Psychology Meaning in Life
Frank Martela, Vlad Costin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0197


Having been more of a topic for philosophy for a long time, empirical psychological research on meaning in life has seen a profusion of research in the early 21st century. Following this research interest, it has become clear that meaningfulness is a separate construct from, for example, happiness, and more consensus has also emerged around the key dimensions of meaningfulness such as coherence, purpose, and significance. Empirical research on meaning in life has demonstrated strong relations with various forms of psychological well-being, health, and even mortality, while lack of meaningfulness has been associated with suicidal ideation and various psychological disorders. Experiencing meaning in life is thus a crucially important factor for human wellness and having a life worth living. Fortunately, empirical research has also revealed some key factors that make life more meaningful, including belonging, being able to contribute, positive affect, and being in touch with one’s true self. There are still interesting and important open questions in the field, but it is now already fair to say that meaning in life as a psychological construct and as a research topic has firmly established its place among other key variables of human psychological wellness.

General Overviews

The study of meaning in life within psychology is relatively recent. Due to the conceptual difficulties inherent in defining and measuring such an abstract concept, theoretical work is ongoing. Thus, this section will focus on more recent work. Moreover, meaning in life is discussed within the context of different research traditions (e.g., existential psychology, clinical psychology). To capture this diversity, Batthyany and Russo-Netzer 2014, Hicks and Routledge 2013, and Wong 2012—all comprehensive handbooks on meaning in life—are good sources of various perspectives on the topic. Steger 2009 is another good article that summarizes such debates, while Heintzelman and King 2014 summarizes previous research with the aim of integrating some of the more unusual findings.

  • Batthyany, A., and P. Russo-Netzer, eds. 2014. Meaning in positive and existential psychology. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0308-5

    This edited volume attempts to bridge the rift between perspectives of meaning as a positive resource for flourishing and happiness (rooted in positive psychology), and those accounts that construe meaning as a buffer against existential anxiety (rooted in existential psychology).

  • Heintzelman, S. J., and L. A. King. 2014. Life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist 69.6: 561–574.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0035049

    Provides an overview of meaning in life literature with a special focus on how meaningful our lives are, after all. The authors suggest that feeling meaning in life is pervasive in everyday life and that the experience of meaninglessness is relatively uncommon. They look at a large number of studies using two of the most widely used self-report meaning measures and show that people score on average above the mid-point.

  • Hicks, J. A., and C. Routledge, eds. 2013. The experience of meaning in life: Classical perspectives, emerging themes, and controversies. New York: Springer.

    This edited volume provides a comprehensive account of the main theories of meaning. Many of the most prominent researchers in the field have written chapters for this volume. Critically, the book identifies gaps in the literature that present research is still attempting to address, making it still relevant in the early 21st century.

  • Steger, M. F. 2009. Meaning in life. In Oxford handbook of positive psychology. 2d ed. Edited by S. J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder, 679–687. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a much-cited overview of the research on meaning in life, covering basic topics such as the definitions, sources, and open questions regarding meaning in life.

  • Wong, P. T. P. 2012. The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    This is an expanded second edition of a book that originally appeared in 1998, and it captures well the developments in the field. This handbook helpfully organizes its chapters under three sections: Theories, Research, and Applications. This is an ideal starting point for someone who wants to get an overview of the state of meaning research.

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