The Relationship Between Presence of Meaning, Search for Meaning, and Subjective Well-Being: A Three-Level Meta-Analysis Based on the Meaning in Life Questionnaire

Abstract

Meaning in life can be understood as how much people experience life meaning (i.e., presence of meaning, POM) and how intensely they seek life meaning (i.e., search for meaning, SFM). Previous research has related POM and SFM to the subjective well-being (SWB) of individuals, but the findings are inconsistent. This meta-analysis investigates the overall relationship between POM/SFM and SWB by examining previous studies that have used Steger et al.’s (J Couns Psychol 53:80–93, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.53.1.80) Meaning in Life Questionnaire to assess POM and SFM. Results of 147 studies, reporting 726 effect sizes (N = 92,169), suggest the effect size for the “POM–SWB” relationship is close to medium (ESz = .418, p < .001, 95% CI [.390, .446]). The effect is larger in life satisfaction and cross-sectional studies. The effect size for the “SFM–SWB” association is small (ESz = − .121, p < .001, 95% CI [− .155,− .087]), with the effect being larger for negative affect, cross-sectional studies, and older participants. Interestingly, SFM is related to more SWB in participants from countries that are more collectivistic. This study shows a robust link between presence of life meaning and greater SWB, and that while search for life meaning may be adverse to SWB, the effect is small and conditional.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Data Availability

The data associated with this research are available in the main text and supplemental file.

References

Full list of references included in the meta-analysis are deposited as online supplementary

  1. Andrews, F. M., & Withey, S. B. (1976). Social indicators of well-being. New York: Plenum Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Assink, M., & Wibbelink, C. J. (2016). Fitting three-level meta-analytic models in R: A step-by-step tutorial. The Quantitative Methods for Psychology, 12, 154–174. https://doi.org/10.20982/tqmp.12.3.p154.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Baltes, P. B., & Baltes, M. M. (1990). Psychological perspectives on successful aging: The model of selective optimization with compensation. In P. B. Baltes & M. M. Baltes (Eds.), Successful aging: Perspectives from the behavioral sciences (pp. 11–34). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 608–618). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Begg, C. B. (1994). Publication bias. In H. Cooper & L. V. Hedges (Eds.), The handbook of research synthesis (pp. 399–409). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Cacioppo, J. T., Gardner, W. L., & Berntson, G. G. (1999). The affect system has parallel and integrative processing components: Form follows function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 839–855. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.76.5.839

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Cheung, M. W. L. (2014). Modeling dependent effect sizes with three-level meta-analyses: Astructural equation modeling approach. Psychological Methods, 19, 211–229. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032968.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 155–159. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.112.1.155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. DeNeve, K. M., & Cooper, H. (1998). The happy personality: A meta-analysis of 137 personality traits and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 197–229. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.124.2.197.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Diener, E. D., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71–75. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327752jpa4901_13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276–302. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.125.2.276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Duckworth, A. L., Kim, B., & Tsukayama, E. (2013). Life stress impairs self-control in early adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 608. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00608.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Duval, S., & Tweedie, R. (2000a). A nonparametric “trim and fill” method of accounting for publication bias in meta-analysis. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 95, 89–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/01621459.2000.10473905.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Duval, S., & Tweedie, R. (2000b). Trim and fill: A simple funnel-plot-based method of testing and adjusting for publication bias in meta-analysis. Biometrics, 56, 455–463. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0006-341X.2000.00455.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Egger, M., Smith, G. D., Schneider, M., & Minder, C. (1997). Bias in meta-analysis detected by a simple, graphical test. BMJ, 315(7109), 629–634. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7109.629.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth, and crisis. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Ferguson, C. J., & Brannick, M. T. (2012). Publication bias in psychological science: Prevalence, methods for identifying and controlling, and implications for the use of meta-analyses. Psychological Methods, 17, 120–128. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Field, A. P. (2001). Meta-analysis of correlation coefficients: A Monte Carlo comparison offixed-and random-effects methods. Psychological Methods, 6, 161–180. https://doi.org/10.1037/1082-989X.6.2.161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Heine, S. J., Proulx, T., & Vohs, K. D. (2006). The meaning maintenance model: On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 88–110. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1002_1.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Hofmann, W., Luhmann, M., Fisher, R. R., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Yes, but are they happy? Effects of trait self-control on affective well-being and life satisfaction. Journal of Personality, 82, 265–277. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12050.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hox, J. J., Moerbeek, M., & van de Schoot, R. (2010). Multilevel analysis: Techniques and applications. Abingdon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Hunter, J. E., & Schmidt, F. L. (1990). Methods of meta-analysis: Correcting error and bias inresearch 1ndings. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2005). Positive adjustment to threatening events: An organismic valuing theory of growth through adversity. Review of General Psychology, 9, 262–280. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.9.3.262.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Klinger, E. (1998). The search for meaning in evolutionary perspective and its clinical implications. In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical application (pp. 27–50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Klinger, E. (2008). The search for meaning in evolutionary perspective and its clinical implications. In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Lent, R. W. (2004). Toward a unifying theoretical and practical perspective on well-being and psychosocial adjustment. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51, 482–509. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.51.4.482.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Li, J. B., Delvecchio, E., Lis, A., Nie, Y. G., & Di Riso, D. (2016). Positive coping as mediator between self-control and life satisfaction: Evidence from two Chinese samples. Personality and Individual Differences, 97, 130–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.03.042.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Li, J. B., Salcuni, S., & Delvecchio, E. (2019). Meaning in life, self-control and psychological distress among adolescents: A cross-national study. Psychiatry Research, 272, 122–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2018.12.033

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Lipsey, M. W., & Wilson, D. B. (2001). Practical meta-analysis. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Lovibond, P. F., & Lovibond, S. H. (1995). The structure of negative emotional states: Comparison of the depression anxiety stress scales (DASS) with the beck depression and anxiety inventories. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 335–343. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(94)00075-U.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Lykken, D. (1999). Happiness: What studies on twins show us about nature, nurture, and the happiness set-point. New York, NY: Golden Books.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Lyubomirsky, S., & Lepper, H. S. (1999). A measure of subjective happiness: Preliminary reliability and construct validation. Social Indicators Research, 46, 137–155. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006824100041.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. MacKenzie, M. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Meaning in life: Nature, needs, and myths. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in positive and existential psychology (pp. 25–37). New York: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-0308-5_2.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3–19. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.106.1.3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Moher, D., Shamseer, L., Clarke, M., Ghersi, D., Liberati, A., Petticrew, M., et al. (2015). Preferred reporting items for systematic review and meta-analysis protocols (PRISMA-P) 2015 statement. Systematic Reviews, 4, 1. https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-4053-4-1.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 257–301. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. R Core Team. (2017). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Retrieved from https://www.R-project.org/

  41. Van den Noortgate, W., López-López, J. A., Marín-Martínez, F., & Sánchez-Meca, J. (2013). Three-level meta-analysis of dependent effect sizes. Behavior Research Methods, 45, 576–594. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-012-0261-6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Van Saane, N., Sluiter, J. K., Verbeek, J. H. A. M., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. W. (2003). Reliability and validity of instruments measuring job satisfaction: A systematic review. Occupational Medicine, 53, 191–200. https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqg038.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Viechtbauer, W. (2010). Conducting meta-analyses in R with the metafor package. Journal of Statistical Software, 36, 1–48. https://doi.org/10.18637/jss.v036.i03.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Catapano, R. (2019). It’s not going to be that fun: Negative experiences can add meaning to life. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 11–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.04.014.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063–1070. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.54.6.1063.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Weise, C. W., Tay, L., Duckworth, A. L., D’Mello, S., Kuykendall, L., Hofmann, W., et al. (2018). Too much a good thing? Exploring the inverted-U relationship between self-control and happiness. Journal of Personality, 86, 380–396. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12322.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Weisz, J. R., Kuppens, S., Ng, M. Y., Eckshtain, D., Ugueto, A. M., Vaughn-Coaxum, R., et al. (2017). What five decades of research tells us about the effects of youth psychological therapy: A multilevel meta-analysis and implications for science and practice. American Psychologists, 72, 79–117. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040360.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Westerhof, G. J., Miche, M., Brothers, A. F., Barrett, A. E., Diehl, M., Montepare, J. M., et al. (2014). The influence of subjective aging on health and longevity: A meta-analysis of longitudinal data. Psychology and Aging, 29, 793–802. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038016

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Whitbourne, S. K. (1986). Openness to experience, identity flexibility, and life change in adults. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 163–168. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.50.1.163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Wilson, W. (1967). Correlates of avowed happiness. Psychological Bulletin, 67, 294–306. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0024431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Wong, P. T. P. (2000). Meaning in life and meaning in death in successful aging. In A. Tomer (Ed.), Death attitudes and older adults: Theories, concepts, and application (pp. 23–35). Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Funding

The funding was provided by MOE (Ministry of Education in China) Project of Humanities and Social Sciences (Grant No. 17YJCZH040), National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 31800938), Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province (Grant No. 2018A030313406) and Guangzhou University’s training program for excellent new-recruited doctors (Grant No. YB201707)

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

J-BL contributed to study design, data collection, statistical analyses, data interpretation, and manuscript writing. KD contributed to study design, data interpretation, and manuscript writing. YL contributed to manuscript writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kai Dou.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Li, JB., Dou, K. & Liang, Y. The Relationship Between Presence of Meaning, Search for Meaning, and Subjective Well-Being: A Three-Level Meta-Analysis Based on the Meaning in Life Questionnaire. J Happiness Stud 22, 467–489 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00230-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Meaning in life
  • Life satisfaction, positive affect
  • Negative affect
  • Domain-specific satisfaction
  • Meta-analysis