It's Good to Find Meaning in Life, But Bad to Search for It. Best of Luck

Living purposefully and feeling confident that you matter is, shockingly, associated with better mental and physical health.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Hero Images via Getty Images

Having a meaning in life does more than, uh, give meaning to your life: Longitudinal research has shown that people with a sense of meaning in life have lower divorce rates, lower likelihood of living alone, increased social connectivity, lower chances of being depressed, and increased activity rates. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry even goes a step further and links a sense of meaning in life to increased mental and physical well-being… and also shows the potential for ill effects from overexertion in the search for meaning.


Researchers at the University of California San Diego found an association between the presence of meaning in life with “better mental and physical well-being,” while the search for meaning in life was associated with “worse mental well-being and cognitive functioning.” The study surveyed 1,042 people between ages 21 to 100-plus using in-person interviews and questionnaires over the course of three years. The study’s lead author attributed the decrease in functionality to the stress involved in searching for meaning and coming up short.

We’d all love to surge through our days guided by a foundational sense that we know why we do what we do, what it’s all for, what it all means. But finding meaning in life can feel like a remote goal, too abstract to be urgent, something to touch on every once and awhile when more prominent issues recede. So “simply find meaning in life, without having to look too hard,” as health advice, is not actually terribly helpful. But it’s valuable to know concretely that the impacts of meaning are wider-ranging than feeling good day-to-day.

"The medical field is beginning to recognize that meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance the well-being and functioning of patients," said Awais Aftab, first author, in a statement. "We anticipate that our findings will serve as building blocks for the development of new interventions for patients searching for purpose."

Though the sample size observed was small, these results feel relevant to the growing body of research about stress and its lifelong impact. A similar study found people who reported putting more effort into searching for meaning in life, especially towards the end of their lives, were actually less likely to be happy and satisfied. Psychologists have long advocated for finding meaning in life but have also warned against looking too hard for one. According to a report from Psychology Today: “Meaning cannot be pursued as a goal in itself. It must ensue as a side-effect of pursuing other goals… The secret to a meaningful life may be to remind ourselves every day to do the right thing, love fully, pursue fascinating experiences, and undertake important tasks.” Basically, get out of your head and try to build connections between yourself and the world around you, because it’s good for you and better for everyone else, and meaning might just find you along the way.

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