RESEARCH ON A MEANINGFUL LIFE

To understand what a “meaning frame” is, it is essential to know what a “meaningful life” is. Some research has been done on this, but comparatively little. he following table gives the number of articles that have been published on “meaningful life” and some other related terms. As Table 3.1 demonstrates, there is a lot more research on well-being, quality of life, and happiness than on meaningfulness.

Table 3.1 Scientific research on “meaningful life” and some other related words and phrases (Dec. 8, 2010).

Search term

Articles in Google Scholar*

Articles in Scopus*

Well-being

2,520,000

17,593

Quality of life

1,760,000

16,015

Happiness

1,020,000

4,865

Psychological well-being

285,000

2,746

Subjective well-being

51,500

1,476

Meaning in life

21,100

231

Meaningful life

20,500

72

* Google Scholar references articles on the internet and Scopus is an important database of peer-reviewed articles from the social sciences and humanities.

WHEN IS A LIFE MEANINGFUL? SEVEN NEEDS FOR MEANING

According to the Dutch Humanist J. P. van Praag and the American social psychologist Roy Baumeister, “the essence of meaning is connection”2 In a meaningful life one’s experiences—one’s whole life—have a place within a wider network of connected meanings. In his book Meanings of Life, Baumeister argues that this larger network involves four kinds of meaning, or four different needs for meaning: (1) one experiences one’s life as having purpose; (2) one experiences life as having moral worth (i.e., it can be morally justified); (3) one has self-worth and is in control; (4) one has competence, influence, or as Baumeister calls it, efficacy.3

To further explicate these four, one might think of purpose as connecting your life and activities in the present with something of positive value in the future. It can be something outside of oneself. It can be a goal, for instance, a certain job, or an important award for pianists. But it can also be an inner fulfillment—the positive state of mind that accompanies reaching a goal or developing a personal talent.4 In addition, this can involve a single thing, but at the same time it can involve many possibilities simulta- neously.5 he need for moral worth—for moral justification—refers to the human desire to know, in a moral sense, their acts and way of living (including the purposes they strive for) as right, good, legitimate, and having positive value. It should be noted that this desire is also present when the real or primary motives for actions and decisions are not of a moral kind. Selfworth entails positively valuing oneself. Typically this means one finds one or more aspect of one’s life in which one is better than others, and is recognized and respected by others. It involves both the value of who one is and what one does. Regarding self- worth, cultural tradition and social hierarchy are of great importance.6 Humans often compare themselves individually with others within their group or environment, but it is also possible to acquire a sense of self-worth through membership in a collective (a nation, a religion, an employment, a lifestyle, a fan club). With respect to the second option, individuals compare their group with another, less-valued group. As a point of clarification, it should be noted that self-worth is not the same as the more specific experience of moral worth, a morally justified walk of life. Regarding this distinction, Baumeister gives the example of couples that divorce, referencing research conducted by Diane Vaughan.7 Based on her research, rejections by a partner resulted in a heavy blow to self-worth. However, the person who ends the relationship fares better because he/she is an active decision-maker and initiator. he same person, nonetheless, often feels guilty and has a problem with moral worth as a result. he need for a sense of competence, control or efficacy, speaks to the human need to know life as based on their decisions and choices, rather than seeing life as random and happening to them. Control can take two forms: (1) one adjusts the environment and makes it fit with what one wants, or (2) one adapts oneself to the environment. A form of the second is called "interpretive control" by which understanding why something happens produces an experience of competence, even if one cannot change what in fact happens. For Baumeister, more important than the mapping out of four needs for meaning is the total conceptual space they cover.8 To some extent they show overlap and one need often contributes to the satisfaction of another. One might reduce the list to two or three, or one might make finer distinctions and expand the list to six or seven needs. I opt for the last possibility. I extend the list with three—at times overlapping with those presented by Baumeister—needs for meaning, and in this way I offer a means by which to get a sharper image of what a meaningful life entails.

In a 1998 article, my colleague Jan Hein Mooren added a need for comprehensibility (intelligibility) to Baumeister’s needs for meaning, and did so partly on the basis of Aaron Antonovsky’s theory regarding the human need for a sense of coherence.9 Humans want to understand the world they live in and explain the events that happen to them: why or by what means do they occur? his speaks to a fundamental desire to replace chaos with order. In this way, creating a coherent story of one’s life against a wider backdrop makes life comprehensible and manageable, and provides identity and conti- nuity.10 In other words, "meaning can be regarded as one of humanity’s tools for imposing stability on life"11 he need for comprehensibility fits nicely with the importance Baumeister attaches to interpretive control and thus overlaps with the need for competence. Moreover, comprehensibility fits very well with Baumeister’s basic idea of meaning as connection in that comprehensibility refers to the ability to situate something in and connect it with what one knows already, and in this way to produce coherence. hus, the need for comprehensibility can be seen as a further explication of the conceptual space covered by humans’ need for meaning. he same might be said for the need to experience connectedness, added by my colleagues Adri Sma- ling and Hans Alma to the list of needs for meaning. hey describe this as a need for contact, union, and abandon. Here the emphasis lies on attention to the other and not on control, dominance, and self-interest. Connectedness involves simply letting things happen, union, and care.12 In presenting this additional need, Smaling and Alma refer to psychologist Hubert J. M. Hermans’ theory in which human beings have two basic motives "assumed to give rise to two recurrent developmental tasks: the realization of an autonomous self and the establishment of contact and union with the other"13 Smaling and Alma stress that the experience of connectedness requires that the other is felt to be other. hat is, “the experiences of love for, friendship with and abandonment to another and recognition by another imply that that other really is an other for you and not an extension piece of yourself"14 he need for connectedness might show some overlap with the need for moral justification in Baumeister’s theory.

One might ask why Baumeister does not mention the need for connectedness as a need for meaning. He himself has done research on the “need to belong" and by that he means the need to create and maintain long-l asting interpersonal ties with a limited number of people—ties that are characterized by frequent and pleasant interactions in the context of a long-term relationship of care for and care about each other’s well-being. He is of the opinion that it is an important human need, almost as strong as the need for food.15 But evidently he does not view it as a need for meaning. However, if meaning is connection then it would be natural to present the need for connectedness, or the need to belong, as a central need for meaning, would it not? In a recent article Baumeister reports on research among American students that shows that a close and supportive relationship with family is a most important source of meaning for them. Baumeister suggests family is such an important source of meaning because family and relatives offer a unique possibility to satisfy belongingness needs. hat is to say, the need to belong might provide the mechanism for the correlation between family and experience of meaning. In that Baumeister distinguishes between needs for meaning and sources of meaning, he must have decided to view positive personal relationships or interpersonal attachments—such as in love and family—as the most important source of meaning and not to add the need for them to his list of needs for meaning. Yet, this is all speculation in that he does not give an argument for his decision.16

It is noteworthy that Smaling and Alma interpret the need for connectedness in a wider sense than the need for frequent and caring interaction with a number of intimate friends and relatives. Connectedness can also be expressed in citizenship, work toward a more humane society, or work toward a better world. hey also speak about connectedness with the impersonal other. I suspect that for connectedness to be meaningful it is important that the person or object to which one is connected be evaluated positively. I also suspect that the contribution of positive aesthetic experiences to meaningfulness is related to connectedness.

Smaling and Alma also propose the desire for transcendence as a need for meaning. hey describe transcendence as "going beyond what is regular, expected, well-known and safe, exploring and reaching for what is new, different, unknown"17 hey also refer to Viktor Frankl, who writes that the meaning of life can only be complete if one transcends one’s private interest by embracing moral values.18 hus, the need for transcendence overlaps the need for moral justification. Besides Alma and Smaling, many researchers mention transcendence as a defining characteristic of the experience of meaning or as characteristic of its deepest or highest variants. Gary Reker and Frits de Lange and Alfons Marcoen, for instance, do so.19 However, if we look at their descriptions of transcendence, a problem arises. Robert Atchley writes, “when an individual makes a shift from experiencing personal existence as a solitary being to experiencing existence as part of a larger being or web of being, then transcendence can be said to have occurred"20 And, de Lange writes:

only if one is capable of relating oneself to a bigger, transcending structure in which one’s individual life is embedded, is a life good. his structure can be the cosmos, religiously interpreted, but also a historical or a philosophical movement, a generation, a family. Without some embeddedness, an individual life is meaningless, because it does not participate in a larger structure of meaning. Individual life has a beginning and a destination that transcend it.21

Connectedness here seems to be an aspect of transcendence (or the other way round).22 And connectedness, moral justification, and transcendence are linked in some way, but how?

Connectedness with the impersonal other and social connectedness with one or more other persons transcends what is mine and what is familiar to me. Consequently, let us regard this connectedness as an aspect of transcendence. he need for transcendence also includes a second aspect—the need for ethical values that go beyond limited self-interest and create limits for it. his offers normative but not absolute orientation for living. Hans Alma, however, emphasizes a third aspect of transcendence, referred to as wonder and curiosity. People want their lives to be interesting and exciting.

And if connectedness includes security and feeling at home, the connectedness aspect of transcendence is not only different from but can even conflict with wonder and curiosity.23 Curiosity about the strange and unknown is not always innocent and can threaten security and connectedness. In short, it is not clear how exactly transcendence and connectedness relate to each other. Nor is it clear whether it is useful to view the need for connectedness and transcendence as two different needs for meaning. I do think, however, that adding transcendence and/or connectedness to the dimensions of meaning as elaborated by Baumeister is an improvement. he theory of a meaningful life would otherwise be too directed towards the self and control. It would contain too much agency and too little communion.24 Dependency, attachment, wonder, vulnerability and care are important aspects of life and the need for connectedness, and transcendence does justice to them. Humans not only need some control over their lives; they also seek to avoid having everything depend on their decisions. As Christa Anbeek writes, "sometimes I am tired of constantly acting and constantly choosing. hen I want to step back, undergo life, not fulfill possibilities and potentialities, pass all chances, do nothing at all, just be. Such as the grass and the flowers, do not they just grow of themselves?”25

According to Baumeister the importance of religion, traditional morality, and tradition as such have decreased strongly by processes of individualization. “Modern Western culture has struggled to establish the self as a major value base. People have always had selves, but selves have not always had to carry the burden of supplying meaning to life in such a far-reaching fashion”26 he meaningfulness of life has become extremely dependent on the development of a valuable unique self, a personal identity as value of last resort that does not need further justification. One’s own death thus becomes enormously disturbing and threatening in that with death all value and meaning associated with one’s life disappears.27 Connectedness, transcendence, and (less traditional more consciously embraced forms of) morality offer options for meaning that in Western culture might be against the grain and not come easily, but they remain important.28

We have distinguished seven needs for meaning that together define the concept of a “meaningful life”— the need for purpose, moral worth, selfworth, competence, comprehensibility, connectedness, and transcend- ence—which can be used to assess the degree to which a person’s life is understood as meaningful. If a person succeeds in satisfying all seven needs for meaning sufficiently, then in all probability this person will experience her/his life as meaningful. Problems arise when she/he has not satisfied one or more of these needs. his person will be inclined to restructure life through changes in behavior and so on, until all needs for meaning are fulfilled (again).29

 
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