What makes life feel meaningful? It’s a question that scholars and philosophers have been contemplating for millennia, and one that science has attempted to study through research.
If you take a moment to reflect on how you would answer that question, you might think about the most important people in your life, the work you do, your hobbies and faith, or the place you come from. If you’ve lived through a traumatic experience, you may recall the things that inspired hope and resiliency and helped you to heal.
In all aspects of meaning in life (MIL), there are threads of connection—the meaning we derive from both our human relationships and our connection to the natural world.
The research on the experience of meaning, how we live it and define it, has identified three variables that are linked to people’s self-reported MIL:
- Coherence, which is the way we see the parts of our lives fit together in an orderly fashion;
- Purpose, or how we see our life motivated by our goals and values; and
- Existential mattering: the understanding that simply being in the world is of great importance.
However, there might be more to meaning in life than these three concepts. “Most of the time, people can find meaning in their everyday life and everyday experiences,” says Joshua Hicks, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Texas A&M University. “Having that mindset and being open to [the fact that] there’s meaning all around you is very important.”
Appreciating the Little Things
In new research published in Nature Human Behaviour, Hicks and coauthors argue that appreciating one’s experiences—what they call “experiential appreciation”—is one of the main pathways to meaning in life, and is just as important as coherence, purpose, and existential mattering.
To examine whether valuing one’s life experiences contributes to MIL, the researchers undertook seven different studies to test the idea that experiential appreciation is a unique contributor to our judgments about meaning. Hicks says that to show that experiential appreciation predicts meaning in life over and above the other three components, they had to control for these variables in their analyses by measuring all of them.
The first study tested whether life appreciation as a coping strategy used in the early COVID-19 pandemic would predict general MIL over and above coherence, purpose, and mattering. The next study helped the researchers design a scale to measure experiential appreciation, which was used in all the subsequent studies. In studies three and four, participants were asked to fill out a daily diary about their meaningful experiences or recall a meaningful event from the past week.
Simply appreciating one’s experiences can foster a rich sense of meaning and perhaps shore up confidence that life has been and will be worth living.
Studies five and six attempted to induce a state of experiential appreciation by having the participants view an awe-inspiring video (in this case, the two-minute opening sequence to the Planet Earth series). “I don’t think you have to have awe to appreciate your experiences, but I think they’re related to some extent,” says Hicks. “People who [rate] high in experiential appreciation are probably more likely to experience awe in everyday life too.”
In the final study participants were asked to write about a recent experience or place they had visited that they appreciated. This helped to test whether event-specific experiential appreciation contributed more to MIL compared to participants in a control condition.
Overall, the findings from all seven studies support the researchers’ hypothesis that valuing one’s life experiences by appreciating them is uniquely tied to our perception of meaning. The authors suggest that “simply appreciating one’s experiences can foster a rich sense of meaning and perhaps shore up confidence that life has been and will be worth living.”
Are Mindfulness and Awe Connected to Appreciation?
Although mindfulness wasn’t assessed in this study, Hicks says that they have measured mindfulness in relation to experiential appreciation in previous studies. “[The state of] mindfulness is probably a strong individual difference that can cultivate experiential appreciation,” he says. “The mindful person is more likely to appreciate conversations, a nice meal—the simple things.”
These experiences don’t all have to be simple, but it is the small moments that Hicks says make up our daily lives. If we can tap into the beauty of our connection to people, places, or events around us, a sense of meaning will likely follow.
Events that inspire the emotion of awe occur less often, and Hicks says they’re likely not most people’s main source of meaning. It’s not every day that you can hike a mountain or watch a glorious sunset (although if you live near a body of water you may have lucked out with the sunsets, and research says you’re generally happier).
However, ‘big’ experiences of awe can still be an important driver of experiential appreciation, as many people felt when they saw the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Contemplating universes within universes and the birth of stars certainly triggers what researchers call the “small self,” a state that helps us to understand that many of our problems aren’t so important in the grand scheme of things. Small self may also prompt us to engage in more prosocial behavior.
This isn’t the final word on MIL, and Hicks says that the next steps in the research will explore aspects of experiential appreciation, including connectedness in nature and mindfulness practice. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Hicks. “This is not a new thing, but [the research] shows that experiential appreciation is a primary source of meaning.”
What’s more, it’s a source that is accessible to us at any moment of the day.
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