When life goes on smoothly and everything is simple, there seems to be no need to wrestle with existential concerns. Most people are happy to live their simple but shallow lives, revolving around “eat, drink, work, and be happy.” Unfortunately, even when living in one of the safest cities, bad things can still happen to innocent people. If we do not have an adequate philosophy of life and have not discovered the meaning of suffering, we will not be able to cope with the horrors of life, which will shatter our assumptive world (Janoff-Bulman, 1992) and plunge us into an existential crisis.

Therefore, it is important for us to reflect on the important meaning of life questions, such as: How can I make the best use of my life? Am I willing to make personal sacrifices for a better future? Do I still have reasons for living, even when my life is full of pain and suffering? What is the value of my life? This paper examines some of the theoretical and practical issues involved in the search for meaning.

Human beings are meaning seeking, meaning making creatures as a result of a well-developed forebrain. Our progress and wellbeing to a large extent depends on the uniquely human capacity to ask questions, reason, imagine, create stories, and communicate with others our ideas and experiences through the symbols we have created to represent our inner and outer worlds.

When we look at the starry sky, and peek into the mystery of the vast cosmos, we naturally feel a sense of awe and wonder about our place in the universe. Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we doing on this planet earth which is just a speck of dust among billions of galaxies? Is there any meaning and significance in human existence?

Similarly, when we reflect on the brevity and fragility of human life, or look into the uncertain future, we naturally wonder how to make the best use of our time on earth and how to create a better life for ourselves. Such musings usually revolve around pragmatic issues of career choice, mate selection, but for the philosophically inclined, they may reflect on the meaning of life and wonder how they can live a fulfilling and significant life.

The above scenarios are about the search for meaning when things are going reasonably well. Unfortunately, we also have to deal all the “bad” things that can disrupt our lives from time to time. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires can turn our lives upside down and destroy the things we value. Social evils, such as poverty, violence, discrimination, or oppression can create anger and resentment in the lower class. Even without such macro stressors, we still have to cope with personal sickness, accidents, sickness of others, loss of loved ones, old age, and impending death. Different contexts and causes of suffering all trigger our search for solutions and control, leading to the development of science and technology.

Suffering, especially unavoidable or unresolvable suffering, can awaken the hidden philosopher and believer in us. We may reflect on the conditions and causes of our misfortunes or re-examine our lives. We may pray to the invisible, transcendental Higher Power for help. We definitely create stories to make sense of our wounds and brokenness. All these efforts to alleviate human suffering have result in the birth of religions, humanities, and social sciences in order to create a civil society to make life better for all its citizens.

In sum, both happiness and suffering in life are two sides of the same coin and lead to two different types of search for meaning (Wong, in press). This paper focuses on the development of a tool to measure the two different types of search for meaning, which may expand our basic understanding of meaning in life.

A Two-Factor Model of Search For Meaning

I propose that one cannot understand the meaning of life without knowing the difference between two types of search for meaning, which together enables us to survive and flourish.

Positively Oriented Search For Meaning (PSM)

This is part of human nature, and it is also rooted in animal instincts to constantly search for food, water, and resources needed for survival and reproduction. According to Klinger (1998), both humans and animals require sustained goal pursuits in search of the necessities of life. Regarding the imperative of purpose, he wrote: “The disposition to live purposively is built into the most fundamental architecture of zoological organisms and the disposition to seek meaning stems straightforwardly from the evolution of purposiveness together with human intellect” (p.30). He concluded that without purposive striving, the brain deteriorates: “The human brain cannot sustain purposeless living. It was not designed for that” (p.33).

When all our basic needs are met, the question of quest for meaning becomes a real challenge. Baumeister (1991) wrote: “The meaning of life is a problem for people who are not desperate, people who can count on survival, comfort, security, and some measures of pleasures” (p.3). Freedom from substance level of existence provides people with more options, hence, the danger of addiction and violence in order to escape from boredom (Frankl, 1985).

It can be a challenge to decide what kinds of goals are worth pursing (Fowers et al., 2014). Most of the time, people choose a mixture of hedonic and eudemonic goals. Not all goals are equal in terms of their objective values. All the research has shown that the only life purpose that can give people a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment is to strive towards something which is bigger than oneself (Frankl, 1988; Wong, 2012).

PSM is happiness-and-growth oriented. The successful search for necessary resources and the eventual consummatory activities provide some measure of life satisfaction and even meaning. To the extent that positive affect increased perceived meaning (King et al., 2006), even the pursuit of pleasures can be subjectively meaningful.

But beyond mere survival, people need to explore activities and goals that enrich their lives and give them a sense of significance through personal growth and contributing some objective value worthy of praise by others. A truly meaningful life goal demands personal sacrifices for the common good; it has both intrinsic and objective values.

I want to emphasize that meaning is much more than just the subjective feelings of purpose and significance as measured by questionable self reports. An adequate account of meaning needs to involve objective or intersubjective standards (Fowers & Lefevor, 2015; Brown & Wong, 2015). A worthy choice must also involve considerations of how to fulfill our responsibility to pursue the right life goal in accordance with our beliefs, abilities, and needs (Sheldon & Kasser, 2015); at the same time our pursuits need to meet the demands of life on us to make some valuable contribution to society. Thus, the search for meaning represents the moralist (saint) and idealist (dreamer) in each of us (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2016).

In the popular measure of meaning (Steger et al., 2006), the presence of meaning is measured by subjective feelings of purpose and significance, and the search for meaning is also shaped by the similar narrow scope. Therefore, in the development of the present Search for Meaning Scale (SMS), the objective criterion is emphasized:

  1. I am seeking to find my out what life demands of me.
  2. I am always searching for ways to make a valuable contribution to the world.
  3. I am seeking confirmation for my mission or purpose in life.
  4. I am trying to figure out my rightful place in the world.
  5. I want to find out what really matters in every stage of my life.

Negatively Oriented Search For Meaning (NSM)

Bad things are effective in waking us up from our own complacency and self-deception; they also challenge the adequacy of our existing beliefs and values. They often expose the shallowness and emptiness of a self-centered and pleasure-oriented lifestyle. They force us to ask ourselves the tough questions, such as: If I were to die now, have I really lived? Shall I pursue something more meaningful than what I am doing now? Often, such self discovery is uncomfortable or painful. Thus, negative events have the adaptive benefits of leading one to the narrow path of meaning and purpose away from the broad way of pleasures.

Biologically, NSM was rooted in the Pavlovian orienting reflex (Razran, 1961) or “what is it” reflex to the presence of any new stimulus. Any change in the environment perceived as a threat will trigger the fight-or-flight response (Cannon, 1932). In other words, we are hardwired or predisposed for the quest for meaning.

Contemporary attribution research has confirmed that people spontaneously ask Why questions. They will more likely ask Why questions when the outcome is negative or unexpected (Wong & Weiner, 1981). These empirical findings suggest that the most ancient search for meaning was negatively oriented to potential danger in a novel situation or threatening situation.

People respond to such situations with questions such as: Why me? Why now? Why is life so unfair? Why does life suck so much? What is the point of living, when life is so hard? These negatively oriented search for meaning were described by Wong (1991) as existential attributions, indicating that people are by lay philosophers searching for understanding.

NSM has yet another important survival function – it gives meaning or justifying reasons for our suffering, thus, making suffering more bearable (Frankl, 1985). When the traumas shatter our assumptive world (Janoff-Bulman, 1992), we have the urgent need to reconstruct our worldviews and beliefs which can endow some meaning to our suffering and incorporate the painful experience with our positive views of life.

Finally, anticipating our own demise may strike terror in us (Becker, 1973). Belief in cultural values and self-esteem are our unconscious attempts to find some relief, according to terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991). Religion is another common way of coping with death anxiety. Yalom (2009) considered the fear of death as the mother of all religions.  Religious beliefs in the afterlife is the human attempt to find hope and meaning (Routledge, 2018). More recently, Wong & Tomer (2011) proposed that one’s conscious search for meaning is perhaps the most creative and productive way to cope with death threat.

In sum, DSM motivates us to find causes and solutions for our suffering. More importantly, it forces us to confront the painful truth about the dark side of human existence and challenges us to find some deeper meaning for suffering, which enable us to survive the horrors of life. Frankl often quoted Nietzsche: “To live is to suffer, to suffer is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Future research needs to explore the role of DSM in enhancing resilience, meaning, and wellbeing over the long haul. Therefore, in the present scale (figure 1), DSM was designed to assess people’s understanding of existential meaning in difficult times.

Figure 1. Search for Meaning Scale 2018.

  1. I am struggling to understand why bad things happen to good people.
  2. I am searching for reasons for living in order to survive my ordeal.
  3. I am trying to understand why I have problems with close relationships
  4. I want to find out why I am not satisfied with my life.
  5. I am seeking to grasp the meaning of suffering and death.

Figure 2. The New Search for Meaning Scale 2019.

The New Search for Meaning Scale 2019

Please reflect for a few minutes and respond to the following statements as truthfully and accurately as you can by circling the appropriate answer according to the following scale:














Agree nor








1.      I am trying to understand why I have problems with close relationships.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

2.      I am seeking confirmation for my mission or purpose in life.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

3.      I am searching for reasons for living in order to survive my ordeal.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

4.      I am struggling to understand why bad things happen to good people.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

5.      I want to find out why I am not satisfied with my life.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

6.      Search for the meaning of life is a total waste of time.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

7.      I am seeking to grasp the meaning of suffering and death.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

8.      I want to find out what really matters in every stage of my life.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

9.      I am always searching for ways to make a valuable contribution to the world.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

10.  There is no point in striving, because life is so hard and so short.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

11.  I am seeking to find my out what life demands of me.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7

12.  I am trying to figure out my rightful place in the world.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7


Search for Meaning Scale (SMS): Coding Key


Positive Search for Meaning (6 items):                      2, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12

Negative Search for Meaning (6 items):                     1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10

Future Research From The Perspective of PP 2.0

The difference of these two types of search for meaning can be seen in Table 1. From the perspective of existential positive psychology or PP 2.0, sustainable wellbeing depends on embracing the dark side of life as the foundation for everything positive and navigating a positive balance between opposing forces (Wong, 2019).

A similar line of argument has been offered by Bowers, Richardson & Slife (2017). They also questioned the adequacy of the positive only approach to happiness and pointed out that the human frailty and vulnerabilities already doom us to a life of suffering, which provides the necessary context for human flourishing.

This new perspective opens up new vistas for research and intervention. For example, we can test the priming effect of giving people with the PSM or the NSM for a number of days and then test the difference in several outcomes (e.g., subjective wellbeing, optimism, MLQ) immediately after the intervention and one month later.

Table 1. Contrast between the two types of search for meaning.

Negatively oriented search for meaning        Positively oriented search for meaning
Focus on present or past problems Focus on a positive future
It’s a response to suffering, real or perceived It’s an aspiration to achieve a mission
The main function is to survive & overcome The main function is to flourish & make a difference
Increase in resilience & meaning later in time

Increase in passion, meaning & happiness now



We also explore the interplay between these two types of search for meaning as suggested by Wong’s dual-system process of wellbeing (Wong, 2012) and Peterson’s (2018) conception of meaning as walking the tightrope between good and evil, meaning and chaos. We can test different models of predicting wellbeing positive outcomes, such as the addictive model of adding NSM and PSM score, or the subtractive model by subtracting NSM from PSM ,or the covariance model.

Finally, we can use the SMS in the conventional way by employing it with MLQ, to see how the two subscales of SMS will related with the two subscales of MLQ in meaningful ways. The SMS can also be used in conjunction with other positive psychology measures to determine the amount of variance accounted for by each subscale. It short, the SMS can be a very useful tool in increasing our understanding of the vital role of search for meaning, which has not received much attention because of the lack of a proper instrument. Hopefully, the focus on NSM may enhance people’s happiness through the developing of satisfying philosophy of life (Myers, 2015).


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Wong, P.  T.  P. (2019, November 6). A Two-Factor Model of Search For Meaning. Dr. Paul T. P. Wong. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/a-two-factor-model-of-search-for-meaning