How to measure meaning in life

Philosophers and psychologists alike have long argued about the definition and factors of a meaningful life. What does it mean to live a meaningful life? Is meaningfulness necessary for happiness?

While these questions may seem to belong to the realm of the metaphysical, meaningfulness is actually a field of experimental study, and scientists have devised ways to measure meaning in life.

The secret to a meaningful life

Dr Michael Steger, director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose and professor of Counseling Psychology at Colorado State University, explains that meaning “enables people to interpret and organize their experience, achieve a sense of their own worth and place, identify the things that matter to them, and effectively direct their energies. The term meaning in life has been used to describe the construct underlying all of these dimensions, and at its heart, meaning in life refers to people’s beliefs that their lives are significant and that they transcend the ephemeral present.”

The benefits of a higher sense of meaning in life are not merely hypothetical. Studies suggest that people who believe their lives have meaning tend to be happier, with a higher life and work satisfaction, a greater overall well-being, more control over their lives, as well as less negative experiences and mental health conditions, such as fewer instances of depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and post-traumatic disorder.

Overall, people who see their lives as meaningful seem to be better off. So how do we achieve a greater sense of meaning in life? While there are many definitions of meaning, researchers seem to agree that a meaningful life requires comprehension (being able to make sense of your experience), significance (perceiving your life to be worthwhile), and purpose (having goals for your life that you deem valuable).

According to Dr Michael Steger, most of the research on meaning in life concludes that relationships are a primary source of meaning, with other sources such as education, nature, future aspirations, hobbies, and work also contributing to our sense of meaning. However, one of the strongest predictors of how meaningful people perceive their lives to be is… Being reminded of valued sources of meaning.

In other words, awareness of the sources of meaning in your life is an effective way to increase your sense of meaning in life. In the words of Dr Michael Steger: “Extended over their lifetime, people who are more aware of what makes their lives meaningful, and who can access that content in a deliberate, cognitive fashion, should enjoy more stable and abundant meaning in life.”

As often when it comes to personal growth, self-reflection and metacognition are powerful tools that can yield significant results. What are some practical ways you can use these tools to increase your awareness of the sources of meaning in your life, so you can enjoy the many benefits of a high sense of meaning in life?

Measuring and fostering meaning in life

Believe it or not, there are many scientific scales of meaning in life, such as the purpose in life (PIL) test, the life regard index (LRI) and the sense of coherence (SOC) scale. And, if Dr Michael Steger is right, just going through the process of filling these checklists should help you increase your sense of meaning in life by making you more aware of its sources. Measuring and fostering meaning in life are two sides of the same coin.

Questionnaire to measure meaning in life

One of the easiest, quickest ones to use is the “Meaning in Life Questionnaire” (MLQ), which assesses two key dimensions of meaning in life using ten statements which you are asked to rate from 1 (“absolutely true”) to 7 (“absolutely untrue”). You can download a copy of the MLQ here. The questionnaire should not take more than five minutes to fill.

But such checklists are only one way you can reflect on the meaningfulness of your life, and thus foster a higher sense of meaning in life. Here are three additional ways you can lead a more meaningful life.

  • Practice regular self-reflection. Whether it’s through journaling, a weekly review, or just deep conversations with friends, it is always helpful to make space for self-reflection. What relationships are the most meaningful to you? Is your daily job adding or subtracting meaning to your life? What experiences make you feel the most alive? Don’t wait for it to just happen — block time in your calendar to protect that space, and turn the experience into a ritual.
  • Clarify your future aspirations. Beside reflecting on your past and current experiences, ask yourself uncomfortable questions about your values and your goals. What goodness do you want to bring into the world? What will be your legacy? Of course, these should not be part of a daily or weekly reflection, but you can incorporate them within a more in-depth annual review to identify any discrepancies between your values and your actions.
  • Read books about the meaning of life. One of the most famous examples is probably Viktor E. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which narrates the real story of how the author coped during his time in Auschwitz, and why some prisoners coped better than others. The fact that Frankl was a psychiatrist gives him a special lens through which he explores deep philosophical questions about what it means to be alive. There are many other books written around this topic from a philosophical, psychological, and spiritual perspective. Just by reading these books and reflecting on the topic, you will welcome more meaningfulness into your life.

While there are many different sources of meaning in life, whether they are physical, psychological, or spiritual, one of the most powerful ways to live a meaningful life is to be aware of what these different sources are for yourself. By measuring the presence of meaning and increasing your search for meaning, you will enjoy the benefits of a higher sense of meaningfulness. Of course, as often, it requires a bit of dedication, and it may sometimes feel uncomfortable, but if there is one aspect of our lives that deserves the extra attention, it’s probably this one.

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