Taking decisive action can powerfully relieve anxiety. If the actions are unrelated to the source of the anxiety, they are called displacement behaviors (e.g., compulsively running, tail-chasing, grooming, eating, or vocalizing in other animals). The compulsive action relieves anxiety by activating approach motivated states (see section on Desire and Anxiety).
Humans can engage in this kind of concrete activity to relieve anxiety just like other animals (e.g., shopping, eating, drinking, gabling, exercising, grooming, working), but we can also focus on ideals and other abstractions as another
way to activate approach motivated states for relief from anxiety. In our last 9 years of research on reactive approach motivation, we have found a close linkage between decisive action and idealistic devotion. Ideals are abstract goals that activate the same approach motivation-related processes as concrete goals can. Thus, people react to anxiety by becoming both more determined toward their concrete goals and more devoted to their idealistic convictions. Research by Michael Hogg and colleagues shows that when people are anxious they are especially attracted to idealistic groups that also help them feel powerful and active. These are the basic dynamics that we think drive the appeal of radical political and religious groups for marginalized young people. Devotion to an idealistic and active cause provides powerful relief from anxiety and thus feels right. We are also currently exploring the dynamics of ideals and action in the context of global warming, trying to figure out circumstances under which anxieties about climate change will make people willing to actually take action in addition to making moral claims about the need for environmental action. When action seems difficult, people sometimes substitute ideals for action. Thus, in anxious circumstances lofty idealism may sometimes serve to make people happy hypocrites. Focusing on moral convictions can sometimes be enough to relieve
anxiety, even if action does not follow.
Anxiety makes people go to extremes (see the DESIRE and ANXIETY section for an explanation of the basic process). In dozens of studies we have shown that various anxiety-related threats make people become more certain, biased, and inflexible in their opinions; more haughty in their biased view of themselves; more hostile and vengeful; more willing to take risks; and more willing to kill, die, and go to extremes for religion. All of these extreme reactions have been linked to approach motivated states that give people a kind of motivational tunnel-vision, unable to see the wider range of perspectives.
People seem to approach whatever extreme is salient in the anxious moment. Accordingly, reminding people of compassionate and charitable values and beliefs causes them to react to experimentally manipulated anxieties by
becoming more extremely forgiving. If compassionate values are not primed ahead of time, however, then participants respond to the same anxious experiences in the opposite direction, i.e., by becoming more hostile and vengeful, in line
with more selfish ambient values. In some of our experiments we prime compassionate values by reminding people of their religious belief systems (which across all religions almost always revolve around ideas of love and forgiveness). The religious component is not necessary in our experiments, however. Reminding people of prosocial values with religious or secular primes similarly reversed the normative tendency toward reactive hostility.
Extreme and hostile reactions to anxiety are intuitive and prevalent responses to anxiety that undermine social viability. It has been suggested by religious historian Karen Armstrong, in The Great Transformation, that one of the reasons for the evolution of religion may have been its capacity to redirect antisocial reactions toward prosocial ideals of kindness and virtue. Despite the high profile examples of religious hypocrisy and hostility in the news, our empirical work on religion has indeed found that for most people (Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, in our studies), religious beliefs boost generous and forgiving reactions in anxious circumstances (see RELIGION link for a description of this research).
In anxious circumstances, people sometimes become defensively closed minded in order to cope (see the Desire and Anxiety section for an explanation of the basic process). The closed-minded responses are rewarding because they can focus people on a singular personal goal or ideal to activate approach motivated states that relieve anxiety. They can contribute to social and personal problems down the road, however, because they bias judgment. The reality of alternative perspectives is obscured, which hamper wise and cooperative planning. If people can proactively activate these “defenses” ahead of time, by affirming their worth, value, idealistic, ingroup, or religious convictions, then they can ironically become more open-minded and capable of appreciating divergent perspectives afterwards. A now large body of “self-affirimation” research indicates that proactively focusing on personal values leaves one more able to make unbiased and open-minded assessments afterwards. For example, in a study in our lab we found that randomly assigning participants to think about meaningful groups that they belonged to made them MORE flexible and open to the perspective of outgroup members with dissenting opinions afterwards. We also found that reminding people of their highest ideals and values made them more aware and tolerant and less hostile toward others’ perspectives. We are currently trying to understand why this occurs. Our hypothesis is that group and value affirmations make people
more open-minded because they preemptively activate approach motivated states that then leave people free to notice anxiety-provoking stimuli with less distress or need for defensive reactions.
In most psychological theories of human development, the pinnacle points toward compassionate social action. For Freud, Adler, and Erickson, maturity required the capacity for concern and devotion to others through some kind of
altruism, social usefulness, or generativity. Maslow’s self-actualizers were similarly oriented toward intimate relationships and social justice, and Erich Fromm and Carl Rogers both viewed the capacity to consider others’ perspectives and to act in others’ interests as the mark of full functioning and self-actualization. Non-psychologists have similar intuitions. When asked what their highest values are, most lay-people mention something related to relationships and helping others, and all major religious traditions have compassionate values and ideals at their core. Moreover, reminding people of their highest values, or religious beliefs eliminates hostile reactions to anxiety-inducing
threats, and replaces them with forgiving reactions.
If love is such a consensual value, why are we not more routinely empathic and compassionate? Part of the answer appears to lie in habits for managing anxiety. Even seemingly minor uncertainties and insecurities can activate the anxiety system, and people reflexively react by becoming more hostile and tenaciously tethered to personal opinions, goals, and ideals (to activate approach motivated states that relieve anxiety, see the Desire and Anxiety section). Such habitual egocentric reactions help quell anxiety in the short term, but crowd others’ perspectives out of awareness, making them matter only to the extent that they help or hinder personal goals or ideals. In short, anxiety makes people more egocentric and more inclined to interact with others as if they were objects rather than people with their own perspectives and feelings. Narcissistic people, especially those with underlying insecurities, have particularly habitual egocentric reactions. This makes them especially callous toward the suffering of others after being reminded of either their own personal anxieties, or their own egocentric goals and ideals. Either way, the well-exercised ego crowds out consideration of others.
Compassionate ideals and values seem to activate the same basic approach-motivation-related processes as egocentric ideals and values, however. They may therefore be substitutable. Both can relieve anxiety, but compassionate ideals can do so in a more prosocial way. The trick is to figure out how to replace egocentric habits with compassionate ones. Exciting new experimental work by Christian Jordan and colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University is revealing some promising strategies in this regard, related to communal primes that can take the edge off of narcissistically oriented people. This work, together with our own on the malleability of reactive approach motivation (see Desire and Anxiety section) suggests that people might easily become more compassionate if compassion cues were more salient in their environments and imaginations.
One of the most intuitive responses to anxiety is hostility. It can provide potent relief from the anxiety aroused by frustration, at least in the short term, because it activates approach motivation which suppresses anxiety (recall
from the Desire and Anxiety sections that the subsystems are reciprocally active). Relying on hostility can accordingly become a rewarding habit. But in the longer term hostility is not adaptive. Chronically coping with anxiety by becoming hostile impedes relationship goals and capacity for cooperation, leading to more anxiety and more hostility and so on. Various forms of hostility from revenge to moral outrage and derogation of deviants may be fueled by this basic motivational dynamic, despite more reasonable sounding justifications. Based on this understanding of hostility as a reactive approach motivation (RAM) response to anxiety, recent research in our lab headed by our collaborator, Dr. Karina Schumann, has discovered that it is relatively easy to subvert the anxiety-to-hostility habit and redirect it toward other, more prosocial modes of RAM. We’ve repeatedly found that if participants are given a prosocial value to focus on before a frustration or uncertainty-related threat, then instead of becoming reactively hostile they become reactively magnanimous. It seems that it doesn’t matter what one approaches in the face of anxiety—approaching hostility or approaching ideals of magnanimity are alternative ways to activate the approach motivation system for anxiety relief (see also Morality, Religion, and Extremes sections, below, for more on this line of work).
Our starting point is that human nature is intimately wired for relationships and that when relationships work, humans thrive. Almost everyone hopes for social harmony, love, and peace, but personal and intergroup relationships are often bewildering. Despite best intentions, human relations, from the intimate to international, are often crippled by frustration and conflict. Our guiding premise is that relationship problems are often at the root of both personal and societal dysfunctions, from apathy to callous disregard for social justice and hostile extremism. This is because relationship goals are so chronically important for humans, even those who are not consciously aware of their importance or are defensively trying to live as though relationships are unimportant. When people feel alienated from others, even momentarily, the impeded relationship goals cause anxiety and powerful reactive approach motivation (RAM) outcomes (see the DESIRE and ANXIETY section for an explanation of how this basic process works). This can then make people rigid and antisocial in various ways. Classic theorists like Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, and Carl Rogers noticed related defense mechanisms long ago, but we are only now beginning to understand their precise neural and motivational mechanics.
The anxious arousal and rigid defenses are most pronounced among people who have personality traits that incline them toward relationship insecurities in the first place. In one series of studies, for example, two-minute reflections on relationship uncertainties made insecure participants lose the capacity to perspective-take afterwards. Even after seeing a long list of alternative opinions about value-laden social issue opinions, these insecure participants became adamant that everyone should and would agree with their own personal opinions. They became almost bizarrely certain, convinced, and willing to argue that their own moral intuitions about capital punishment, abortion, and war were more correct than others’. In another series of studies similar relationship insecurity manipulations made people become more willing to kill and die for their religious beliefs.
Thinking about relationship insecurities and other anxiety-provoking experiences also makes people more generally petty and hostile toward foreign or frustrating people. People who tend to feel insecure about their close relationships are again especially vulnerable to these reactions. These findings indicate how pivotal relationship security is for personal and societal resilience. A line of our lab’s research accordingly focuses on how short affirmations of secure relationship values and experiences can quell anxiety and eliminate or even reverse hostile and selfish reactions to anxious circumstances.
Below are general descriptions of some ideas guiding and resulting from our research. Links to publications with more detailed and technical descriptions of these ideas and our related research results are provided under the RESULTS link above.
Desire and Anxiety
The first Noble Truths of Buddhism state that anxiety (Dukkha) arises from conflicted desire. Contemporary scientific research is consistent with this claim. Desire and anxiety come from evolutionarily old and closely linked neural sub-systems. Their joint dynamics powerfully affect the way people relate to each other and are foundational for the social phenomena we research in our lab.
Desire (or approach motivation as we usually refer to it) orients people toward what they want, and keeps them focused until they get it. Anxiety, on the other hand, helps people disengage and shift to more viable alternative goals when focal goals are impeded. These approach and anxiety systems are often reciprocally active. They toggle back and forth according to goal progress. When goals are going well the approach system prevails and suppresses the anxiety system. This feels great and liberates full engagement in focal goals. Importantly, when people are in highly approach motivated states, goal-irrelevant perceptions (sometimes including other people or perspectives) are automatically excluded from awareness. If goals are significantly impeded by uncertainty or frustration, however, then the anxiety system kicks in to inhibit the approach system. The anxiety system then puts the brakes on action, and makes people vigilant in the relevant (often self-focused) domain for further problems, or for alternative courses of action that might work better. Once an alternative is engaged, the approach system can once again prevail and turn down the anxiety system, and so on.
Highly active approach motivation rivets attention onto personal priorities which helps accomplish goals, but it can also cause egocentricity and sabotage perspective-taking and capacity for cooperative social relations. One of the most important findings in our research has been that some people habitually cope with anxiety by throwing themselves into eager goals or ideals in order to powerfully activate approach motivated states. Doing so serves to turn down the eliciting anxiety. We refer to this tendency as reactive approach motivation (RAM). RAM can be accomplished by orienting toward desires that are personal or social, and concrete or idealistic. An example of the concrete-personal category is food, of concrete-social is physical affection, of idealistic-personal is perfectionism, and of idealistic-social is devotion to an ideology or worldview. Thus, basic RAM processes can affect a wide array of phenomena in the face of anxiety. People will turn to whatever opportunity is most salient.
Though effective at relieving anxiety in the short-term, RAM can impair perspective and judgment, contributing to even more anxiety over time as the impairment undermines effectiveness and leads to more goal frustration. People who are insecure in their close personal relationships to start with are particularly inclined to react to anxious circumstances by becoming more extremely self-focused and preoccupied with their own perspectives, which can further undermine their relationship goals and relationship security. In contrast, people with secure and trusting close relationships tend to be relatively immune to these antisocial effects of RAM. They do not feel anxieties as poignantly and they also tend to become eagerly relationship focused instead of egocentric and antisocial in anxious circumstances. As a result, by some measures the relationships of secure people tend to become even better in anxious circumstances.
Character (Virtue and Wisdom)
Good character is the habitual tendency to do the “right” thing across diverse social situations, even when daily anxieties and temptations push and pull one in other directions. The right thing is usually a moral ideal beyond narrow self-indulgence. It is what the Greeks referred to as virtue and is sometimes equated with wisdom. A foundational feature of character (or virtue or wisdom) is the capacity to see a wide array of relevant perspectives in any situation and to act in accord with the most relevant and appropriate ones. This capacity for appropriate action across diverse circumstances is what the Greeks referred to as the master virtue of Prudence. From the Greek perspective, appropriate action adhered to the other three cardinal virtues of Justice, Temperance, and Courage. Justice requires the capacity to appropriately consider other people beyond oneself, and to give them their due. Doing so requires the capacity to recognize perspectives beyond one’s own personal priorities. Temperance requires the capacity to moderate any focal desire by controlling oneself, keeping focal desire in balance with others’ perspectives and alternative personal priorities that one might hold in different circumstances. Courage requires the capacity for appropriate engagement of passion (closely linked to what we see as approach motivation)—being neither too passionate (and reckless or impulsive), nor too bland or inert.
In more colloquial terms, character usually refers to the justice aspect of moral discipline vs. moral laziness, i.e., not being selfish. Justice (considering others) is a cornerstone of almost all moral systems. Relatively selfless (high character) people habitually consider others, and have found ways to tame habits of personal indulgence, egocentricity, and hostility. Anxious circumstances are the acid test of character. Most people can be relatively friendly and fair-minded when things are going well. In anxious circumstances, however, some people habitually become hostile and small-minded. In contrast, others rise to the occasion with compassion and magnanimity. Some of our recent work suggests new possibilities for simple character improvement interventions (see Morality section).
One of the ideas we are currently pursuing is whether high intensity motivation of either anxiety or approach motivation may compromise character by constricting perspective. High anxiety may cause self-preoccupation with personal difficulties and obstacles that loom large. High approach motivation may cause rash selfishness and impulsivity. Either way, consideration of alternative perspectives could be blocked. We are currently investigating whether moderating participants' motivational intensity will improve their capacity for perspective and character in action. A related question is whether low personal motivation might be necessary at first, for open-minded consideration and reflection on various perspectives. Once a course of action has been prudently identified, however, might high approach motivation be required to power tenacious action through distractions and obstacles?
Why are some people so idealistic that they are willing to go to extremes and even die for a cause? Ideals activate the approach system and so thinking about them can feel great and relieve anxiety. An attractive feature of ideals, as opposed to, say, cake, is that ideals are abstract and so can activate approach motivation efficiently, without concrete intention or consequences (or calories). They also remain compelling even when life circumstances are bleak. Merely imagining an ideal vision can mobilize eager approach states and begin to mute anxiety immediately. Ideals can be hostile, as with mass-shooters and terrorists who usually justify their actions with self-serving ideals or utopias tinged with punitive justice or revenge. Ideals can also be narcissistic—focused on personal perfection, admiration, desirability,
or superiority. They need not be antisocial, small-minded, or egocentric, however. They can be ideals of magnanimity, inclusivity, love, truth, progress, social harmony, compassion, or beauty. Thinkers since Pythagoras and Socrates
have attributed the surprising psychological power of abstractions to otherworldly, transcendent realms that are more perfect than physical reality. Throughout history this intuitive attributional tendency has sometimes been used to justify devaluation or even disdain for physical reality. When this happens, going to extremes and causing physical harm for an idealistic cause can therefore seem like a reasonable and noble decision for some people, especially when physical reality offends their idealistic convictions.
Ideals of any kind are difficult to maintain in solitary imaginations, however. Because they are abstract, they have no objective referents, and so they require social consensus to stabilize them. Without consensus-bolstered confidence, exposure to alternative ideals can raise doubts about personal ideals, which can cause more of the anxiety that the ideals served to suppress. (Recall that anxiety arises from conflicted or uncertain goals and since ideals are abstract goals that operate according to the same principles as concrete goals, conflicted or uncertain ideals can also cause anxiety.) Confidence in ideals accordingly benefits from relationship or group consensus that can reify lonely abstractions into confident and inspiring convictions. Narratives of charismatic leaders, role models, and exemplars of desired ideals are often used to help make ideals more concrete, and to facilitate the consensual conviction of ideologies and worldviews.
A dark-side of ideologies and worldviews is that they are so psychologically vital for some people that they can be intolerant of dissent. Anxious circumstances make people more reliant on them for approach-motivated relief from the anxiety, and accordingly also more inclined toward hostile derogation and punishment of ideological dissenters and deviants. Some people seem especially oriented toward ideals as levers for approach motivation. Specifically, in one series of recent studies we found that people who reported high scores on the tendency to seek meaning in life responded with a particularly large surge in approach motivation after writing about their most important values and ideals in life. In other studies we have found that people who say that their lives are oriented toward the promotion of ideals to be particularly inclined toward idealistically extreme reactions to frustrating and uncertain experiences. People with anxious personalities are also particularly inclined toward all kinds of reactively extreme and idealistic defenses to anxious experiences. Dynamics of the anxiety and approach systems thus seem to fuel important social phenomena related to ideology and worldview defense.
Not everyone is inspired by religion. Indeed, some people see it so tainted by irrationality as to find it repugnant. Historical examples of militant Christianity with its holy crusades and inquisitions together with contemporary news about the atrocities perpetrated in the name of militant Islam turn some people off of religion for good. Indeed, since the Enlightenment in the 1700s, there has been a trend beginning with some vanguard scientists, philosophers, and skeptics to shift their locus of inspiration from the transcendent realm to the temporal realm of secular humanism, progress, and enjoyment. Our recent research does show that the same kind of psychological inspiration can be attained from this-worldly incentives (power, pleasure, and relaxation) as from other-worldly incentives (spiritual and idealistic). Both kinds are capable of activating eager, approach motivated states that are resistant to anxiety. Our research does strongly show, however, that on average, non-religious people have a harder time maintaining meaning in life than religious people. Agnostics and atheists report significantly lower meaning in life. On average, the transcendent realm of ideals seems to inspire people more reliably than the concrete world. From the perspective of another line of our research (described next), for better or worse, meaning seems to be a more powerful form of well-being than happiness.
Why are we humans so proud and defensive of our groups? Even those of us who claim to be open-minded and objective can often find ourselves emotionally drawn into national identifications during international sporting events, or chaffing at the dissonant practices of foreign cultures or religions. One reason for our affinity is that groups scaffold ideals (as described in the Ideals section). Group consensus about norms and ideals can bolster confidence in personal perspectives and ideals. Group ideals can vary, just like individuals’ ideals can. They can be ideals of status, power, superiority, goodness, or purity, or they can be about social justice, fairness, inclusivity, or kindness. Regardless, they are psychologically powerful. In our laboratory we repeatedly find that when people think about their group identifications or about social consensus, their anxious conflicts and uncertainties about other problems in their lives feel less bothersome. This only occurs, however, when the groups are meaningfully related to personal or worldview identifications. We have new, direct evidence that the appeal of groups for relief from anxiety hinges on the capacity for groups to activate approach motivated processes. People become jingoistic about groups when they are anxious because groups bolster ideals, which activate approach motivated states, which suppress anxiety.
In addition to the worldview-idealistic function of groups, groups and group loyalty can also fortify concrete, trusting relationships among individuals which can provide additional comfort and effectiveness, independent of group ideals. Indeed, in addition to needing groups for the ideological fortification they confer, humans may also use ideals in the reverse direction, for group fortification. As Emile Durkheim noted long ago and as moral psychologists echo today, ideals about goodness and morality can help harmonize and mobilize human groups. They align the motivation of group members and make collective action effective. In sum, people can be attracted to groups for interrelated idealistic/moral and concrete reasons. This dual appeal may help explain why people become more attracted to strong and ideologically pure groups in anxious circumstances.
Morality is diverse but has two basic flavors—proself vs. prosocial. Most people gravitate toward prosocial varieties of morality, and accordingly identify most with ideals and values related to cooperation, kindness, care, and fairness. Proself ideals and values explicitly predominate for around 25% of people, however, and can easily be aroused in the rest of us at times. When proself morality dominates, might is right and looking out for number one is the realistic morality of the strong and successful. Competition, status, and power are the principles one should adhere to—to do otherwise would be naïve. Proself people often have an affinity for powerful groups, and see their groups as being in zero-sum competition with others’ groups. Outsiders who deviate from the dominant group can be neglected and punished without compunction because ingroup dominance is an integral part of proself morality. Perhaps ironically, proself people are often even more devoted to their ingroups than prosocial people, because proself people most appreciate the power and personal advantage that can be leveraged from cohesive ingroups. There is some evidence that anxious people are particularly drawn to this kind of proself morality and related political affiliations. Anxious circumstances similarly seem to make people and cultures become more proself and bonded to tight, consensual ingroups that are intolerant of moral dissent.
Research in our and others’ laboratories suggests that reorienting people away from proself and toward prosocial reactions to anxiety might be relatively simple. Anxious people cleave to whatever means is most salient for activating approach motivated states (see the Desire and Anxiety section on reactive approach motivation for relief from anxiety). Accordingly, we’ve found that simple reminders about their prosocial ideals can eliminate people’s usual proself reactions to anxiety and replace them with prosocial ones.
Religion (and Ideology)
Religions are special kinds of groups—the word for religion comes from the root word meaning to bind together—“ligare.” Religions are idealistic and often involve role-model examplars, narratives, histories, and rituals that
serve to consolidate both group membership and commitment to the ideals that the religions promote. In the first social psychological investigation into religion, Allport identified two kinds of religion—intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic religion focused on prosocial values and ideals of compassion and kindness. Extrinsic religion, in contrast, focused on benefits to the self that religious group membership can confer. Intrinsic vs. extrinsic religion correlated with tendencies toward compassionate vs. hostile and discriminatory judgments, respectively, toward people outside the ingroup. Allport’s distinction maps roughly onto a related distinction identified by William James, in his classic, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” James identified “healthy-minded” religion as the relatively warm and compassionate kind, and “sick-souled” religion as the more hostile and punitive kind. Recent research shows that extrinsic/ sick-souled
varieties of religion are associated with compromised capacity for relationships—people with insecure attachment styles, who have difficulty forming close, trusting relationships, are drawn to the more hostile forms of religion.
Our research has found evidence for both antisocial and prosocial functions of religion in everyday life. In one line of research, relatively minor anxious experiences made people more religiously zealous and willing to kill and die for their religious belief systems—religious zeal relieves anxiety.
Importantly, however, other evidence in our lab suggests that at least for the young adults in our sample, spontaneous adherence to religious beliefs orients people toward forgiveness. In a series of recently published experiments led by our collaborator Dr. Karina Schumann, we found that reminding people of their religious beliefs (i.e., intrinsic religion) eliminated hostile reactions to anxiety and replaced them with magnanimous ones. Among participants who had not been reminded of their religious beliefs, being assigned to complete a frustrating academic task in our laboratory made them assign harsher punishments to misbehaving student associations on campus, to workplace cheaters, and to corporate criminals. In contrast, among participants who had been reminded of their religious beliefs, the same frustrating experiences caused an opposite reaction and made them significantly more forgiving than they normally were. Similar effect sizes resulted when the experimentally induced anxiety arose from academic frustration or contemplating personal mortality. Effect sizes were similar among members of all the major religious groups that we had a large enough subsample to assess (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu; there were no effects among participants who identified with atheism or agnosticism).
In sum, it seems that people use religion for anxiety relief. The effects described above are most extreme among anxious people, with anxiety arising from interpersonal uncertainty being especially highly correlated to all kinds of religious devotion. Depending on the kind of religion and context, the use of religion for peace of mind can have antisocial or prosocial consequences. It is important to note that the effects described here are not unique to religious ideology. Similar effects emerge with other identifications as well, e.g., political and cultural.
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.
What makes people resilient? Much of it certainly has to do with heritable tendencies toward anxiety. Some people have an anxiety system that is more easily aroused than others’, which tends to make them less resilient in anxious circumstances—they are easily immobilized by the anxiety and less able to mount constructive responses.
Beyond the good luck of genetics, another influence on resilience is secure close relationships. Human children and adults are intricately wired for warm, close, and responsive connection and confidence in one’s secure relationships can take the edge off of other insecurities and anxieties in life. In a recent social neuroscience study we found that securely attached participants showed no neural evidence of anxiety at all after a threatening experience in the lab that caused a spike in anxious brain activity among insecurely attached participants. In other studies we’ve found that various anxiety-arousing experiences in the lab cause defensive reactions only among insecurely attached, but not securely attached participants. Attachment security, however, is also at least partially beyond people’s control, because it arises in part
from childhood experiences with parents who may have been invasive, controlling, or absent, and subsequent relationship experiences over the life course that are difficult to predict or control. Selecting responsive partners
and learning relationship communication skills can increase security but attachment scars from childhood are difficult to completely erase.
Intentional anxiety-management techniques can be more under people’s control. Aside from anxiolytic medication, the simplest are basic health, sleep, and exercise disciplines. Beyond that, somatic and concentration techniques related to thought management and self-distancing from distress fall under the rubric of mindfulness. Diaphragm breathing has been linked to parasympathetic nervous system activation and anxiety relief. Identifying merely as a breather in the here and now can also psychologically distance one from distressing thoughts and experiences, as can training attention onto single points of focus. Breathing and focusing exercises are often further paired with techniques that help people disidentify with anxious, intrusive thoughts by noticing them coming and going from a detached, non-judgmental, and objective perspective. Thinking about oneself in the third person perspective or from a physically distant vantage point can have similar effects. With these techniques, whirring, anxious thoughts about the self and one’s future can seem more remote and less linked to one’s current motivational state. We are currently probing the capacity for mindfulness interventions to activate approach motivation and relieve anxiety among people with anxious personalities.
Goal efficacy—building competence—is another strategy for increasing resilience. Developing confidence that goals can go well and be likely to succeed can keep people from feeling anxious or becoming defensively biased and extreme in anxious circumstances. We’ve found that both measured goal efficacy in participants’ everyday personal projects, and manipulated goal efficacy in the lab (making people momentarily feel successful) can increase resilience. These measures and manipulations predict decreased anxiety and defensiveness in response to subsequent anxious-uncertainty threats. Accordingly, one strategy for boosting resilience is to build competence and learn goal- management skills that can sustain realistic hope for accomplishing goals.
Meaning-seeking is another way that some people increase their resilient capacity to function well in anxious circumstances, and it may be particularly important for trait-anxious people and those caught in frustrating
circumstances. Having a meaningful goal to approach in anxious circumstances can be a reliable way to activate approach motivated states that quell anxiety. In some of the earliest psychological observations on meaning in life, Victor Frankl observed that orienting toward meaningful commitments could sustain resilience even for people in a Nazi concentration camp. In our own research we have found that people orient towards meaning by identifying with diverse values and ideals beyond the self. Commitment to values linked to relationships, groups, values, or worldviews can accordingly orient people toward meaning, provide resilience by stabilizing the anxiety system in anxious circumstances, and thereby increase performance. Personal values about the importance of loving and giving are particularly popular and are usually at the heart of the meanings people seek.