Do Meanings Matter?

January 1, 2007

The topic of life's meaning is, of course, a primary issue in existential theory.

My father-in-law lived until his late 90s. A hard-working, scantily educated man, he dealt lovingly with me, despite his tacit endorsement of a primary redneck value to never trust a man who works without sweating. Shortly before his death, I asked him what he thought his life had meant. He looked at me with a "What kind of a foolish question is that?" expression and responded, "Damn if I know." Whether he had truly never thought of his life's meaning or was merely reacting to my intrusiveness is hard to know. My guess is that he really did not think much about such issues, but if you knew him well, his life's meaning seemed apparent. He did not seem to believe in a personal god and thought that life after death was only a "nice idea." Rather, he believed in family ties, hard work, and being both independent and honorable. These values were not openly articulated but were clearly apparent from how he lived his life.

There is only one hint available regarding how many persons have beliefs like those of my late father-in-law (or my guesses about his beliefs). One Finnish study reported that 5% to 30% of various samples of the elderly (aged 80 years and older) reported that they could not say if their lives had meaning.1 The data also indicated that 60% to 80% of the elderly persons sampled were more like me in thinking about and articulating their search for meaning. The study did not, however, collect longitudinal data from the same persons across many years to suggest how stable or unstable their systems of meaning may have been.

In looking back at my life, for example, 3 different belief systems have been involved-each during a particular developmental phase. During childhood, Jesuits tried to educate me, and I accepted without doubt my mother's Catholicism. Later, in adolescence, reading H. G. Wells's popularizations of evolutionary theory jolted me out of an untroubled, if superficial, religiosity and ushered in a long-lasting love affair with science. Looking back at these decades of young adulthood and early midlife, it seems obvious that it was more than just an interest in science, it was also a belief system that-given enough time and effort-could explain everything. This naive, rigid scientism is recalled with more than a little embarrassment. Somewhere in midlife, a third and lasting belief system came into being. More existential than anything else, it centers on relationships as the major source of meaning. As can be noted from this brief (and I am certain, partially reconstructed) summary, my late father-in-law and I were at opposite poles regarding how much we thought about life's meaning. The use I wish to make of this presumed difference involves the question of whether it makes any difference and, if so, what is the nature of this difference?

The topic of life's meaning is, of course, a primary issue in existential theory. Yalom2 discussed the 4 "ultimate concerns" of existentialism as being the most fundamental issues in the psychological self. Two of them (freedom [one constructs his or her own life] and isolation [in the end one is alone]) have received relatively little systematic professional attention. The other 2, anxiety about death and concerns about personal meaning, have received much more attention from psychology and psychiatry, and each concern has attracted some research attention.

The most prolific scientific student of meanings in life has been the psychologist, Roy Baumeister.3 In Meanings of Life, his rich survey of the efforts of many disciplines to study life meanings, he presents an overview and an initial attempt at a synthesis. People, he concluded, require that life make sense in at least 4 different ways. He called these the "needs for meaning." The first is purpose, the idea that current activities are clearly related to the future in the form of a goal or goals. The second is value, the belief that one's behaviors are right, good, and justifiable. The third is efficacy-or perhaps, control. This need involves the belief that one's life is in one's own hands and represents what some have called an "adaptive illusion."4 The fourth need for meaning is self-worth. Baumeister suggests that people are more secure in their sense that their lives have meaning if there are multiple ways of satisfying each of these 4 needs.

Baumeister also writes about the development of a "value gap" during the 20th century.3 The weakening of a shared religious belief system, the decline of an agreed upon code of morality, and the lessened impact of tradition have combined to produce a cultural climate in which shared values are less available. Into this gap has developed an increasing emphasis on the self-who one is, what one has accomplished-as a central value system on which life's meaning is constructed. Work, for example, is now much more valued for what it brings to the self (rather than to the common good). Relationships, particularly marriage and family, have become the primary value system for more and more persons. (Eighty-nine percent of some samples describe these relationships as "vital" sources of meaning, more than any other value base).3 Even here, however, close relationships have come to be valued more and more for what they bring to the self (happiness, satisfaction, meaning).

Baumeister concluded that meaning must be imposed on life; that modern society offers a wealth of some forms of meaning-but in little bits-and that many persons experience anxiety about whether these bits add up to something "suitably big."3 Furthermore, creating a comprehensive system of meaning out of these bits may be nice as an ideal, but it is a very difficult task in reality. People, however, appear to live very satisfactory lives without an explicit system of meaning or overall philosophy of life.

In the 15 years since Baumeister's review and synthesis, there has been a spurt of psychological research on the topic of life's meaning. A number of interesting questions have been addressed, including the relationship of life's meaning to psychological health, personality characteristics, age, ethnicity, and response to psychotherapy. However, there are several problems with some of this research. One is the overlap in definitions of meaning and health. For example, when both meaning and adult psychological health are defined, in part, by the capacity to transcend purely self-interests (generativity, altruism, etc), their positive correlation is of dubious value. This is particularly so in one category of research in which undergraduate students (usually as a requirement in a psychology course) are given a number of paper and pencil tests and the scores are correlated. Such studies are of dubious merit and almost always show, for example, positive correlations between the strength of belief that one's life has meaning and measures of mental health.

There are, however, more useful studies. For me, these studies rely on exploratory or semistructured interviews, have a longitudinal component, and address what subjects can or will tell you about their life's meaning. I use "can" or "will" because Baumeister3 commented that many persons are more reluctant to discuss the meaning of their lives than they are to talk about the intimate details of their sexual life. At any rate, there are a handful of such studies, and to illustrate some of their findings, consider the following. About one third of subjects describe their life's meaning using a clearly thought out, integrated system of meaning. Others discuss what gives their lives meaning without describing such a belief system. The issue of whether having an articulated and integrated system of meaning is crucial for a high level of psychological functioning is still debated. There are also findings that suggest that, in some ways, having an integrated framework is not as important as the belief that one is in the process of fulfilling (or has fulfilled) the premises of that framework.

Finally, almost all subjects in some studies place their relationships (spouses, children, families, friends, etc) at the center of their system of meaning.5 About 3 of 4 subjects emphasize their personal development and/or creativity as also very important. Religious-spiritual issues are noted by about half of such subjects, with fewer than half identifying their relationships with nature or sociopolitical movements as important sources of life meaning.

Although these and other intriguing findings almost always need replication with more representative samples and tighter research designs, the studies suggest something of what may be gained from looking more closely at broad existential constructs. As yet, however, they do not clearly inform us about any possible meaning to the differences between the ways in which my late father-in-law and I approached the issue of life meaning. It may turn out that his "Damn if I know" works as well as my open searching as far as psychological health is concerned. That, I suspect, would please him.

Dr Lewis is chairman emeritus of the Timberlawn Psychiatric Research Foundation and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He is also in private practice of individual, marital, and family therapies in Dallas.

References:

References1. Takkinen S, Ruoppila I. Meaning in life in three samples of elderly persons with high cognitive functioning. Int J Aging Hum Dev. 2001;53:51-73.
2. Yalom ID. Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books; 1980.
3. Baumeister RF. Meanings of Life. New York: The Guilford Press; 1991.
4. Taylor SE. Positive Illusions: Creative Self-deception and the Healthy Mind. New York: Basic Books; 1989.
5. O'Connor K, Chamberlain K. Dimension of life meaning: a qualitative investigation at mid-life. Br J Psychol. 1996;87:461-477.