of env and attitude.

Transition to meaninglessness- a spreading lack of satisfaction

While Denne and Thompson (1991) have begun to research the transition from the experience of meaninglessness to the experience of meaning, it would be equally interesting to study the transition from the experience of a fair amount of contentness w ith existence to the experience of meaninglessness. It appears that in many experiences of meaninglessness, there had been a lasting or increasing encounter with a lack of satisfaction with existence, or simply a general lack of enthusiasm with living whi ch slowly began to spread to more of the person’s life-domains (e.g., Tolstoy, 1981). In my case, I would say the experience of meaninglessness began when I decided my pre-/early-adolescent dream of being a naval officer was no longer the best thing to do . Only a couple of years later did my lack of satisfaction with possible life-futures become more of an all-encompassing concern.

Transition to meaning perhaps not due only to change in environment

Likewise, the transition from meaninglessness to meaning could be facilitated not primarily by a cognitive change, but by the increased presence of situations which present reinforcers, as Skinner (1971, pp. 112-114) suggests. Denne and Thompson’s (1991) results seem to contradict this hypothesis. Frankl would also deny that finding meaning occurs due to a change in environment. Also, I have experienced going from despair at not wanting to do anything at all to feeling fairly motivated in just a fe w days due only (I thought) to the rejection of a life-plan and then the creation of a new, more satisfying one.

There is a difference in the two types of transition

It appears that both the transition from involvement in existence to the experience of meaninglessness, and the transition from the experience of meaninglessness to the experience of meaning are reciprocal interactions between person and environmen t. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two types of transitions. In the transition from involvement to meaninglessness the individual is not actively working on the question of what is important to him; he may be aware that life is less satisfying and complain of it, but he is not asking the question of what is satisfying. In the transition from meaninglessness to meaning, however, the individual is actively trying to figure out what might possibly have meaning for her in life, o r how she might create meaning. The transition from involvement to meaninglessness appears to be a more passive, reactive process, while the transition from meaninglessness to meaning is a more proactive process (Denne & Thompson, 1991).

To restate this hypothesis in the language of cognitive development, the transition from involvement to meaninglessness appears to be a continuing attempt to assimilate what one has learned into an ineffective personal meaning system, while the transit ion from meaninglessness to the experience of meaning appears to involve a conscious attempt to rework one’s meaning system to be more useful in helping one to experience meaning (accomodation). This fits the conceptualization that an individual’s persona l meaning system is a cognitively constructed tool to assist her or him in experiencing a meaningful, fulfilling existence.

Transitioning to experience meaning involves two components- the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to live.

The resolution of the experience of meaninglessness is gradual, but the two basic tasks to attain meaning are: (1) the resolution of the basic question of the nature of meaning in life, either by discovering, creating, or accepting an objective mea ning, or by deciding to live in spite of the apparent meaninglessness of existence, or dismissing the question as unhelpful, or some other approach (cf. Klemke, 1981). This task involves developing what Yalom (1980) calls cosmic meaning, or the ‘why’ for living; and (2) the construction of a working personal meaning system—one which assists one in making emotional connections, and which has helped one make emotional connections in the past. This task involves developing what is referred to by Yalom as ter restrial meaning, or the ‘how’ to live.

The ‘invariant constituents’ which Denne and Thompson (1991) found in the transition from meaninglessness to meaning would be encompassed in task 2. The second task occurs to a greater and lesser degree any time an individual changes her or his persona l meaning system by accomodation rather than assimilation. The first task is involved only when an individual is distracted by the question of the meaning of life, and of the meaning of any experience.

Meaninglessness may be the motivator of accomodation- redundant?

In the picture just presented, the experience of meaninglessness appears to be the motivating force for the individual to rework his or her personal meaning system in order to make it more useful. This seems appropriate. If reasons abound for quest ioning the purpose and reason in continuing to live, or there is no clear direction for what we should do, then it is important to construct a cognitive structure which organizes and explains why and what things are important to us. However, if our existe nce is already engaging enough, we have little need for a cognitive structure to assist us in finding or creating meaningful experience.

Transition is gradual for those who have known meaninglessness long

It is difficult to begin allowing one’s self to be engaged in existence again if one has rejected all possible activities and behaviors as meaningless for some time. After a lengthy period of meaninglessness, the transition to meaning is likely to be gradual, and the experience of meaning only becomes stronger after a record of achievement in altering one’s internal and external environments to better experience meaning has been in established for some time.

predispositions for meaning/meaninglessness

Undoubtedly there are both environmental and personality characteristics that are important risk or protective factors in the experience of meaning and meaninglessness. It appears that the greatest variance can be explained by situational and devel opmental effects of an environment, although perhaps some people are genetically predisposed to experience meaninglessness. Plenty of research, which I will not cite here, has shown that people who are strongly religious generally have greater psychologic al well being, and experience greater meaning and purpose in life. This being said, however, religion’s failure to support and accept those who do not have ‘faith,’ and who question the basis of the religion may be a significant environmental risk factor for the experience of meaninglessness. I also would expect that people who are raised to see themselves and their own life as intimately connected to all other things are less likely to experience meaninglessness. Perhaps this is the case with the Zen Bud dhists. It is also probable that those people who have some stable positively meaningful interactions in their lives, whether it be family relationships, a town or city community or location, or a hobby, are also less likely to experience meaninglessness. Undoubtedly there are many factors I have not begun to touch on here.

Conclusion for transition

I have discussed the characteristics of and differences between the transition from experiencing meaning to meaninglessness and the transition from experiencing meaninglessness to meaning. I conclude the theory section of this paper with a note abo ut the meaning of life.

The meaning of life

What we think we are looking for when we ask for the meaning of life is a convincing explanation of why we exist, and what our purpose is in being here. However, what we really hope to do is to enjoy being alive while we are here. We don’t w ant merely a rational answer to the question of why we exist, and what we are doing here, we want an answer that helps us to feel good. This appears, in part, to be an answer that allows us to perceive ourselves and our actions as a part of something more than our physical body. For some people the answer they choose also helps to ease their fear of death, the difficulty of having to think independently, and their dislike of being alone. The more the answer can assist us in loving being alive, the better we like it.

the prize

The prize goes, I think, to the person/people/method/institution which can provide the most cognitively and affectively convincing and rewarding answer to or means of working on the question of the meaning of life. The prize is not small—it is eternal life, at least for the method/institution/basic concepts, ‘eternal’ being as long as humans or the memory of them is alive.


I have presented the concept of the personal meaning system, and possible explanations for the motivation of its development. I have also discussed the subset of the personal meaning system which is concerned with the meaning and meaningless ness of the underlying assumptions of the meaning system itself. A key characteristic of both the personal meaning system and the experiences of meaning and meaninglessness is that none exist independently of the individual or the environment. Thus, if pe ople are unhappy or despairing, the question should not be, ‘what is wrong with them?’ but, ‘what is wrong with their environment, and what orientation and focus will allow them to achieve the greatest environmental improvement?’ If psychologists, and soc iety in general, adopt this new question, I believe we will all eventually experience a markedly improved social and physical environment.

Suggestions for future research

conceptualization and operationalization

Future research into the area of meaning in life should probably concentrate most immediately on clarifying and distinguishing the phenomenon we are researching. For example, meaning, as it has been previously researched is difficult to dist inguish from satisfaction or engagement. As some previous researchers have suggested, (Battista and Almond, 1973; Reker and Wong, 1987), meaning probably does have both cognitive and affective components. More specifically, an individual who perceives and object or activity to be meaningful should be aware of seeing or feeling both logical and emotional connections to that object or activity. In some situations the connection will proceed from logical to emotional (i.e. I am moved by graduation because of the importance I believe it should have have) and in other situations, from emotional to logical (i.e. That was the most amazing experience of my life, I don’t understand why, but I want to have it again). These hypotheses could be explored.

Ideally we could develop a clear conceptualization of what is meant when we speak of meaningful experiences in the past, present, and future, of meaningful symbols, activities, and relationships, and then to attempt to place this understanding in relat ion to other relatively clearly defined concepts, such as personal efficacy, or various forms of alienation. It may be that alienation is most nearly the opposite of meaning. It may be that in some situations a feeling of personal efficacy is required for there to be an experience of meaning, while in some cases it is not. By developing clearly defined constructs and understanding their relation to others, we should be able to improve our understanding of the experience of meaning, and thus be able to cre ate environments in which we are more likely to experience meaning.

Meaning in life without organized religion

Another interesting project would be to study people who are not commited to a particular religious organization, yet have been able to develop a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life. By developing a better understanding of these type s of individuals, we may be able to develop a more clear idea of what religion provides to its adherents that is conducive to the experience of meaning and purpose, and what part of religion is not essential to achieving this end. It may be the lifelong s ocial environment, or the provision of rules of how to live, or it may be simply the activity of having ‘faith’ that one cannot and should not try to find the purpose in everything. By developing such a science of religion, we will be better able to provi de for a society in which the dogmatic side of religion appeals to fewer and fewer people. Eventually it may be possible to provide many of the benefits of a religion while maintaining an openess to questioning about the basis and practices of the religio n.

Transitions to meaninglessness and vice versa in a developmental context

It is also important to conduct further research on both the transition to meaninglessness from contentness or engagement, and the transition to meaning from meaninglessness. This research could assist developing an understanding of the deve lopmental and environmental factors which lead to the experience of meaning or meaninglessness.

If indeed it is the emotional connection that is most important to the experience of meaning (i.e., if one can see the sense in doing something, but does not feel motivated to do it then the behavior is viewed as meaningless), then future research expl oring the establishment and dissolution of emotional connections is likely to be fruitful. For example, it appears that children are readily able to form emotional connections to almost anything, including a big, fall-colored maple leaf they might find wh ile going on a walk, and they will then be distraught upon the loss or damage of this leaf. However, the individual prone to the experience of meaninglessness is likely to be preoccupied with the idea that there is nothing worth getting emotionally attach ed to. It would be interesting to explore how (and if) this discrimination regarding emotional attachment increases with age, and even becomes pathological.

Motivational significance of the personal meaning system

It would also be helpful to learn more about the nature, development, and motivational significance of the concept of a personal meaning system. The personal meaning system appears to be most important in unfamiliar situations, i.e., when ne w decisions and new life plans must be made, but most of the time it may be that questions of meaning and value fade into the background. It would also be interesting to determine what other factors are important in an individual’s being able to make long standing commitments that are necessary for the continuing development of the individual’s identity/personal meaning system. This would be of interest at least in part because individuals who are prone to experience meaninglessness tend not to make or mai ntain commitments because they are unable to find a commitment they find meaningful. Erikson’s (1963) stages of psychosocial development could probably serve as a starting point for this exploration, as well as investigations into differences in the socia l environment that are correlated with differential rates of occurrence of the experience of meaninglessness.


I have reviewed some of the past research on the experience of meaning in life, and described the ‘personal meaning system’ as a way of conceptualizing how we impose some motivational order on our environments by deciding and remembering wha t is more and less important to us. I have also discussed the nature of meaning and meaninglessness as well as the meaning of life, and I have presented some suggestions for future research in the area of meaning in life. It is my hope that this paper wil l serve as a useful tool for anyone interested in further exploring the nature of the experience of meaning in life.


Adamson, L. & Lyxell, B. (1996). Self-concept and questions of life: identity development during late adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 19, 569-582.

Allport, G. W. (1967). Pattern and growth in personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Antonovsky, A. (1985). The life cycle, mental health, and the sense of coherence. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 11, 4, 273-280.

Antonovsky, A. (1987). Unraveling the mystery of health. Josssey-Bass, San Francisco.

Antonovsky, A. (1993). The structure and properties of the sense of coherence scale. Social Science Medicine, 36, 6, 725-733.

Battista, J. & Almond, R. (1973). The development of meaning in life. Psychiatry, 36, 409-427.

Baum, S. K. & Stewart, R. B. (1990). Sources of meaning through the lifespan. Psychological Reports, 67, 3-14.

Baum, S. K. (1988). Meaningful life experiences for elderly persons. Psychological Reports, 63, 427-433.

Blocker, G. (1974). The meaning of meaninglessness. Netherlands, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Caltstok, C. (1997). Personal communication.

Carlsen, M. B. (1988). Meaning-making: theraputic processes in adult development. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Chamberlain, K. & Zika, S. (1988). Measuring meaning in life: an examination of three scales. Personality and Individual Differences, 9(3), 589-596.

Corn, W. M. (1973). The art of Andrew Wyeth. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society.

Courtenay, B. C. & Truluck, J. (1997). The meaning of life and older learners: addressing the fundamental issue through critical thinking and teaching. Educational Gerentology, 23, 175-195.

Crandall, J. E. & Rasmussen, R. D. (1970?). Purpose in life as related to specific values.

Crumbaugh, J. C. & Maholick, L. T. (1964). An experimental study in existentialism: The psychometric approach to Frankl’s concept of noogenic neurosis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 20, 200-207.

Crumbaugh, J. C. (1963). The case for Frankl’s "will to meaning." Journal of Existential Psychiatry, 4(13), 43-48.

Crumbaugh, J. C. (1977). The seeking of noetic goals test (SONG): a complementary scale to the purpose in life test (PIL). Journal of Clinical Psychology, 33(3), 900-907.

Cunningham, C. A. (n.d./1997). The character education page. URL

Cunningham, C. A. (n.d./1997b). The rise and fall of character education in America. URL

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: the self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26, 325-346.

De Vogler, K. L., & Ebersole, P. (1981). Adults’ meaning in life. Psychological Reports, 49, 87-90.

De Vogler, K. L., & Ebersole, P. (1983). Young adolescents’ meaning in life. Psychological Reports, 52, 427-431.

De Vogler, K. L., & Ebersole, P. (1980). Categorization of college students’ meaning of life. Psychological Reports, 46, 387-390.

Debats, D. L. (1990). The life regard index: reliability and validity. Psychological Reports, 67, 27-34.

Debats, D. L., van der Lubbe, P. M., & Wezeman, F. R. A. (1993). On the psychometric properties of the Life Regard Index (LRI): a measure of meaningful life. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(2), 337-345.

Debats, D. L. (1996). Meaning in life: clinical relevance and predictive power. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 35, 503-516.

Debats, D. L., Drost, J., & Hansen, P. (1995). Experiences of meaning in life: a combined qualitative and quantitative approach. British Journal of Psychology, 86, 359-375.

Denne, J. M. & Thompson, N. L. (1991). The experience of transition to meaning and purpose in life. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 22, 2, 109-133.

Diener, E. (from web). Satisfaction with life scaleSatisfaction with Life Scale

Diener, E., Suh, E., & Oishi, S. (1997). Recent findings on subjective well-being. Indian J. of Clinical Psychology, March.

Dyck, M. J. (1987). Assessing logotheraputic constructs: conceptual and psychometric status of the purpose in life and seeking of noetic goals tests. Clinical Psychology Review, 7, 439-447.

Ebersole, P. & De Vogler, K. L. (1981). Meaning in life: category self-ratings. The Journal of Psychology, 107, 289-293.

Ebersole, P. & De Vogler, K. L. (1986). Meaning in life of the eminent and the average. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 1(1), 83-94.

Ebersole, P. & DeVore, G. (1995). Self-actualization, diversity, and meaning in life. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10(1), 37-51.

Ebersole, P. & Quiring, G. (1991). Meaning in life depth: the mild. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 31(3), 113-124.

Ebersole, P., & DePaola, S. (1987). Meaning in life categories of later life couples. The Journal of Psychology, 121(2), 185-191.

Erikson, E. H. (1979). Identity and the life cycle. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Fabry, J. B. (1980). The pursuit of meaning. San Francisco: Haper and Row.

Frankl, V. E. (19??). Logotherapy and existential analysis--a review. American Journal of Psychotherapy,

Frankl, V. E. (1965). Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Garfield, C. A. (1973). A psychometric and clinical investigation of Frankl’s concept of existential vacuum and of anomia. Psychiatry, 36, 396-408.

Harlow, L. L. (1990). Towards a general hierarchical model of meaning and satisfaction in life. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 25(3), 387-405.

Harlow, L. L., Newcomb, M. D., & Bentler, P. M. (1986). Depression, self-derogation, substance use, and suicide ideation: lack of purpose in life as a mediational factor. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42(1), 5-21.

Heckhausen, H. (1991). Motivation and action. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Hill, R. F., von Mering, O., & Guillette, E. A. (1995). Adolescence and old age, part 1: terminal problem cultures in American society. Educational Gerontology, 21, 275-283.

Johnston, P. D. (1996). Between mush and a hard place: the search for meaning. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, X, XX, 285-291.

Kinnier, R. T., Metha, A. T., Keim, J. S., Okey, J. L., Alder-Tabia, R. L., Berry, M. A., & Mulvenon, S. W. (1994). Depression, meaninglessness, and substance abuse in "normal" and hospitalized adolescents. Journal of Alcohol & Drug Educatio n, 39(2) 101-111.

Klemke, (1981).

Klinger, E. (1977). Meaning & void: inner experience and the incentives in people’s lives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kotchen, T. A. (???). Existential mental health: an empirical approach. ??? 174-181

Land, T. [a.k.a Beads] (1997, October 21). Web Extension to American Psychological Association Style (WEAPAS) (Rev. 1.4.3) [WWW document]. URL

Maddi, S. R. (1967). The existential neurosis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 72(4), 311-325.

Maddi, S. R. (1970). The search for meaning. In A. Williams & M. Page (Eds.), The Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 134-183). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Marcia, J. E. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of Adolescent Psychology (pp. 159-187). New York: Wiley.

McCarthy, S. V. (1983). Geropsychology: meaning in life for adults over seventy. Psychological Reports, 53, 497-498.

McClelland, D. C. (1987). Human motivation. Boston: Cambridge University Press.

Meier, A. & Edwards, H. (1974). Purpose-in-life test: age and sex differences. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 30, 384-386.

Melville, H. (1994). Melville, Herman. 1853. Bartleby, the Scrivener. URL

Newcomb, M. D. & Harlow, L. L. (1986). Life events and substance use among adolescents: mediating effects of perceived loss of control and meaninglessness in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 564-577.

Nicholson, T., Higgins, W., Turner, P., James, S., Stickle, F., & Pruitt, T. (1994). The relation between meaning in life and the occurrence of drug abuse: a retrospective study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 8, 1, 24-28.

Niemi, H. (1987). The meaning of life among secondary school pupils. A theoretical framework and some initial results. Research Bulletin 65.

Novak, M. (1970). The experience of nothingness. New York: Harper & Row.

Novak, M. (1986). Biography after the end of metaphysics: a critique of epigenetic evolution. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 22 (3), 189-203.

O’Connor, K. & Chamberlain, K. (1996). Dimensions of life meaning: a qualitative investigation at mid-life. British Journal of Psychology, 87, 461-477.

Padelford, B. L. (1974). Relationship between drug involvement and purpose in life. Journal of Clinical Psychology,30, 303-305.

Peacock, E. J. & Reker, G. T. (1982). The Life Attitude Profile (LAP): further evidence of reliability and empirical validity. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 14(1), 92-95.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Prager, E. (1996). Exploring personal meaning in an age-differentiated Australian sample: another look at the Sources of Meaning Profile (SOMP). Journal of Aging Studies, 10(2), 117-136.

Prager, E. (1997). Sources of personal meaning in life for a sample of younger and older urban australian women. Journal of Women & Aging, 9 (3), 47-65.

Raths, L. E., Harmin, M., & Simon, S. B. (1966). Values and teaching: working with values in the classroom. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Books.

Reker, G. T. & Peacock, E. J. (1981). The life attitude profile (LAP): a multidimensional instrument for assessing attitudes toward life. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 13(3). 264-273.

Reker, G. T. & Wong, P. T. P. (1988). Aging as an individual process: Toward a theory of personal meaning. In J. Birren & V. L. Bengston (Eds.), Emergent Theories of Aging (pp. 214 - 246). New York: Springer Publishing.

Reker, G. T. (1977). The purpose-in-life test in an inmate population: an empirical investigation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 33(3), 688-693.

Reker, G. T., Cousins, J. B. (1979). Factor structure, construct validity and reliability of the seeking of noetic goals (SONG) and purpose in life (PIL) tests. Journil of Clinical Psychology, 35(1), 85-91.

Reker, G. T., Peacock, E. J., & Wong, P. T. P. (1987). Meaning and purpose in life and well-being: a life-span perspective. Journal of Gerentology, 42(1), 44-49.

Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ruffin, J. E. (1984). The anxiety of meaninglessness. Journal of Counseling and Development, 63, 40-42.

Ryff, C. D., & Heidrich, S. M. (1997). Experience and well-being: explorations on domains of life and how they matter. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 20(2), 193-206.

Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719-727.

Shapiro, S. B. (1976). Development of a life-meanings survey. Psychological Reports, 39, 467-480.

Shapiro, S. B. (1988). Purpose and meaning: a two-factor theory of existence. Psychological Reports, 63, 287-293.

Shek, D. T. L., Ma, H. K. & Cheung, P. C. (1994). Meaning in life and adolescent antisocial and prosocial behavior in a chinese context. Psychologia, 37, 211-218.

Sherman, E. (1987). Meaning in mid-life transitions. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Shostrum, E. I. (1964). An inventory for the measurement of self-actualization. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 24, 2, 207-218.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Bantam Books.

Stephen, J., Fraser, E. & Marcia, J. E. (1992). Moratorium-achievement (Mama) cycles in lifespan identity development: value orientations and reasoning system correlates. Journal of Adolescence, 15, 283-300.

Taylor, S. J., & Ebersole, P. (1993). Young children’s meaning in life. Psychological Reports, 73, 1099-1104.

Tolstoy, L. (1981). My confession. In E. D. Klemke (Ed.), The meaning of life (pp. 9-19). New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Ranst, N. & Marcoen, A. (1997). Meaning in life of young and elderly adults: an examination of the factorial validity and invariance of the life regard index. Personality and Individual Differences, 22, 6, 877-884.

Wong, P. T. P. (1989). Personal meaning and successful aging. Canadian Psychology, 30(3), 516-525.

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy

Zika, S. & Chamberlain, K. (1992). On the relationship between meaning in life and psychological well-being. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 133-145.