Skip to content
Home » A Scientific Approach to a Meaningful Life: Joshua Hicks (Transcript)

A Scientific Approach to a Meaningful Life: Joshua Hicks (Transcript)

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.


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.

And what we found is that, similar to the previous studies, those people who completed measures of meaninglessness, these are 400 A&M college students, reported higher feelings of meaninglessness immediately after the COVID outbreak, a couple months later, compared to those who completed it before.

And again, other things probably contributed to this feeling, loneliness, for example. So I think the sense of coherence is a strong predictor of meaning in this case. And so coherence might be one of the most foundational pillars of meaning.


A second one is a feeling of purpose. So people often equate purpose with meaning, but simply when we think about it, it’s the feeling that you have clear goals and aims. Throughout life, your goals fluctuate. Certainly sometimes they’re very clear and sometimes they’re not.

Some people when they think about purpose in life, think about this grand purpose, of fighting for social justice or following God’s plan. And those things certainly relate to meaning, very much so. But most of us don’t get a sense of purpose on our daily goals.

These are the things that get us off the couch, the things that we do and make us move and things that we pay our attention to. These types of purposes are really important that feel like your actions are purposeful.

Research shows that those who feel like they have a sense of purpose live longer. A number of longitudinal studies have shown that. It relates to better relationship commitment, job commitment and other aspects of well-being and human flourishing.

And so one caveat here, though, is that your purposes or goals, it’s really important that you feel like you’re intrinsic. They’re things that you’re passionate about, not just doing things that you think other people want you to do. When you have those intrinsic aspirations, those things are really what makes life meaningful.

Of course, sometimes life doesn’t feel like you have a lot of purpose. If you can imagine being laid off sometimes or retiring sometimes, people report a lack of purpose. This makes sense. For a long time, you’ve had a career perhaps where there’s nine to five wrapped around certain goals and now those goals don’t exist.

People whose children leave the house sometimes report a lack of purpose, often referred to as the empty nest syndrome. Again, it makes sense that they would. For a long time, their goals have been focused around their children, most of their goals, from driving them to endless soccer practices to trying to raise them to be good citizens.

All these things filled their life with meaning in some ways and now it’s not there. And so some people might feel a sense of void or a sense of meaninglessness when their kids leave.


Coherence is one pillar of meaning. Purpose is another. The third one is mattering. This is simply feeling like your actions matter to the outside world. When you think of mattering, often we conjure up images of people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa. Their lives certainly mattered and I’m sure they felt their lives mattered too.

These are important things. Feeling like your actions are going to live on long after your death. This is sometimes referred to as existential mattering. We’ve found that that’s very important for meaning but just as important is what we call interpersonal mattering. That’s feeling like you matter to your loved ones, to your friends, to your community, and so forth. That feeling can also give rise to experience some meaning. It’s very very import.

Those who feel like they matter are more likely to be committed to their job. We have studies that nurses who feel like their lives matter are more likely to be committed to their job and less burnout and so forth.

It’s also important because we all know some of us have felt a feeling of insignificance at times in our life. This really can lead to a dark depression for some people at least. Imagine that you suddenly get laid off of work. You can feel like no one wants you there in some ways. In your mind you can pretend or you can start to believe that your actions don’t matter.

I think too as we age, unfortunately in our society it’s easier than it should be for people of the age to feel a sense of insignificance if no one’s calling on them for their wisdom, if no one’s talking to them and so forth, which is important as a society. We should try to cultivate interventions or ways in which everyone feels significant, older and younger.

I should say one or two things. The feeling of insignificance is not just important for your personal well-being, but it’s important for interpersonal processes too. And so Arie Kruglanski at Maryland has done a lot of studies showing that, and argue that many of our biggest antisocial behaviors, most extreme I should say like suicide bombings and so forth, are in part motivated by a feeling to reinstate a sense of significance, suggesting that we should care about it not just because we want other people to feel better about themselves but we want society to function well too.


So coherence is one pillar of meaning, purpose is a second and mattering is a third. The fourth one is something that we’ve studied a lot in our lab and we’ve developed this construct.

So imagine or just think about what’s the most meaningful event that’s happened to you in the past week. When you think about this, we’ve asked lots of Texas A&M students this. Most of the time their answers don’t always reflect their purpose or their coherence or sense of mattering. Sometimes certainly those things certainly relate to meaningful existence.

But sometimes it’s just about the experience itself, like reconnecting with a friend on the weekend, calling an old family member that you haven’t talked to in a while, feeling the sunset, feeling the seasons change. This is what we refer to as experiential appreciation. It’s the type of meaning, not necessarily that we construct like figuring out our purpose or trying to understand why our life is meaningful. It’s the type of meaning that we detect in the environment. It’s the type of meaning that’s all around us if we have the right set of mind that we can take, that we can feel.

For instance, when I think about my deathbed, when I think about if my life is meaningful, I’m probably not going to think about all the papers I publish. Hopefully I don’t. That would be really not the best thing probably. Or even this TED talk, no offense to TED. I’m very appreciative to do it.

But probably, hopefully, think about these really cherished memories that I’ve had, these experiences. Like when my two-year-old got sprinkles over every nook and cranny of Shipley’s Donuts. Or when my older son, I noticed that he’s becoming the most sarcastic tween in Texas.

These experiences and these memories are really what makes life meaningful. We found this in Texas A&M students, non-students, my colleagues cross-culturally in China and Spain, for example, have found that experiential appreciation, the ability to appreciate your experiences, predicts your levels of meaning in life, even if controlling for your experience of coherence, purpose, and mattering. Suggesting it matters. It matters that you do pay attention, slow down, and appreciate the things around you.

Of course, this is not as easy to do. But if you are depressed, if you’re anxious, if you’re too stressed out, it’s hard to appreciate anything really. Which is why things like therapy, meditation, medications are often helpful to help you reinstate this sense of meaning.

I think also social media use, mindlessly scrolling through your social media can also do this too. When you’re doing that, you’re sort of not seeing the beauty that’s in the world. It might be temporary on your screen, but you’re not really seeing what’s really innately beautiful.

And of course, maybe the ultimate threat to all these pillars of meaning is the awareness that we’ll one day die. Death, as some would say, is the ultimate threat to meaning. With that though, as many people have argued, the awareness that we’ll die can be a catalyst to know that now we should start living a more meaningful existence sooner than later.

My hope is this talk, by hearing about these four pillars of meaning, you can sort of think about ways in which you can make your life more meaningful right now. Feeling like you’re trying to pursue goals you’re passionate about, that are congruent with your true self, that you really care deeply about is very important.

You don’t have to do everything in your life related to that, but some goals are important. Feeling like your actions matter is really important, as well as the actions of other people. Instead of asking Siri for advice, call your grandparents asking for advice. They are better and might make a much better conversation than a computer AI.

And of course, slow down. Appreciate the ride while it lasts, because it won’t last long. I think that doing all these things can help you leave a more meaningful existence.

Thank you.

Want a summary of this eye-opening talk? Here it is.


Dr. Joshua Hicks’ TEDx talk titled “A Scientific Approach to a Meaningful Life” discusses the importance of understanding and measuring meaning in life and introduces four pillars of meaning: coherence, purpose, mattering, and experiential appreciation.

1. Coherence: Dr. Hicks explains that humans are natural meaning makers and often feel that their lives make sense. This sense of coherence provides comfort and the belief that we can predict and control our behavior. However, life events, such as trauma, can disrupt this coherence and lead to lower feelings of meaning.

2. Purpose: Purpose involves having clear goals and aims in life, which can fluctuate over time. Research shows that having a sense of purpose is associated with longer life, better relationship commitment, and overall well-being. Intrinsic aspirations, those that are personally meaningful, are particularly important for a meaningful life.

3. Mattering: Mattering involves feeling that your actions matter, either in the larger world (existential mattering) or to your loved ones and community (interpersonal mattering). Feeling insignificant can lead to depression and other negative emotions. Mattering is essential for personal well-being and also contributes to societal functioning.

4. Experiential Appreciation: This pillar refers to the ability to appreciate and find meaning in everyday experiences and moments, such as spending time with loved ones or witnessing natural beauty. Dr. Hicks emphasizes the importance of slowing down, paying attention, and appreciating the beauty in the world around us. Depressive or anxious states, as well as mindless social media use, can hinder this appreciation.

In the concluding part of Dr. Joshua Hicks’ TEDx talk he offers some practical advice on how to cultivate a more meaningful existence:

Seek Human Connection: Dr. Hicks suggests that rather than relying on artificial intelligence like Siri for advice or conversation, we should connect with real people, particularly our grandparents. He emphasizes the value of engaging in meaningful conversations with older generations, who can offer wisdom and insight that machines cannot replicate.

Slow Down and Appreciate: Dr. Hicks encourages the audience to slow down in their lives and take the time to appreciate the experiences and moments that bring meaning. He reminds us that life is fleeting and encourages everyone to savor the journey while it lasts.

Dr. Hicks concludes by highlighting the awareness of mortality as a potential catalyst for living a more meaningful life. He encourages the audience to pursue goals that align with their true selves and to recognize the importance of their actions in making a meaningful impact on the world.

This talk explores the multifaceted nature of meaning in life and provides insights into how individuals can enhance their sense of meaning by addressing these four pillars.

Related Posts