How and why finding meaning in life can improve well-being

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In today’s consumerist, fast-moving culture, the pursuit of meaning in life may not be everyone’s immediate goal. However, research shows that finding meaning in life, whatever that might be for the individual, could significantly benefit well-being.

The pursuit of meaning has underlined human activity for millennia, if not longer — stretching back to thinkers like Aristotle and Plato all the way up to modern-day philosophers, psychologists, and scientists.

While different understandings of meaning coexist, both secular and religious thinkers agree that “meaning-search” is a quintessential part of being human — whether they believe that it stems from biological evolution or an innate predisposition. In the Islamic tradition, for example, this is known as the “fitra.”

The central role played by the search for meaning in human experience should come as no surprise. Research shows that not only does finding a sense of meaning in life inform our goals and priorities, but it also shapes how we respond to life’s twists and turns.

Studies, for example, consistently demonstrate a link between finding meaning in life and experiencing psychological well-being.

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How do we derive meaning in life?

Existential psychology seeks to study “life’s big questions,” and generally defines three main sources of finding subjective meaning:

coherence, or feeling like life “makes sense”

possession of clear, long-term goals and a sense of purpose feeling like we matter, from an existential point of view.

A recent study published in Nature Human BehaviourTrusted Sourcealso suggests a fourth source of deriving meaning in life — experiential appreciation, or appreciating the small things in life, such as a simple coffee or the beauty of a sunset.

When asked whether any of these four facets are more beneficial than others for psychological well-being, Prof. Joshua Hicks, professor of social and personality psychology at Texas A&M University, one of the authors of the study cited above, told Medical News Today: “My guess is that an optimal sense of meaning is derived from high levels of each of the facets.

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