Searching for meaning in your life? It may take longer than you think to find it.
A new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, looked at more than 1,000 adults ages 21 to more than 100 years old, who live in San Diego, Calif. They were given what’s called the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, which assesses both the presence of meaning and the search for meaning.
The researchers found a U-shaped curve, showing that people at age 60 reported the highest presence of meaning and lowest in searching for meaning — in other words, they had found their purpose. “The most common pattern is that as our levels of meaning in life are higher, we tend to search for meaning less,” Michael F. Steger, PhD, director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose and professor of counseling psychology and applied social and health psychology at Colorado State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Steger, who was not involved with this study, researches meaning and developed the Meaning in Life Questionnaire.
Trying to find meaning in your life isn’t just some deep philosophical quest — it’s something that can affect both your physical and mental health.
“Many think about the meaning and purpose in life from a philosophical perspective, but meaning in life is associated with better health, wellness and perhaps longevity,” senior author of the study, Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, told ScienceDaily. “Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it.”
A meaningful life — defined
So what exactly does it mean to find meaning in your life? Understandably, Steger says it can be hard to quantify since there are many things that contribute to a meaningful life and they are so personal and specific. But he notes there are common themes that researchers see over and over again — namely, three aspects in people’s lives that are going well.
“One, they can make sense of themselves, the world around them, and life as it happens,” explains Steger. “We call this coherence. Two, they feel that their lives have inherent value and are worth living, and they feel that they matter somehow. We call this significance. And third, they feel that their lives have one or more deeply valued, personally important aspirations or dreams they intend to pursue over large parts of their lives. We call this purpose.”
Steger adds: “Things that help us achieve coherence, evaluate our lives as significant, and help us strive towards purpose make life feel meaningful to us.”
Why does it take so long to find meaning?
“When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person,” said study author Jeste. “You are searching for meaning in life. As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you’re settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases.”
Jeste continued: “After age 60, things begin to change. People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”
Age 60 appears to be the sweet spot in between.
That said, Steger disagrees that people only find meaning once they are 60 years old — and that’s good news if you haven’t hit (or have surpassed) that milestone. “Rather, it’s that our capability to build meaningful lives and to experience our existence as meaningful continues to grow across the lifespan,” he says. “This is an important difference. There’s quite a lot of research out there showing that the average person across the globe thinks life is at least a little bit meaningful, whether they are 16 or 60.”
However, Steger notes that, as this latest study found, the meaning in life seems to peak at age 60. “I published a similar study in 2009 and found that meaning in life cratered a bit for people in their mid-30s-40s, but continued to rise right through the oldest group of 65+ people we sampled,” Steger says. “It goes to show that there is certainly no reason to give up on having a meaningful life, and in fact it’s not uncommon for our later chapters to be among our most meaningful.”
Why you shouldn’t search for meaning
The tricky part is that searching for meaning can actually backfire for some. In fact, the study found a negative correlation between the search for meaning and mental health. “My simplest advice is the same advice the incredible Viktor Frankl [Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor] gave decades ago,” says Steger. “You can’t find meaning by looking for it, no matter how intently.”
Steger says that the typical person finds meaning in life through “important jobs, relationships, beliefs, traditions, and habits,” adding, “So we don’t need to go looking for it – it’s in the very way we live, ideally.”
But he also found two other types of people in his research, who search for meaning with very different results: “One type actually does deeply embrace life as a continual process of ever-deepening meaning, in which searching for meaning is itself a path to meaning,” Steger says, noting this viewpoint is more common in East Asian cultures and those influenced by Taoism and Buddhism.
“The other type are those folks who are searching for meaning out of deep despair or desperation,” he continues. “For them, whether in the aftermath of a trauma, in the context of psychological disorder, or rooted in long-lasting self-doubt or derogation by others, or some other reason, life seems to have no meaning, and yet the need for meaning is still very strong. Folks in these circumstances are searching for meaning, and may have been searching for years, but cannot find it.”
This fruitless searching can lead to “a higher degree of psychological disorder and a lasting sense that life is not what they hoped it would be, creating a drain on wellbeing, happiness, and zest for life,” explains Steger.
How to create more meaning in life
The good news is that there are ways to cultivate more meaning in your life without actively chasing after it. Steger says there are “little boosts” people can do. “Taking time to explore for yourself what does, or at least what used to, make life feel meaningful is a great place to start,” he says.
Steger adds, “I recommend dedicating a week to taking 8-12 photos of whatever it is that makes life feel meaningful. Try to stretch the photography out over the whole week — don’t just take 12 photos of your pets and call it a day.”
When you have your photos, he recommends showing them to someone you’re close to and sharing why it’s meaningful to you. “In pilot research, I’ve found that a very similar approach boosts meaning and happiness,” he says.
But if you want to make a bigger impact on your life, that will require more effort and time. “Set goals to be more authentic, caring, helpful,” suggests Steger. “Use your strengths more frequently, and find ways to fill your life with more activities and people that are truly good and important and less with junk that’s shallow, unimportant, done for the wrong reasons, or just plain pointless.”