Keywords

Meaning in life, purpose in life, psychometrics, positive psychology

Heintzelman and King (2014) argued that meaning in life (MIL) is widely experienced and exists at high levels. In this brief commentary, we examine what we believe are several flaws in their argument: a lack of clarity in defining MIL; the questionable validity of the instruments used to measure MIL throughout Heintzelman and King’s article; and an erroneous interpretation of quantitative reports of MIL from surveys and the academic literature.

Definition of MIL

We concur with Heintzelman and King’s (2014) assertion that a meaningful life is one that has purpose, has significance, and “is comprehensible, and characterized by regularity, predictability, or reliable connections” (p. 562). However, we are concerned that they focused excessively on the cognitive aspects of regularity at the expense of existential aspects of coherence. This contrasts with King’s (2001) demonstration of the need for effort in the face of adversity to attain a sense of narrative coherence from one’s chaotic life. We see no logical or empirical reason to generalize findings of associative regularity in the physical environment to the persistent deep yearning for purpose, value, and significance in our personal lives.

Heintzelman and King (2014, p. 568) noted that people’s “beliefs may not align with abstract scholarly conceptualizations” and suggested that it is important to “capture an experience that people have, not one that psychologists invented.” We agree with this stated aim; indeed, Wong’s (1998) implicit meaning research was precisely based on his attempt to capture the lived experience of people, rather than relying on abstract concepts of MIL invented by psychologists. However, we suggest that it is actually Heintzelman and King who have employed abstract conceptualizations, as evidenced by their definitions and their use of a number of different measures of MIL to support their idea that high levels of meaning are widespread. They seemed to tacitly acknowledge this when they discussed—albeit rather tentatively—the possibility that these apparently high levels of meaning might be the result of response biases, positive illusions, or the limitations of self-report measures.

We also agree that MIL as a lived experience is necessarily a subjective state. However, this is only part of the story. We would argue that for meaning research to make progress and to answer people’s persistent existential questions, such as “What makes life meaningful?” or “How can I live a meaningful life?”—we need rigorous scientific research into the objective content and conditions of MIL. Such an objective approach would allow us to distinguish the life of the brutal dictator or the indolent couch potato from that of the accomplished scientist or dedicated philanthropist, even though they might all claim that their lives are pretty meaningful. The objective definition of meaning depends on what people do, rather than what they think.

Validity of Measures

Heintzelman and King (2014) examined studies that used either the Purpose in Life Test (PIL) or the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ) to measure MIL. We question these choices, for two reasons. First, the validity of the PIL is disputed. For example, Reker and Cousins (1979) found that it had six distinct factors, and Dyck (1987) argued that it is really an indirect measure of depression. Second, Heintzelman and King excluded studies based on other well-validated measures of MIL, such as the Personal Meaning Profile (Wong, 1998) or the Life Attitude Profile–Revised (Reker, 1992). The inclusion of these measures would have given a more balanced view of the contemporary state of MIL research.

Interpretation of Results from MIL Scales

We also question Heintzelman and King’s (2014) apparent assumptions about the properties of the psychometric tests used in the surveys and empirical studies they examined. They focused on the fact that respondents consistently gave answers whose means were above the midpoints of the respective scales used. However, unless a scale measures a real-world phenomenon that is characterized by a skewless normal distribution, there is no a priori reason to expect that the mean will be near the midpoint. Indeed, Heintzelman and King themselves noted that results above the midpoint of the PIL were observed even among hospitalized alcoholics; to imply that the levels of MIL of such patients are therefore “high” is surely to invite the question, “Compared with whom?” Until the “units” of MIL are defined, the labels and bounds of any scale claiming to measure it are necessarily arbitrary (cf. Murphy & Reiner, 1984).

Why, then, should people show a preference for answers that place them high on the scale of possible responses about their experience of MIL? It is well known that self-ratings of positive psychological states and traits, such as happiness or optimism, tend to show a positivity bias. We see no reason why that should not extend to those measures of MIL—including those used or cited by Heintzelman and King (2014)—that do not demand a high degree of introspection from participants, and hence do not challenge their need to maintain their positive self-concept. Without the use of measures specifically designed to measure negative states (e.g., Reker, 1992), Heintzelman and King’s provocative assertions about the apparent absence of an existential vacuum or other deficiencies of meaning in people’s existence are analogous to claiming that there is no evidence of depression when most people give responses above the midpoint in responses to surveys of happiness.

Conclusion

Heintzelman and King (2014) concluded that MIL is a necessity for human life, and hence that it must be widespread. We consider this argument to be merely a straw man. Although a chronic absence of meaning is undesirable and may lead to mental health problems—typified by Frankl’s (1967) “noogenic neurosis”—MIL is clearly not a biological necessity for life; after all, humans are closely biologically related to many life forms that lack any capacity for self-reflection. It is thus entirely possible for MIL to be widely lacking, even among people who seem to function “normally” at a superficial level. Heintzelman and King’s comment seems to reflect a lack of understanding of the concepts of the existential vacuum and meaninglessness, which, in turn, underscores the importance of conceptual clarity in defining MIL. Meaning, at a cognitive level, is an evolutionary necessity for survival, because it allows us to make sense of the environment so that we can predict and control it. In contrast, existential meaning—having a sense of coherence, or of making a valuable contribution to society—has more to do with flourishing than mere physical survival. Indeed, we believe that—far from being an exception to any general prevalence of meaning—the almost 40,000 annual suicides in the United States alone may be the tip of an iceberg of lack of meaning. As both existentialists and scientists, we are concerned that Heintzelman and King’s article, with its considerable methodological limitations, and, in our opinion, dismissive attitude toward the struggle of those philosophers and psychologists who have made the question of existential anxiety their life’s work, may be in danger of trivializing what we consider to be one of the biggest problems facing mental health professionals today.

Author Note

Nicholas J. L. Brown, New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, London, UK; Paul T. P. Wong, Department of Psychology, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada. The preparation of this article was supported by no public or private funding of any kind. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nicholas J. L. Brown (nick.brown@free.fr).

We wish to thank Gary Reker for his helpful comments on a previous draft of this manuscript.

References

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Cite

Brown, N. J. K., & Wong, P. T. P. (2015). Questionable measures are pretty meaningless: Comment on Heintzelman and King (2014). American Psychologist, 70(6), 571-573.