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This is a manuscript review of the paper published as George, L. S., & Park, C. L. (2016). The Multidimensional Existential Meaning Scale: A tripartite approach to measuring meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1209546


I was favourably inclined towards this manuscript because of its title. I was very pleased that positive psychology (PP) researchers are now interested in tackling a fundamental concept in existential psychology—“What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the meaning of human existence?”

Such questions have been most frequently asked, according to a simple Google search, because of their relevance to people’s lives. The meaning of life question concerns existential meaning; it is much deeper than the meaning of a situation or the meaning in an individual’s life (i.e., meaning in life). Most psychologists and philosophers recognize the distinction between meaning of life and meaning in life; the title of the paper suggests that the focus is on the former.

My initial enthusiasm for the manuscript stemmed from my many years of effort to advance existential PP (EPP) as the second wave of development in PP (Wong, 2009, 2011). EPP is primarily concerned with the existential issues of personal striving for significance in spite of the dark side of human existence. I believe that an existentially informed PP will benefit from the deep and rich insights of the existential literature. I am pleased that such effort is gaining acceptance in the PP community (e.g., Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2015).

A classic example of EPP is Emmons’ (1999) research on ultimate concern. He was faithful to the philosophical concept of ultimate concern, and yet he was able to conduct rigorous scientific research on this concept. Similarly, Wong (2014) was able to translate Frankl’s concept of will to meaning into a testable meaning seeking model. I expected that the authors of this paper would also honour the philosophical concept of existential meaning in their scientific research.

Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm for this paper increasingly gave way to concerns with each reading, having discovered numerous conceptual and methodological problems. In fact, this paper reminds me of many of the common mistakes of dissertations I have reviewed as an external examiner in recent years.

I still applaud the authors’ initiative in tackling the enormously important and complex problem of existential meaning, and I hope that they will continue their efforts in this vital area. I have devoted several days to write this critique in the hope that my detailed comments will help the authors in their future research.

Inadequate Literature Review

One of the recurring problems of PP research is the “citation amnesia” of ignoring relevant and influential publications prior to Seligman’s PP movement launch in 1998. Given that science by nature is incremental and integrative, it is not helpful for PP researchers to only focus on recent publications by members of the PP community. Such myopic view of the literature is partially responsible for the backlash against PP. A maturing PP needs to avoid this problem. This paper is also guilty of this problem. It seems fair that the authors need to be familiar with the existential literature (e.g., Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Pattakos & Dundon, 2014; Wong, 2012a; etc.) when they want to tackle existential meaning.

In fact, the literature review was done selectively and inadequately. Here are some examples of inadequate or mischaracterized citations:

  1. How can Heintzelman and King (2014) be the key reference on meaning as “a central human motive” when, even according to the authors, this article actually highlights meaning as the “intuitive feelings that things make sense”? In fact, Brown and Wong (2015) have criticized Heintzelman and King for focusing on cognitive meaning rather than existential meaning. Any person familiar with the literature of existential meaning would have cited Frankl (1985) as the most influential person who first proposed that meaning as both a primary and central human motivation.
  2. McKnight and Kashdan (2009) is a general review of purpose, not a key reference to goal striving. Either Emmons (2005) or Sheldon and Kasser (2001) would have been a more appropriate citation.
  3. Reker and Wong (1988) propose a tripartite model of meaning; its focus is not only on “feeling fulfillment.”
  4. Ryff’s (1989) psychological well-being scale is a multidimensional scale; her “purpose” subscale cannot be criticised as a unidimensional because, of course, all subscales, include those of the MEMS, are unidimensional.
  5. Wong (1998a) is about a multidimensional measure of meaning (i.e., PMP). The statement, “At present, I find my life very meaningful” is not part of the PMP, but rather part of the Perceived Meaning Test, which served as part of the validity test for the PMP. It is also strange that the value of the PMP and Wong’s (1988b) PURE model were not considered in the discussion of the contributions of multidimensional models to our understanding of existential meaning; do the authors have any justification for these omissions?
  6. The importance of meaning is especially in making sense of trauma or suffering (Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson, 1998; Frankl, 1985; Janoff-Bulman, 2010). In fact, there is a large literature on the vital role of meaning in contributing to resilience and transforming suffering into character strengths.

The authors’ inadequate literature review is partially responsible for their conceptual problems, outlined below.

Conceptual Problems

The authors have not really addressed the conceptual difficulties of existential meaning. Please read the introduction for the second edition of Human Quest for Meaning (Wong, 2012b) for a detailed discussion of these conceptual difficulties.

It is perfectly legitimate to define existential meaning in terms of understanding, purpose, and sense of significance because there is sufficient literature supporting the importance of these three dimensions (Martela & Steger, 2016; Reker & Wong, 1988; Wong, 1998a).

The main problem with the authors’ conceptualization is that they fail to have a deeper understanding of a broader existential psychology literature; as a result, their characterization of these three main themes is both superficial and partial. This conceptual problem provides a questionable foundation for item generation and theoretically oriented test construction.

The authors also need to justify why they equated existential meaning with “meaning in life” (p. 1). Existential meaning has to do with the meaning of one’s life as a whole and human existence; it cannot be simply defined in terms of cognitive understanding of the order and pattern of life, having a purpose in life, and having a subjective sense of mattering, because a Hitler or a drug lord could also score high on all three subscales, but no reasonable person would consider their lives as examples of meaningfulness. A meaningful life is always related to some positive and objective value to the individual and society.

I agree with the authors that a multi-dimensional approach to existential meaning is needed, but I am not sure whether, as they assume, their tripartite model of existential meaning is the answer. They need to justify how it is better than rival multi-dimensional models (Reker & Peacock, 1981; Reker & Wong, 1988; Wong, 1998a [PMP], 1998b [PURE model]). For instance, Reker and Wong (1988) have also proposed a three-factor model: cognition (e.g., cognizance of order, coherence, purpose), motivation (pursuit and attainment of worthwhile goals), and emotion (sense of fulfillment and significance).

Procedural Problems

Both the data collection procedure and the test construction procedure were not clearly described to allow for replication. The procedure of reliability and validity needs to conform to the standard way of reporting, starting with descriptive statistics followed by inferential statistics.

In addition, from the standpoint of test construction, it seems very strange that the authors focused on demonstrating the need for three subscales before they demonstrated the validity of the overall scale. If the MEMS as a whole is not valid, then there is no point in demonstrating the validity of the subscales.

Test Construction Problems

I am wondering who generated the 43 items for the three subscales? Was this done by the two authors? If this was the case, it might account for the absence of items germane to existential meaning. Below, I have come up with an alternative list of items that is informed by existential psychology. The authors can readily see the difference.

I am also wondering who were the “experts” who were asked to provide feedback to their test items. I would appreciate it if the authors could provide names of these experts. My hunch was that none of them was an existential psychologist; otherwise, they would have questioned the lack of major themes of existential meaning in their items.

In the case of developing a valid intelligence test, one cannot claim that intelligence is what intelligence test measures. One needs to examine all the relevant research on the theories and empirical research on intelligence in order to yield a reliable and valid IQ test. By the same token, in order to develop a valid measure of existential meaning, one has to examine all the relevant research. If one only has a superficial understanding of existential meaning and arbitrarily generates items to fit one’s limited conception of existential meaning, it is unlikely that the resulting measure would be valid and useful.

Subscales: Comprehension

The first subscale of comprehension mainly consists of rephrasing the assertion that “my life makes sense” without any reference to the main themes of existential understanding, such as understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses, understanding the world in which one lives and knowing how one fits in, and understanding one’s meaning and calling in life. That’s why, in Reker and Wong (1988), the cognitive dimension includes all these areas. Simply making abstract affirmation statements such as “My life makes sense” has the same problem as the statement “I feel my life as meaning,” which was criticized by the authors as having no content. In fact, I’m not sure whether “comprehension” is the correct label for the first subscale.

Generally, “comprehension” connotes the idea of “complete understanding.” Unfortunately, real life is full of absurdity and mysteries; many events and issues related to being human cannot be fully understood. That is why “sense-making” is vital to meaning and well-being. For example, we try to understand why our application for a scholarship or a job is rejected. We try to understand why our marriage relationship is falling apart. We also struggle with the problem of suffering and ask, “Why me?” “Why is life so unfair?” That is why we often resort to religious faith, myths, or meta-narratives to make sense of our existence. Attribution research has shown that we constantly interpret the motives and behaviours of others in addition to attributing meaning to events. Therefore, this subscale should take into account sense-making, which is the most salient existential theme.

Subscales: Purpose

The second subscale of purpose focuses on the pursuit of goals, but, according to existential meaning, only certain goals are significant and worthwhile. Emmons (2005) conceptualizes meaning in people’s lives in terms of pursuits of personally significant goals: “Development of goals that allow for a greater sense of purpose in life is one of the cornerstones of well-being” (p. 734). Emmons’s four areas of meaningful pursuit are work, intimacy, spirituality, and transcendence, which cover much of the same terrain as Wong’s (1998a) eight sources of meaning. Therefore, all goals are not equal; goals need to be personally and objectively worthwhile and significant. In fact, according to PP research, meaning comes from pursuing goals that are greater than oneself (Seligman, 2004). Such self-transcendent goals are essential for conferring meaning, but there is no reference to goal striving towards self-transcendence.

Subscales: Mattering

With respect to meaning of life, there are two philosophical stances: the supernaturalist position believes that life has inherent and ultimate meaning, even in the larger scheme of things (e.g., William James, Frankl, Emmons), while the naturalist position believes that life has no meaning, and we have to create meaning to make life worthwhile (e.g., Camus, Sartre, Yalom).

The third subscale of mattering (or significance) almost exclusively focuses on spiritual and transcendent views that reflect a supernaturalist perspective. This is unfair because people who take a naturalist perspective can also live a life of significance as I indicate in my alternative list of items for the subscale of mattering below.

In fact, according to my alternative subscale, mattering is present in both the “understanding” and “purpose” subscales; a sense of significance of one’s existence is the sine qua non of existential meaning because it is an essential facet of both the purpose dimension and the understanding dimension.

Overall Critique of Subscales

In sum, the main problem with the MEMS is that the test items generated do not properly reflect the essential features of existential meaning and the major themes in existential psychology. The authors claimed that their two subscales of comprehension and purpose were superior to Reker’s two similar dimensions because the latter emerge from a comprehensive measure of Frankl’s theory. I am wondering why the authors’ arbitrarily created subscales that lack any theoretical base should be superior to Reker’s dimensions.

Moreover, some of the items really sound contrived and unrealistic. I have interviewed thousands of people regarding their understanding of existential meaning, and no one really believes that “Even a thousand years from now, it would still matter whether I existed or not” (Item #4). Similarly, no one has ever said that “Whether my life ever existed matters even in the grand scheme of the universe” (Item #11). Does it mean that the universe would be affected if I was not born? Such items are so abstract and hypothetical that they have little relevance to people’s existential concerns in real life.

Alternative Subscales

I have generated the following items just to demonstrate what they look like when there are informed by the literature of existential psychology.


  1. I know my role in life.
  2. My purpose in life is discovering my gifts and giving it to the world.
  3. I spend much time trying to figure out what I’m good at and passionate about.
  4. I know that I am responsible for choosing my own future.
  5. I make sense of my life even when it is unfair and absurd.
  6. I need faith or myths to gain understanding of the mysteries of human existence.
  7. Even when I feel confused and lost, I know that I will eventually discover my direction.
  8. I know for what reason I live.
  9. To be aware of my weakness and the dark side is just as important as knowing my strengths in order to live an authentic life.
  10. Confronting the reality of death makes me more aware of my responsibility to make the best of my time and live a worthy life.


  1. I want to pursue something greater than myself.
  2. I try to discover my calling or mission at different stages of my life.
  3. There is more to life than making a good living or having fun; it involves making a contribution to humanity.
  4. One of my significant life goals is to know and serve God or a high calling.
  5. I intentionally get engaged only with people and things that matter to me.
  6. I strive to live even when life is hard because I want to pursue my worthy life goal.


  1. My life is full of people that matter to me.
  2. I want my life to be a positive and lasting legacy to others.
  3. Many people care about my well-being.
  4. I prefer to work at a place where I matter even when the pay is less competitive.
  5. I would feel that my life really matters if I have touched other people’s lives and made the world a better place.
  6. My sense of significance comes from being aware of my uniqueness and singularity in this world.
  7. My sense of fulfillment comes from achieving excellence in my work.
  8. Being loved by my family and friends gives me a deep sense of fulfillment.

I challenge the authors to mix my items with their items and submit the new list to their original group of “experts” and a new group of “experts” in existential psychology (e.g., Gary Reker, Kerry Chamberlain, Robert Neimeyer, Daniel Shek, Alfred Langle, Dmitry Leontiev, Alexander Batthyany). These “experts” will be asked to rate the face validity of these items. They will be told, “Please rate each item on a 5-point scale from ‘not at all’ to ‘a great extent’ of how well each item clarifies the nature of existential meaning.”

If the average rating of the author’s items is statistically no different than mine, then I will withdraw my critique of their procedure of item generation and item selection. If my items are significantly better rated than theirs, then it would be scientifically honest to revise their original test and go through the same procedure of factor analysis, reliability testing, and validity testing. This is the normal course of action for test construction.


Another critique is that the sample completely consists of undergraduate students with a mean age of 19. At such a young age, most of them are still trying to figure out who they are, what they want to do with their lives after graduation, and how to fit in in this complex and quickly-changing world. After teaching and counselling students for more than 30 years, I have never heard any student who said, “My life makes sense.” It would be more accurate to say something along the lines of “I am trying to make sense of my life even when life often seems unfair and crazy.” For example, take someone who, after many years of study in one field, graduates only to discover that the field is no longer hiring because of changes in technology or macro trends.

Test Validation Problems

The authors state that the “goal of this paper was to examine the possibility of differential relationships and the utility of the MEMS in exploring such possibilities” (p. 27). This goal is not meaningful until they have demonstrated the validity of the scale.

The authors also state that “the MEMS subscales had a theoretically meaningful factor structure” (p. 27). This statement is questionable because the subscales were constructed based on a biased and limited conception of the three dimensions as criticised earlier.

The authors claim that the relationships found between the MEMS and well-being variables support the validity of the MEMS subscales (p. 25). However, I question this assertion for two reasons: first, the subscales are based on a partial and superficial understanding of the constructs; and second, the variables hypothesized to be related to these subscales are neither theoretically meaningful nor empirically grounded with respect to existential meaning.

For example, to establish the validity, it seems logical to correlate the Comprehension Subscale with the Sense of Coherence Scale (Antonovsky, 1993). I am wondering why the authors did not use this scale for their validity tests, especially when Martela and Steger (2016) used the term “coherence” to describe their cognitive dimension of existential meaning.

I am interested in an explanation from the authors why they chose the Dogmatism Scale instead. Is there any evidence in the literature that a sense of coherence is related to dogmatism? In fact, according to existential psychology, the opposite is true. One of the main themes of existential psychology and philosophy is that in order to make sense of life, one needs to be open to life experiences and be open-minded in making sense of life experiences. It is more likely that existential meaning is related to “openness” from the Big 5 Personality Factors than dogmatism.

The authors also hypothesize that the purpose subscale is related to sensitivity towards reward and punishment. This is also a questionable hypothesis, because meaning-oriented purpose, in contrast to success-oriented purpose, is intrinsic, not contingent on reward and punishment (Wong, 2012c). Emmons’ (2005) goal striving analysis would be a more appropriate validity test.

The authors made precise hypotheses that each relevant variable will be related to one subscale more than the other two. But how were these differences tested? According to Table 4, the magnitude of correlation between “dogmatism” and “comprehension” is the same as that between “dogmatism” and “mattering.” The same is true with respect to “self-concept clarity.”

In sum, different relationships of the subscales with different variables say nothing about the validity of the subscales. In fact, they really need to demonstrate the concurrent, discriminant, and predictive validity of the overall scale first.


The authors’ discussion of the limitations of their research seems to be superficial and incomplete. I can see several areas of limitations. First, the authors need to address the limitation of the top-down approach in test construction. When the outcome of the test is completely determined by the researchers’ theoretical concept and instruments designed to measure this concept, we really do not know whether the resulting numbers measure the concept of the researchers or the actual phenomenon based on the experiences of the participants.

An ideal way for test construction should be based on both a top-down and a bottom-up approach (Wong, 1998a; Wong, Reker, & Peacock, 2006). Here is an example of a bottom-up approach. I spent two or three years asking thousands of people from all walks of life and all age groups regarding their implicit beliefs of what makes their life meaningful. Out of the numerous statements, I was able to narrow them down to eight factors (Wong, 1998a). Similarly, Peterson and Park (2014) have also recommended the bottom-up approach. One advantage is that the qualitative bottom-up approach enables researchers to generate items that are related to the real experiences of the participants rather than items that are based on the researchers’ own theoretical arm-chair conceptions.

Another advantage of combining the top-down and bottom-up approaches is that the triangulation of both quantitative and qualitative methods gives us more confidence to the validity of the construct. The authors need to provide an explanation of (1) why they ignored the qualitative literature about existential meaning and (2) why they chose to only adopt the top-down approach.

The second limitation is that their theoretically-based model may not have much utility in the real world. I have counseled hundreds of people struggling with existential issues. For example, a person may think that life is about becoming successful, has lofty aspirations and specific goals, and wants to make a significant impact in the world, but having a high score in all three subscales actually leads them to depression. This is because his success orientation eventually leads to feelings of worthlessness when he fails to achieve his goals. That is why Frankl’s meaning orientation (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2012c) has a greater utility in helping people who feel worthless because of failure for lack of opportunities or competitive abilities.


Given the increasing critique of PP (DeRobertis, 2016; Tavris, 2014), it is important that the authors pay more attention to the construct validity of their theoretical concepts. As DeRobertis (2016) has said, “Humanistic psychologists have repeatedly shown that they have the ability to be visionary, only to have their creativity coopted and bastardized to fit the positivist paradigm” (p. 20).

To publish MEMS will simply encourage the same questionable trend of focusing on crunching numbers without construct validity and generating an endless stream of papers which correlate MEMS with other PP variables. This kind of research will not advance our understanding of existential meaning nor can it contribute to helping people who are struggling with their quest for meaning.

Given the enormity of needs for meaning and wellbeing, we can no longer treat research as a science game to generate more academic papers and more research grants. When we artificially and arbitrarily force a complex and profound construct of a vital human phenomenon into three pigeon holes and then carefully generate items that target these pigeon holes, we can always get a clear factor structure and Cronbach’s alpha as expected. When we correlate these three pigeon holes with a wide variety of variables and show different correlation coefficients, all we have demonstrated is that the three pigeon holes we have created are indeed different from each other, but they tell us very little about the original human phenomenon or the construct, simply because the three pigeon holes lack construct validity.

My critical evaluation of this study partially reflects my larger concerns about the number crunching game with little regard for internal and external validity. We do not solve complex human problems by offering simple solutions. Nor do we understand complex psychological constructs such as existential meaning by offering an arbitrary theoretical definition.

I’m sorry that I could not be more positive in my review. This has not been easy for me. First, I really wish that there be a valid and reliable measure of existential meaning. Second, it took an enormous amount of effort and time for me to do this review because I did it in spite of the pain and fatigue after a major surgery in my old age. For these reasons, I hope that the authors will grant me some grace when responding to my critique. I want to assure them that I will provide whatever help or advice they might need in revising their measure.


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  3. Brown, N. J. L., & Wong, P. T. P. (2015). Questionable measures are pretty meaningless: Comment on Heintzelman and King. American Psychologist, 70(6), 571-573.
  4. Davis, C. G., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Larson, J. (1998). Making sense of loss and benefiting from the experience: two construals of meaning. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(2), 561.
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Wong, P. T. P. (2016). How to measure existential meaning [Review of the manuscript of The Multidimensional Existential Meaning Scale: A tripartite approach to measuring meaning in life*]. Dr. Paul T. P. Wong. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/how-to-measure-existential-meaning

*This manuscript has been published as George, L. S., & Park, C. L. (2016). The Multidimensional Existential Meaning Scale: A tripartite approach to measuring meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1209546