What is the meaning of life?
Since the dawn of time human kind has sought answers to life’s big questions.
Why are we here? What is our purpose?
Over the past thirty years, meaning in life has been a popular subject of medical research, particularly for those studying an ageing population. Now researchers at The University of California San Diego have found the search for or presence of meaning in life are important for wellbeing and health.
“Our findings suggest that it’s of great importance. Presence of meaning in life is linked with better psychological well-being and quality of life,” Dr. Awais Aftab, first author of the study told Theravive.
The research, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that the presence of meaning in life can lead to better mental and physical well-being, whilst a search for meaning is associated with worse cognitive function and mental wellbeing. The researchers found the relationship differed with age.
“What we discovered is that there is a U-shaped relationship of meaning in life with age: Presence of meaning increases with age, peaking around 60 years, and then declines. Search for meaning reaches its lowest point around age 60 and then increases. This makes intuitive sense, because young adults in twenties and adults in thirties are going through various stages of psychological development, and they are actively seeking out careers, friendships, and romantic relationships. People in their forties and fifties usually have more established careers and relationships; many of them have families and children. The active pursuit for meaning decreases and the perception that their life is meaningful increases,” Aftab told Theravive.
“After age 60, these trends begin to reverse. With retirement, bereavement, and increasing health issues, the established sources of meaning in their lives begin to fade and people tend to start searching for other sources of meaning. We further discovered that presence of meaning in life is associated with better physical and mental well-being, whereas the search for meaning in life is associated with worse mental well-being and cognitive functioning. People with a sense of meaning in life are physically and psychologically healthier.”
To reach their conclusions, the researchers examined data from just over a thousand adults aged between 21 to over 100. The search for or presence of meaning in life was determined through interviews and a questionnaire in which those participating were asked to rate statements regarding whether they were searching for purpose or a mission in life, or whether they had discovered a satisfying life purpose.
Those who had had found meaning in life were more content, whereas those who had yet to find their purpose or meaning and were searching without success were stressed.
“Our findings are important because they have several potential implications for efforts to understand and improve health outcomes. People with low presence of meaning in their lives or those with high search for meaning may possibly be at higher risk of poor physical, mental, and cognitive health, and assessment of meaning in life could be a way of identifying who is more vulnerable,” Aftab told Theravive.
The researchers argue that the medical profession is beginning to acknowledge that having meaning in life is clinically relevant and can also be a potentially modifiable factor that could improve patient outcomes.
“Although our study shows higher search for meaning is associated with worse mental well-being and cognitive functioning, I don’t think we can say without qualification that search for meaning is a bad thing. Without searching for meaning, we would not be able to find the activities and relationships that generate meaning for us. So I think what we are looking at are instances of search for meaning where, due to a variety of possible reasons, the search has failed to lead to presence of meaning in life. This appears to show a harmful impact on mental health,” Aftab said.
“The message that I’d like people to take with them from this study is that meaning in life doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The perception that your life possesses meaning is linked to your overall state of well-being. People with purpose in life are physically and psychologically healthier. These findings provide further impetus for all of us to find activities and relationship that can provide us with a sense of meaning. “
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.