There are two types of happiness:
- Pleasure is short-term happiness: the hedonic feeling we enjoy while we’re present to the moment.
- Meaning is long-term happiness: the eudaemonic sense we enjoy while we’re aware of our purpose and belonging in life.
In this blog post, I want to introduce some recent research on meaning in life, which rests on one key conceptual distinction. But before I expand on the distinction, I want you to take a little quiz that shows you how it relates to your own mental life.
Meaning in Life Questionnaire
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To see whether you have meaning in life, answer the following 8 simple questions. If you don’t find the questions particularly exciting, that’s because they’re taken from a scientific questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006; see also Schutte et al., 2016). Still, the results can teach you quite a bit about your psychological make-up.
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- Not categorized 0%
- Presence of Meaning 0%
- Search for Meaning 0%
(Note that these results only have educational value; their independence from sample means makes them statistically irrelevant.)
Question 1 of 8
Do you understand your life’s meaning?
Question 2 of 8
Are you looking for something that makes your life feel meaningful?
Question 3 of 8
Are you always looking to find your life’s purpose?
Question 4 of 8
Does your life have a clear sense of purpose?
Question 5 of 8
Do you have a good sense of what makes your life meaningful?
Question 6 of 8
Have you discovered a satisfying life purpose?
Question 7 of 8
Are you always searching for something that makes your life feel significant?
Question 8 of 8
Are you seeking a purpose or mission for your life?
What Your Results Mean
- Presence of Meaning <50% (LP): unfulfilled, empty
- Presence of Meaning >50% (HP): happy, fulfilled
- Search for Meaning <50% (LS): content, accepting
- Search for Meaning >50% (HS): driven, anxious
Four Profiles of Meaning in Life
If you have High Presence & High Search (HPHS), you are a personal growth adept. You know how to experience meaning in life, and you are constantly striving for more. While adaptive searchers live rich and fulfilling lives, they tend to have more anxiety and depressive symptoms than people in the HPLS category.
If you have High Presence & Low Search (HPLS), you are a eudaemonic sage. You have meaning in life, and you are content with what you have. Maybe ‘sage’ is a bit over the top, but this trait1 is praised in the all the great wisdom traditions. It is also the most adaptive profile according to scientific research—associated with low levels of anxiety and depression as well as high levels of health, well-being, and life satisfaction.
If you have Low Presence & Low Search (LPLS), you are a metaphysical renegade (and, according to the research, more likely to be male than female). Although you are experiencing a lack of meaning, your contentment keeps you from desperately searching for a new purpose in life. It could also mean that you are too depressed to even bother, which I hope is not the case (if it is, you need to talk to someone who cares about your mental health). On average, though, LPLS individuals are psychologically and physically healthier than those with LPHS.
If you have Low Presence & High Search (LPHS), you are a reluctant nihilist. For an emerging adult, anxious search for meaning can be a good and important phase in life: you’re not where you want to be, but driven to get there—it’s a stressful developmental stage in which you’re forming your identity. For others, however, especially older people, this combination is the worst of all: unable to find meaning in life and unable to accept it—reflecting a dysfunctional process associated with poor well-being and mental health problems.2
In terms of overall happiness and adaptive functioning, it’s best to be a eudaemonic sage who has meaning but doesn’t want more (HPLS), followed by the never-ending search for yet greater purposes (HPHS), then metaphysical toughness (LPLS), and finally the despairing yearning for meaning in life (LPHS).
Depending on where you are in your life and how much meaning you experience, there are different things you can do:
- For greater fulfillment, find your True Will or a way to let it merge into a greater will.
- For less depressive symptoms, learn how to manipulate your mood and generate positive emotions.
- To decrease anxiety, practice mindfulness to get an intuitive grasp of how acceptance and happiness work.
- To endure emptiness, read up on stoicism and embrace the idea of metaphysical toughness.
Battersby A, Phillips L (2016). In the End It All Makes Sense: Meaning in Life at Either End of the Adult Lifespan, International Journal of Aging & Human Development 83(2), pp. 184-204, doi: 10.1177/0091415016647731
Brassai L, Piko BF, Steger MF (2011). Meaning in life: is it a protective factor for adolescents’ psychological health?, International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 18(1), pp. 44-51, doi: 10.1007/s12529-010-9089-6
Czekierda K, Banik A, Park CL, Luszczynska A (2017). Meaning in life and physical health: systematic review and meta-analysis, Health Psychology Review 11(4), pp. 387-418, doi: 10.1080/17437199.2017.1327325
Dezutter J, Luyckx K, Wachholtz A (2015). Meaning in life in chronic pain patients over time: associations with pain experience and psychological well-being, Journal of Behavioral Medicine 38(2), pp. 384-396, doi: 10.1007/s10865-014-9614-1
Newman DB, Nezlek JB, Thrash TM (2017). The Dynamics of Searching for Meaning and Presence of Meaning in Daily Life, Journal of Personality, Epub ahead of print, doi: 10.1111/jopy.12321
Schutte L, Wissing MP, Ellis SM, Jose PE, Vella-Brodrick DA (2016). Rasch analysis of the Meaning in Life Questionnaire among adults from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, Health and Quality of Life Outcomes 14(12), doi: 10.1186/s12955-016-0414-x
Scrignaro M, Bianchi E, Brunelli C, Miccinesi G, Ripamonti CI, Magrin ME, Borreani C (2015). Seeking and experiencing meaning: exploring the role of meaning in promoting mental adjustment and eudaimonic well-being in cancer patients, Palliative & Supportive Care 13(3), pp. 673-681, doi: 10.1017/S1478951514000406
Steger MF, Frazier P, Oishi S, Kaler M (2006). The Meaning in Life Questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life, Journal of Counseling Psychology 53, pp. 80-93, doi: 10.1037/0022-022.214.171.124
Steger MF, Oishi S, Kashdan TB (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood, The Journal of Positive Psychology 4(1), pp. 43-52, doi: 10.1080/17439760802303127
Van der Heyden K, Dezutter J, Beyers W (2015). Meaning in Life and depressive symptoms: a person-oriented approach in residential and community-dwelling older adults, Aging & Mental Health 19(12), pp. 1063-1070, doi: 10.1080/13607863.2014.995589
Yek MH, Olendzki N, Kekecs Z, Patterson V, Elkins G (2017). Presence of Meaning in Life and Search for Meaning in Life and Relationship to Health Anxiety, Psychological Reports 120(3), pp. 383-390, doi: 10.1177/0033294117697084
- Presence of Meaning and Search for Meaning tend to be relatively stable over months and years, so they represent personality traits rather than psychological states.
- I am referring here to Steger et al. (2009) and Dezutter et al. (2015). However, an Australian study by Battersby & Phillips (2016) found that the well-being of young, rather than older, adults was negatively associated with High Search.