Here is full text and summary of Joshua Hicks’ talk titled “A Scientific Approach to a Meaningful Life” at TEDxTAMU conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
How meaningful is your life? I’m Dr. Joshua Hicks. I’m a professor in the psychological and brain sciences here at Texas A&M University. I’ve asked this question to over 100,000 people over the past 20 years. Most people say their life’s pretty meaningful.
So most people really rate themselves as saying, you know, their life is very or extremely meaningful. For some people, though, this question seems to be more serious. Those who lack meaning, a sizable portion of people, it varies in how much their life’s meaningful. They don’t always think that their life has meaning.
We ask this question to people not simply because we care about these individual differences and levels of meaning, but because we think it’s important. The answer to this little question is important.
The idea that it’s important is based on many great thinkers, like Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom, who have argued that the experience of meaning in life is essential for optimal human functioning. Their ideas, and the ideas of many others, are corroborated by many, over thousands of research studies showing that the experience of meaning are people who feel that their lives are meaningful, are less likely to be depressed, more likely to think of thoughts of suicide, more likely to be happy.
It’s related to psychological well-being, a predictor of psychological well-being, and not just psychological well-being, but physical well-being.
So this is a recent study in the UK. They looked at people, older people, ages 50 or 60. They measured how much they felt their life was meaningful, and five years later they assessed their health and found that people who experienced the high levels of meaning in life five years later had less chronic illnesses, less back pain, for example, were less depressed, and other studies have shown actually live longer.
And so these studies, along with thousands of others, suggest that the answer to this question is important. It’s important that we understand people’s levels of meaning in life.
The subjectivity of this question, though, comes at a cost. And so how meaningful is your life? That question of meaning can mean different things to different people. So when some people think about meaning, they might think, life’s not meaningful because they don’t have fulfilling goals.
Other people might say it lacks meaning because they have no one to turn to in times of trouble. And because of that, there’s a movement amongst meaning in life scholars to not simply just look at meaning in life as this unitary construct, but look at sort of the core elements of what makes life meaningful.
And so today I’m going to talk about those core elements, which I refer to as the four pillars of meaning. They include feelings of coherence, purpose, what we call mattering, and something that we’ve sort of developed in our lab and studied extensively called experiential appreciation.
All four of these pillars are interconnected in that, for example, if you increase your level of purpose, it probably increases your feelings of coherence in the world. But they’re all unique, too, in that some things might uniquely influence some of these pillars and not others. And importantly, each of these pillars has a unique influence on the overall experience of meaning in life.
A SENSE OF COHERENCE
And so the first pillar, and perhaps the foundational pillar, is what we refer to as coherence, a sense of coherence. So we are natural meaning makers. We don’t need too much time to think about why our life makes sense. It just sort of comes to us naturally.
Often, you know, we can think about why our life makes sense in milliseconds, even if we really don’t fully understand it. This is important. The feeling of coherence provides a sense of existential comfort and that allows us to think that we can predict our own behavior, the behavior of others, and that we have some feelings of control.
So most of the time, for most of us, life makes sense. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t. You know, sometimes life can get in the way of your feelings of coherence. So, for example, counterintuitively, thinking about why your life is meaningful too much, overthinking about it, ruminating it, can sometimes undermine the feeling that you actually understand it.
Personal trauma can also do this. So we have these expectancies about how the world works. We think, you know, we’re good people, and bad things don’t happen to good people, and so forth. And trauma sort of, you know, shatters those expectancies, as some people say, and can lead to a distinct lack of coherence and lower feelings of meaning in life.
We’ve shown this — looking at personal trauma, but also collective traumas, too. So, for instance, right after Hurricane Harvey, as many of you know, you know, it was a devastating natural disaster. It did so much damage, you know, to the Texas coast and, you know, the Gulf Coast in general.
We asked Texas A&M students two weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit, so right when the semester started, how much they were able to make sense of the event. And we found that people who were able to make sense of the event were more likely to report higher levels of meaning in life, and conversely, people who were still having trouble understanding it reported lower levels of meaning in life.
More recently, we’ve looked at how another sort of collective trauma, in this case, the COVID pandemic, influences people’s perceptions of meaninglessness. We didn’t do an experiment, thankfully, on this, but what we did is we assessed people’s, college students’ levels of meaning in life before the outbreak. Just for a different study, looking at 400 people and their levels of meaning and meaninglessness.
And then we assessed them again the semester after the outbreak. And so why would the outbreak influence your sense of coherence? Many different reasons, right? Especially for college students, though, you have these expectancies that you’re going to go to a graduation, all your family’s going to be around you, you might go to prom, you’re going to have this unique first year college experience. And that didn’t happen, right? Right when the COVID hit, all these sort of expectancies, again, got shattered.