Still Life with Skull by Philippe de Champagne (1602-1674). (Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine when our ancestors first started to look up at the stars and question their place in the universe. Why are we here? Are we alone? What happens to us when we die? It is difficult to know for sure at what point in time we became a species obsessed with existential questions. We can roughly date when humans first started to paint magical beings on cave walls or carefully and ornamentally bury the dead. But precisely when our ancestors started to truly behave like us is a matter of considerable debate. What we do know, however, is that at some point tens or maybe even a hundred or more thousand years ago, people started to look beyond the basic day-to-day concerns of the body to focus on matters of the soul.

A lot has changed since our species first began to contemplate such heavy issues. We can now send rockets into outer space, map the human genome and transmit information around the globe nearly instantaneously (we still need those flying cars we were promised though). And yet despite how technologically advanced our world has become, we are still burdened by the basic existential queries that early humans grappled with. We want to know our place in the universe. We strive to maintain the belief that we are living meaningful lives. And we cling to the hope that we are more than the sum of our biological parts, that we will make contributions to the world that transcend our mortality. In short, humans have long been and probably always will be existential animals – a species on a quest for enduring meaning.

Our existential lives have always fascinated philosophers and theologians. But now scientists are jumping into the fray, using empirical methods to ask questions that were once considered off limits to them. Specifically, empirical psychologists are exploring questions such as: Why do people seek meaning? What is it that makes life meaningful? And what are the mental and physical health consequences of finding (or not finding) meaning?

Why Does Meaning Matter?
My dog does not appear to be contemplating his purpose in life and he seems relatively well adjusted. Why then do humans desire to perceive their lives as meaningful?

One explanation that has received a significant amount of scientific attention relates to the human awareness of self and death. According to terror management theory, a prominent theory in social psychology, humans are like all other animals in that we strive to survive. Our bodies consist of systems that work to keep us alive. And as conscious beings, we deliberately engage in efforts to avoid death. We are motivated to live. However, unlike other animals, humans are intelligent enough to realize that death is certain. That is, we are uniquely aware of our mortal nature. We understand that despite our best efforts to stay alive, death is inevitable.

Terror management theory asserts that this juxtaposition of a desire to live and an awareness of death has the potential to cause a significant amount of anxiety or terror and that humans need to manage this terror in some way. We would not be a very productive species if we lived our lives in constant fear of death. Thus, according to the theory, people seek out a sense of enduring meaning that makes them feel more than mortal.

In other words, people know their lives are brief and so we endeavor to be part of something that transcends biological existence. This sense of death-transcendence can come from having children, creating works that will leave a lasting legacy, investing in a group or organization that outlasts the lives of any individual member, and so on. Of course, religion is a particularly powerful meaning-making tool as most religious beliefs explicitly afford humans a means of transcending death.

St. Jerome by Caravaggio (1573-1610). (Wikimedia Commons)

Research supports terror management theory. Specifically, studies find that when people are exposed to stimuli that remind them of their mortality, they exhibit increased investment in the social and cultural identities that provide meaning and perceptions of death-transcendence. For example, having people contemplate mortality increases their desire to have children, level of patriotism, religious faith and commitment to romantic partners. In short, heightening the awareness of death heightens efforts to find and preserve transcendent meaning.

Similarly, meaning mitigates the threat of death awareness. For example, studies show that having people think about death increases fear of death. However, this effect is only observed among those who do not perceive their lives as meaningful. People who have meaning are not as terrified about the fact that they are mortal.

There may actually be a number of reasons that people need meaning. However, a large body of research demonstrates that the realization that life is finite is a potent driving force for people’s efforts to feel that their lives are purposeful and meaningful. People want to be more than mere mortal beings who die and disappear forever. To feel meaningful is to feel like you made a lasting mark, a contribution that will endure beyond your death. To feel meaningful is to feel immortal.

And there are many practical benefits to existential security as studies have identified a number of ways that meaning contributes to mental and physical health. Consider the following examples.

Meaning Helps People Cope with Life Challenges: Becoming ill or having to face a major life challenge such as job loss or the death of a loved one is difficult for everyone. However, research indicates that people who report having a strong sense of meaning in life are better able to cope with these mentally and physically taxing experiences. Meaning can give people the inner strength they need to overcome many of life’s hurdles. Meaning motivates. It makes people want to productively move forward in life.

Meaning Reduces the Risk of Mental Illness: Many studies indicate that people who believe their lives are full of meaning and purpose are less likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders and less inclined to engage in problematic behavior such as excessive drinking. And studies show that when people do struggle from mental illness, finding meaning can improve the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. Meaning not only helps people cope with difficulties in life, it also promotes psychological health.

Meaning Contributes to Successful Aging: A number of studies have established a strong link between meaning in life and quality of life among older adults. Older adults who perceive their lives as meaningful are physically and mentally healthier than those who perceive their lives as having little or no meaning. Meaning in life is also associated with decreased fear of death among older adults.

Meaning Reduces the Risk of Mortality: Emerging research further highlights the importance of meaning by revealing that people who report having a strong sense of purpose in life live longer. In fact, across all adult age groups, purpose is associated with mortality. Even among young adults, the greater your sense of purpose, the less likely you are to die.

A Growing Field
This is just a small sample of the ever-growing scientific literature on the psychology of meaning. Historically, existential psychology was considered a topic that “serious” empirical psychologists should avoid. It was too warm and fuzzy. This view was prominent, in part, because the field of psychology was desperately striving to earn its place as a legitimate science and shed its lay reputation as a discipline more about interpreting dreams and decrypting the hidden meaning of people’s thoughts than systematic scientific research and empirically-derived therapeutic interventions. But as the field continues to evolve and thrive as a science-based enterprise, researchers are beginning to feel more comfortable using the tools of science to explore fundamental questions about our existential nature. Humans are meaning-making animals and scientists are just now beginning to fully understand just how important the meaning motive is for adaptive functioning.