Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


How does happiness differ from meaning? A well-replicated finding in personality and social psychological research is that people tend to feel happy (i.e., less anxious, less depressed, more satisfied with life, more buoyant) when their personal goals are going well. From our perspective this makes sense because when goals are going well people are in approach motivated states that are relatively impervious to anxiety (see the Desire and Anxiety section). A limitation of the happiness approach to well-being is that as people age they sometimes habituate to pleasures and successes that used to motivate them. Good feelings from fun and success can begin to lose potency. Existential questions can also begin to creep in that make people wonder, “why bother when it is all absurd in the big picture and my little life will be over and forgotten in a cosmic blink of an eye.” Chronic frustration, illness, loss, or disappointment can further undermine enthusiasm for daily pleasures and ambitions, leaving people vaguely dissatisfied and wanting more. As eager approach motivation for the fruits of life wane, anxieties begin to creep in.

This is where meaning-seeking kicks in. Meaning-seeking can buoy approach-motivation even in the face of suffering. When people seek meaning, they are usually casting their imaginations beyond concrete goals toward abstract ones (i.e., ideals and values) that they can identify with. Meaning-seeking is accordingly more of a “being” orientation than the “doing” orientation of happiness. In language of Hindu philosophy, people shift from yoking themselves to pleasure
and success on the path of desire, to yoking themselves instead to values and ideals on the path of renunciation. Doing so allows people to maintain an eager approach focus with less concern for how things turn out on the ground in their
everyday lives—the goal instead becomes the effort to earnestly orient oneself toward and live according to a valued ideal rather than to achieve any particular temporal result. This is why meaning-seeking is sometimes viewed as
a transcendent orientation—it looks beyond the here and now, to more general abstractions about the kind of person one wants to be by identifying with specific values and ideals associated with one’s choices and actions.

This shift in focus of well-being from what the Greeks referred to as hedonia (fun, pleasure, freedom from distress) to eudaimonia (orientation toward virtue, excellence) results in a well-being paradox whereby people who score highly on scales related to meaning-seeking also tend to report more anxiety and distress in daily life (at least in North American research). There are three ways to think about this paradox. First, it may be that people who have distress in their everyday lives are more motivated to orient toward meaning for relief. Second, it may be that people who orient toward meaning are able to tolerate, be more mindful of, and admit the distress in their lives, without defensively denying it. Third, it may be that meaning-seeking is a seductive but unbalanced addiction that can end up making people anxious and unhappy. Our research has found some evidence for all of these possibilities. 

Some evidence for the first comes from what we have referred to as an integrity shift, based on our finding that concrete goal success predicted well-being for 19 year-olds but not for middle-aged senior managers. The only predictor of the senior managers’ well-being was the extent to which their goals reflected their values and ideals. This finding is consistent with the line of reasoning in Eric Klinger’s classic (1977) book, “Meaning and Void” in which he proposed (echoing Hindu philosophy) that as people age they habituate and become disillusioned with pleasures and successes, and so want more reliable incentives to orient toward. Klinger proposed that incentives related to love, and incentives that are otherworldly, might be particularly reliable. Our experimental work supports his speculation. When we randomly assign people to think about frustrating or anxious topics in their lives, they increase the extent to which they are trying to find (usually love-related) idealistic meaning in their lives. 

Evidence for the second possibility comes from a recent line of research showing that when people who report being high in meaning-seeking tendencies are given a chance to talk about their highest values and ideals in life, they have a surge in approach motivation that lasts as long as they are thinking about their values. Importantly, there seems to be a more persistent effect on their capacity to tolerate distress. After affirming their values and ideals, meaning-seeking participants continue to be aware but are less bothered by their anxieties. The transient spike in approach motivation seems to cause a more persistent resilience. Reflecting on meaningful values and ideals appears to function like a reset button for meaning-seekers. It recalibrates the anxiety system, allowing it to clearly track anxiogenic phenomena on the ground with less distress or need for defensive reactions. Accordingly, perhaps meaning-seekers feel more willing to take on and tolerate anxiogenic circumstances because they know that, at any point, they could activate their ideals for relief. Ongoing projects in our lab are probing the neural and motivational mechanics of the idealistic resilience that comes from meaning-seeking. 

Evidence for the third possibility comes from findings that the same anxiety-inducing circumstances that cause people to seek meaning also cause people to go to extremes. Even seemingly trivial anxiety manipulations in the lab increase meaning-seeking and also increase willingness to take risks, and to kill, die, and go to extremes for religious beliefs. The same threats also cause people to become out of touch with the perspectives of others, and to become (sometimes wildly) overconfident in their own idiosyncratic viewpoints about important social issues and relationships. In a seemingly related finding, our early research found meaning-seeking to predict heightened distress only among participants who were so single-mindedly absorbed in their meaningful pursuits that they were neglecting pragmatic aspects of life manageability. 

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.