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Positive and Existential Psychological Approaches to the Experience of Meaning in Life
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 1
Positive and Existential Psychological Approaches to the Experience of Meaning in Life
Jinhyung Kim, Elizabeth Seto, William E. Davis, & Joshua A. Hicks
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 2
For more than a century, theorists have argued that the experience of meaning lies at the
heart of human existence. In the psychological sciences, researchers have primarily focused on
the purpose and importance of experiencing meaning in one’s life. While scholars often take
different perspectives when examining the experience of meaning in life, a central theme in
many of their arguments is that the feeling or belief that one’s life is meaningful is essential for
healthy human functioning (e.g., Baumeister, 1991; Ryff, 1998; Yalom, 1980). Empirically, this
viewpoint is supported by findings showing that believing that one’s life is meaningful is
associated with important outcomes such as depression, suicide ideation, vitality, and general life
satisfaction (Steger, 2012).
In the past 20 years, the positive psychology and experimental existentialpsychology
movements have greatly advanced our understanding of the variables that augment and detract
from the personal experience of meaning in life. While both perspectives have helped launch the
“meaning revolution,” they often focus on different aspects of this elusive construct. In the
present chapter, we explore a few of these differences. From our perspective, experimental
existential psychologists have primarily examined variables that contribute to a sense of
meaninglessness (e.g., Yalom, 1980), whereas positive psychologists often place more emphasis
on variables that augment one’s belief that his or her life is meaningful (e.g., Emmons, 2003).
In our chapter, we examine these two different approaches by describing variables that
contribute to meaninglessness and meaningfulness, respectively. Specifically, we argue that a
lack of personal freedom, social isolation, and self-alienation are three fundamental threats to
meaning that, if experienced, evoke a sense of meaninglessness, whereas personal goals and a
grand sense of purpose help augment the feeling that life is meaningful. While this is by no
means an exhaustive list of variables that bear on personal feelings of meaning, we believe that
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 3
each is theoretically or empirically linked to meaning(lessness) in life, and can help illuminate
important distinctions between these two variables. We begin by describing the concept of
The Meaning of “Meaninglessness”
Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the
meaning that you choose. ― Jean-Paul Sartre
Existential philosophy and modern science hold a similar position on meaning of life:
there is no preordained, given meaning of human life. Recognizing the inevitable
meaninglessness of life, existentialists such as Sartre concluded that one must create meaning
and impose it onto his or her life. This “meaning-creation” viewpoint resonates well with
psychological perspectives on people’s needs for meaning (e.g., Baumeister, 1991). According to
the empirical research on meaning in life, people have a general tendency to view their lives as
meaningful and are motivated to reinstate meaning in response to meaning threats (e.g., Heine,
Proulx, & Vohs, 2006). For example, when people are reminded of their unavoidable mortality,
the ultimate threat to meaning, they unconsciously attempt to protect their sense of coherence
and meaning by clinging to cultural worldviews, the manifestation of the meaning system
(Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989).
Despite the pervasive sense of meaning in many people’s lives, people sometimes report
that their lives are indeed meaningless. What do people mean when they say their lives are
meaningless? Although conceptually defining meaning (and meaninglessness) has proven
difficult, meaning in life is commonly described as having two motivational aspects, purpose and
personal significance, and one cognitive aspect, coherence (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso,
2006; Leontiev, 2005; Yalom, 1980). Thus, from the motivational perspective, people would
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 4
judge their life as meaningless if they feel a complete absence of purpose and significance in life.
In a related vein, Frankl (1963) refers to a state of meaninglessness as the existential vacuum, a
phenomenon characterized by the subjective states of boredom, apathy, and emptiness. As this
crisis of meaninglessness unfolds, one develops a cynical view of life, experiences a lack of
direction, and questions the point of his or her activities. Similarly, Wolman defines an
existential crisis as a “Failure to find meaning in life, the feeling that one has nothing to live for,
nothing to struggle for, nothing to hope for, and is unable to find any goal or direction in life”
(1975, p. 157). Without a sense of purpose or personal significance to provide motivation and
guidance in one's life pursuits, it is perhaps unsurprising that these people view life as
From a cognitive perspective, a life is experienced as meaningless when an individual
has no sense of coherence in his or her life (Reker & Wong, 1988). Baumeister (1991) defined
meaning as shared mental representations that connect various things, events, and relationships
(e.g., Baumeister & Vohs, 2002). This cognitive facet of meaning in life is also consistent with
Yalom’s (1980) conception of cosmic meaning, which focuses on one’s life fitting into an overall
coherent pattern such as the universe. According to this perspective, a life may be seen as
meaningless when it loses connections or coherence, shattering one's worldview and basic
understanding of the world (Heintzelman, Trent, & King, in press; Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
In sum, meaninglessness in life results from the combination of the absence of purpose,
personal significance, and coherence in life. Thus, one is most likely to feel a sense of
meaninglessness when he or she perceives life as incoherent, does not detect any personal value
or significance in life, or lacks sense of purpose or direction.
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 5
It is important to note that, although the feelings of meaningfulness and meaninglessness
are often placed at opposite extremes on a one-dimensional spectrum of human functioning,
feeling that one lacks meaning in life doesn’t necessarily imply that one's life is viewed as
meaningless (e.g., Schnell, 2010). Accordingly, some variables may help augment one’s sense of
meaning (e.g., pursuing an important goal may increase perceptions that life is meaningful), but
not necessarily lead to a sense of meaninglessness if absent. In contrast, other variables may be
so inextricably connected to basic needs for meaning that, if thwarted, may lead to feelings of
meaninglessness. Next, we examine three variables that may be uniquely linked to this sense of
meaninglessness: lack of personal autonomy, social isolation, and self-alienation.
Lack of Autonomy
When our behaviors feel freely chosen and enacted through the full endorsement of inner
values, we typical feel a great degree of satisfaction. Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci &
Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000) addresses the importance of this sense of freedom directly by
regarding autonomy as one of the most fundamental human needs. According to SDT, autonomy
concerns the extent to which behavioral engagement is in accord with authentic internal values,
interests, and needs. When one’s behavior is self-organized, congruent with one’s values, and
originated from intrinsic motivation, the action is experienced as autonomous. SDT further posits
that because autonomy is a basic motivation and yields intrinsic rewards, satisfaction of the need
is crucial for optimal human functioning, enabling one to experience well-being and have a sense
of meaning in life (Weinstein, Ryan, & Deci, 2012).
If the experience of autonomy is blocked by evaluative pressures, extrinsic rewards, or
external constraints, individuals may experience various forms of clinical and behavioral
problems (Ryan, Deci, & Grolnick, 1995; Shapiro, 1981). Because of autonomy's central role in
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 6
the experience of optimal human functioning, deprivation of autonomy is very likely to lead to
meaninglessness. For example, according to SDT, in a state of amotivation where internalization
of intrinsic motives and social values is completely absent, a person often loses passion and
competence, has no purpose and intention, and experiences helplessness (Ryan, Deci, Grolnick,
& La Guardia, 2006). This perspective is also consistent with existentialist views about crises of
meaninglessness such as the existential vacuum (Frankl, 1963) and the experience of
vegetativeness (Maddi, 1970).
A lack of autonomy can also shatter one’s sense of meaning by influencing cognitive
perception of actions. When an action is perceived as a mere consequence of an external force,
the locus of causality is outside of the self (deCharms, 1968). In these cases, people experience a
lack of control and do not expect any change by their voluntary actions. If individuals are
continuously exposed to such frustrating environments, they will develop perceptions that their
actions do not matter to the world and thus have no significance, eventually leading to a state of
learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975). Under these extreme situations, individuals may
experience an absence of meaning, rather a lack of meaning, because the basic human desire to
function as a causal agent would be compromised (deCharms, 1968; Weinstein, Ryan, & Deci,
To summarize, while perceived autonomy is associated with optimal human functioning,
a lack of autonomy may be uniquely related to feelings of meaninglessness via both motivational
and cognitive processes. Failure to act in accord with authentic values leads to a loss of intrinsic
motivation, purpose, and direction. Chronically engaging actions that are externally determined
can develop cognitive perceptions that one’s actions do not bring about any change in life and
have thus no significance or meaning.
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 7
Like autonomy, many theorists agree the feeling that one is physically or psychologically
connected to others leads to a sense of meaning in life. As social beings, people need frequent
contact, social support, and a general sense of connectedness in order to feel that their lives are
significant and worthwhile. Baumeister and Leary (1995) argue that the need to belong is a
fundamental human motivation. Social isolation threatens this basic component of meaning in
In the ostracism literature, Case and Williams (2004) equate ostracism to the experience
of death. Research supports this assertion by showing that the simple act of excluding others in a
ball tossing game (Williams, 1997), in internet or Cyberball ostracism (Williams & Jarvis, 2006),
or through the silent treatment (Williams, Shore, & Grahe, 1998) lowers feelings of a meaningful
existence. Social isolation shares the same negative consequences of ostracism in that need-
fortifying behaviors become heightened in physical or psychological separation. Meaning in life
declines when people lack interpersonal relationships that bolster their sense of self-worth. In
fact, exposure to long-term ostracism also resigns people to feelings of helplessness and
worthlessness (Williams, 2009; Williams, 2012).
Social isolation also amplifies life’s meaninglessness through feelings of loneliness.
Generally speaking, social isolation precedes loneliness (Gambrill, 1996). Stillman et al. (2009)
found that loneliness predicted reduced meaning in life, and this effect was mediated by feelings
of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth argued to be essential for leading a meaningful life
(see Baumeister, 1991). In addition, Mellor et al. (2008) found that loneliness mediated the
relationship between an unmet need for belonging and life satisfaction. Taken together, these
findings suggest that when people feel lonely and socially isolated, they are cut off from people
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 8
and experiences that contribute to their sense of importance and meaning in the world. Feeling
cut off from communication and connections with others contributes to the feelings of emptiness
and aimlessness experienced by those who find their life to be meaningless.
When socially isolated, individuals lack important relationships from which they derive
their sources of meaning. Across five studies, Lambert et al. (2010) found that relationships with
family serve as an important source of meaning for young adults. Similarly, Baum and Stewart
(1990) found that commitments to romantic relationships were especially important in the first
half of the lifespan and lead to more meaningful lives. Conversely, in the second half of life, the
loss of a spouse can cause significant feelings of social isolation (Van Selm & Dittmann-Kohli,
1998). Without access to social relationships as a source of meaning in life, individuals may be
especially susceptible to experiencing life as meaningless. In extreme cases, the negative affect
and depression associated with social isolation might even lead to suicide (Baumeister, 1990).
It is important to note that, although social isolation contributes to one’s sense of
meaninglessness, an isolated life doesn’t have to be permanently bleak. Yalom (1980) argues
that isolation promotes personal growth and that people need to experience isolation and
loneliness before reaching self-transcendence, suggesting that for some people social isolation
can help restore one’s sense of purpose. Nevertheless, in order to live a meaningful existence,
maintaining meaningful relationships and connections with others would seem to be a
fundamental need that must be satiated.
As we strive to successfully navigate our lives, our self-concept enables us to situate
ourselves in the surrounding world. As described by Markus and Wurf (1987), the self-concept
"interprets and organizes self-relevant actions and experiences; it has motivational consequences,
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 9
providing the incentives, standards, plans, rules, and scripts for behavior; and it adjusts in
response to challenges from the social environment." (p. 299-300) The importance of the self-
concept is clear in many aspects of meaning in life, including setting and pursuing the goals that
provide people with purpose, attributing personal significance, and maintaining a sense of
coherence (in self-relevant contexts). In modern society, providing individuals with a sense of
meaning is a considerable burden we place on the self (Baumeister, 1991). Given its significant
role in enabling feelings of meaning in life, it is important to consider the potential consequences
of feeling disconnected from one's self.
Self-alienation refers to a sense of being detached from and out of touch with one's true
self and identity (Rokach, 1988; Wood et al., 2008). Individuals describe this disconnection with
the self in terms such as "It felt like I lost my identity," "I felt as if I was a different person
looking at myself," and "It felt like body and mind were in two different places," (Rokach, 1988).
Although they are aware of their behavior and who they appear to be, self-alienated individuals
do not identify with this now foreign sense of self. In addition to these feelings of detachment,
self-alienated individuals also report a sense of emptiness and inner void, described in terms such
as "I had a feeling of deep nothingness and non-being," (Rokach, 1988). As described by Wood
and colleagues (2008), psychodynamic perspectives (e.g., Horney, 1951; Winnicott, 1965) and
existential perspectives (May, 1981; Yalom, 1980) both suggest that self-alienation leads to
psychopathology. If these accounts are any indication, it is clear that an acute sense of self-
alienation threatens an individual's worldview in a very fundamental way.
Supporting the negative effects of self-alienation on meaning, research has demonstrated
that feeling out of touch with one's true self predicts lower levels of meaning in life (Schlegel et
al., 2009; 2011). Notably, in these studies, feeling in touch with one's true self predicted meaningMEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 10
in life over and above feeling in touch with one's actual self, closely aligning these findings with
the concept of self-alienation and suggesting that the true self-concept may be especially
important in supporting perceptions of meaning in life. Pursuing personal projects that reflect
core aspects of one's self also predicts meaning in life (McGregor & Little, 1998). Finally,
people are less satisfied with their major life decisions when they feel out of touch with their true
self (Schlegel et al., 2013) and have difficulty justifying their life decisions without referencing
the self (Bellah et al., 1985), further suggesting that the self plays a key role in shaping how
people make sense of their lives and experiences.
It seems evident that self-alienation can lead to a sense of meaning in life that is deeply
compromised, but could this experience lead to a more general sense of meaninglessness? Given
the fundamental nature of the self-concept in human existence, it would seem that an acute and
overarching sense of self-alienation has the potential to result in perceptions of meaninglessness.
Without having a clear sense of self to help us make sense of our experiences, find purpose, and
attribute personal significance, our sense of meaning may be threatened in a very basic way.
Even if self-alienated individuals maintain some basic sense of meaning or coherence derived
from experiences or concepts that are not (true) self-relevant, this would not be the same sense of
meaning in life that people typically describe and pursue.
Augmenting the Experience of Meaning
Whereas meaninglessness refers to an absence of meaning, research on meaningfulness
typically focuses on variables that enhance one’s sense of meaning in life. Most people, most of
the time, feel that their lives are meaningful. For example, in almost all studies examining
meaning in life, the average meaning in life scores are well above the midpoint. Clearly, most
people would not endorse the idea that their lives are meaningless. Still, there is great variability
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 11
in the extent that people feel that their lives are replete with personal meaning. In contrast to the
variables discussed earlier that may lead to a sense of meaninglessness (i.e., lack of autonomy,
social isolation, and self-alienation), we now turn to variables that represent what may be less
fundamental components of the experience of meaning in life. We discuss how perceptions of
meaning in life can be influenced (and bolstered) through the goals individuals pursue: both
everyday goals and more overarching feelings of a “grand” purpose in life. While everyday goals
or a grand sense of purpose can certainly contribute to feelings of meaning in life, an individual
may not necessarily experience life as meaningless without them.
Everyday Goals and Meaning in Life
Everyday goals boost meaning in life by providing individuals with specific feelings of
purpose and direction. Alfred Adler, the founder of Individual Psychology, contends that human
behavior is directed at goal pursuit and is intrinsically purposeful (Capuzzi & Gross, 2011).
Goals naturally develop as people move through different stages in life and are inherently tied to
their past, present, and future experiences (Griffith & Graham, 2004). How meaning is derived
from everyday goals stems from the type of goals we pursue and how these goals meet our needs
Dan McAdams (2013) contends that people begin life as social actors concerned with
effectively performing their given roles. In mid-to-late childhood, people transition into
motivated agents driven by goals and aspirations that will grant fulfillment and augment meaning
in life if achieved. He argues that individuals often freely choose the types of goals to pursue,
and that life is meaningful on the condition that progress is made toward attaining these goals.
Wheeler, Munz, and Jain (1990) found that differences between high well-being and low well-
being were attributed to individuals’ perceptions of purpose, progress, and commitment to their
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 12
goals. Pursuing everyday goals and recognizing how everyday actions contribute to a greater end
should augment meaning in life. Furthermore, McAdams asserts that, in emerging adulthood,
people become autobiographical authors who find meaning in their identity and life stories.
Supporting this idea, Morgan and Robertson (in press) found that intrinsic aspirations were more
strongly associated with personal meaning for mid-life and older adults. As people move through
adulthood, they distinguish between more trivial goals and goals that provide them with a greater
sense of purpose and fulfillment. Everyday goals are examined and revised in accord with the
changing pace of life.
The types of everyday goals people strive for greatly imbue life with meaning. For
example, intrinsic goals involving intimacy, spirituality, and generativity tend to elevate meaning
and purpose (see Emmons, 2003). Everyday goals such as fostering closer relationships with
friends, family, and God or engaging in charitable causes augment meaning by providing a sense
of connectedness with others and the environment. Extrinsic goals (e.g., pursuing fame), on the
other hand, can be detrimental to well-being (Kasser & Ryan, 1996). Greater meaning has also
been ascribed to personal goals directed towards family and the self (Nurmi, Salmela-Aro, &
Aunola, 2009). Similarly, personal projects consistent with a person’s values, commitments, and
other important aspects of their identity promote meaning (McGregor & Little, 1998). This
suggests that some goals are more important than others, and everyday goals that work towards
self-actualization and instill passion in our lives will inevitably strengthen meaning.
Finding meaning in life is not necessarily an end state, but rather the product of daily goal
pursuits (Ryff & Singer, 1998). King (1998) argues that everyday goals are tied to images of our
possible selves and the culmination of life-long dreams. Having clear goals, specifically more
intrinsic goals, enhances meaning in life by providing individuals with a broader framework to
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 13
work towards. Moreover, daily goals that contribute to ultimate life goals also confer benefits to
subjective well-being (King, Richards, & Stemmerich, 1998). Everyday goals are instrumental in
constructing a meaningful and purposeful life. The events and experiences of everyday goal
pursuit lead individuals to a better understanding of the world and greater fulfillment.
Importantly, when our daily goals are tied to a greater purpose, we may find even greater
meaning in life and more clearly understand our direction in life. We now turn to this possibility.
Grand Sense of Purpose and Meaning
Frankl (1963) discussed the idea that people have a need to possess a higher level
purpose in life—an innate “will to meaning.” In his writings, Frankl argued that people need to
find an overarching, chronically accessible source of meaning in life that provides them with a
clear guide for their existence. Similarly, Yalom (1980) proposed that people’s understanding of
the meaningfulness of their lives is often derived from cosmic and/or terrestrial sources of
meaning. Yalom describes cosmic meaning as a preexisting design that is superior to the
individual (e.g., “God’s plan”), and five different types of terrestrial sources of meaning
including altruism, dedication to an important cause, creativity, self-actualization, and what he
referred to as the hedonic solution. Regardless of whether meaning is derived from cosmic or
terrestrial domains, the sources of meaning that Yalom described provide the individual with a
definitive answer to why his or her life is meaningful. This form of meaning that provides a
broad sense of purpose and coherence to one's life has also been conceptualized as global
meaning, as opposed to situational meaning through which individuals make sense of and attach
personal significance to specific experiences in life (Reker & Wong, 1988; Reker & Wong,
2012). Although it may be possible to lead a meaningful life without a grand sense of purpose
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 14
and meaning, it is clear that acquiring such meaning contributes greatly to a meaningful
When considering potential candidates for such an overarching sense of meaning in life,
religious beliefs stand out as perhaps one of the best examples. Religion has long been
recognized as a central source of meaning in life that provides individuals with core beliefs,
expectations, and goals, and places the individual’s life into a larger context (Batson & Stocks,
2005; Emmons, 2003; Fletcher, 2004; Fry, 2000). Accordingly, researchers have suggested that
religion should be conceptualized as a meaning system (Park, 2005; Silberman, 2005) or schema
(McIntosh, 1995) that frequently shapes how people understand themselves and the world
around them. This understanding is reflected in the inclusion of religious beliefs as a basic
category of meaning across research programs (Emmons, 2005), including Wong’s (1998)
research using the Personal Meaning Profile, Emmons’ (1999) research on personal strivings,
and Ebersole’s (1998) examination of life narratives. According to Baumeister (1991), religion
serves as “the ultimate value base” (p. 196) that supplies an authoritative account of what is right
and good, provides a deep sense of purpose and direction to life through the promise of salvation,
and enables the belief that every event happens for a reason as a result of God’s divine plan.
Given all the meaning supporting functions religion can serve, it is no surprise that it lies at the
foundation of many individuals’ feelings of meaning in life.
Many studies have demonstrated that religious faith is associated with self-reported
meaning in life (e.g., George, Ellison, & Larson, 2002; Steger & Frazier, 2005). Religious
conversion has even been shown to relate to enhanced meaning in life (Paloutzian, 1981).
Religious individuals may find it easier to achieve and maintain meaning in life than their non-
religious counterparts (Baumeister, 1991), yet that is not to say that non-religious individuals
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 15
cannot lead meaningful lives themselves. As Yalom (1980) described, individuals may
effectively find meaning through terrestrial sources such as altruism or dedication to an
important cause without the need for religion. One may not need such an overarching and
definitive source of meaning to maintain a basic sense of purpose and understanding, but it
undoubtedly provides a powerful way to bolster one’s sense of personal meaning.
Sources of Meaning (and Meaninglessness) Revisited
A basic premise of this chapter is that researchers who study meaninglessness typically
focus on variables that lead to the absence of meaning, while researchers who study
meaningfulness typically try to identify variables that augment one’s existing sense that life is
meaningful. We argue that acute feelings of meaninglessness are typically triggered by a
perception that one lacks personal autonomy, adequate social bonds, or when one feels alienated
from one's self. The pursuit of important goals, on the other hand, is argued to help augment
one’s sense of personal meaning. We certainly do not suggest that these are the only variables
that influence perceptions of meaning. However, based on current findings in the experimental
existential and positive psychology literature, we believe that each of these variables represent
fundamentalcontributors to perceptions of meaning (lessness) in life.
It is important to note that we do not think that these variables are exclusively associated
with either perceptions of meaninglessness or meaningfulness. For example, a person who
believes that her life is meaningful, may feel even more confident about this belief after a nice
conversation with a close friend or after realizing that she knows her “true self” well (e.g.,
Lambert et al., 2013, Schlegel et al., 2010). Moreover, personal goals or grand purposes are not
solely aligned with the concept of meaningfulness. For instance, the belief that one has an
important purpose in life may help people transcend abhorrent situations which might otherwise
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 16
facilitate the belief that one’s life has no meaning (e.g., Frankl, 1963). Given these intriguing
possibilities, it will be worthwhile for future studies to examine the interactive effects of
variables that contribute to both of these constructs.
For more than a century, theorists have provided rich, theoretical accounts of the
experience of meaning in life (e.g., Hicks & Routledge, 2013; Wong & Fry, 2012). Although
many of these ideas have been corroborated by correlational findings (Steger, 2012), until
recently, many psychologists have largely neglected this construct. Fortunately, in the past few
years there has been a renewed interest in meaning in life as a subject of psychological inquiry
(e.g., this volume). Psychologists from both existential and positive psychology perspectives
have made great contributions to help us understand this important construct. This brief chapter
represents an initial step to help differentiate these two complimentary perspectives.
MEANING AND MEANINGLESSNESS 17
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