Man’s Search for Meaning

Autumn Trees, by Katharine Blackwell.

Autumn Trees, by Katharine Blackwell.

Imagine a tree in the vibrant colors of autumn, a cool fire of red and yellow and orange. Now imagine that same tree in spring, small buds peeking forth from the branches and the sounds of birdsong in the air. And in winter, bare branches against a gray sky, perhaps coated in a layer of ice. Finally in summer, green leaves everywhere and a chance for shade from the July heat.

There’s a good chance that I just made your life seem just a little less meaningful.

No, I don’t think that I have prompted some epiphany in your mind that might cause you to think that you have not done enough work for the greater good of humanity. I don’t think I’ve even prompted you to wish it were a different season. The change is nothing you’d be conscious of; it’s just that if I asked you to rate your agreement that you’ve found meaning or a clear sense of purpose in your life, you’d pick a slightly lower number immediately after thinking about those seasons out of order than you would if we’d progressed through the seasons in order.

Many things contribute to our sense of meaning, but one key factor seems to be that we think our lives are meaningful when they “make sense”. If we can tell ourselves a coherent story about our lives, then those lives have meaning. And either seeing pictures out of order pinches our sense of coherence, or seeing the pictures in order boosts coherence, or both – just enough for us to see a difference in perceptions of meaning, for a few minutes after those pictures are viewed.

It’s all unconscious, and it doesn’t depend on any storytelling feature about the seasons or a sense of time passing. The same adjustment to our meaning of life can be found by skipping pretty pictures of the seasons, either. Let’s play again. Just read these words:

duck            fold            dollar

dew            comb            bee

worm            shelf            end

This time, I hope I have restored the meaningfulness of your life. You may not have noticed it, but each triplet of words is connected; they’re chosen from the  remote associates test, where a fourth word connects the words of each trio (for the first trio, it’s “bill”: duckbill, billfold, dollar bill). People who read lists like this rated their lives as being just a little more meaningful than people who read unconnected trios (such as “belt deal nose”).

What can we do with this knowledge? I wouldn’t suggest the remote associates test as a cure the next time you feel you’ve lost your purpose in life, nor would I suggest you go looking around for recent examples of incoherence to blame. But it’s worth knowing that such seemingly simple things might just promote satisfaction or dissatisfaction – and perhaps looking for some coherence in your life itself, or the story you tell about it, will be the path to greater meaning.
Heintzelman, S., Trent, J., & King, L. (2013). Encounters With objective coherence and the experience of meaning in life. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612465878


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