When having meaning in life helps – and why

This blog examines the search for meaning in life and gives an explanation for why people seek meaning.  Briefly, modern life (relative to our hunter-gatherer past) places people in an uncertain position, and meaning in life can give us a sense that difficulties in life will pay-off.

Is there a meaning in life?  Many people feel there is.  Celebrities from Kanye West to George Lucas can give you some kind of answer.  Monty Python made a movie in the 80’s about it.  There is even a wikiHow page on how to find meaning in life.  Clearly with Kanye and wikiHow on the case, it must be an important issue. 

Research also seems to indicate that having meaning in life is important.  For example, people report more happiness in life if they have found meaning (Steger & Kashdan, 2007).  However, not all people seem to need meaning in life.  For example, people faced with traumas do not seem to search for any meaning (Davis, Wortman, Lehman, & Silver, 2000).  Moreover, some people say they never search for meaning and are just as happy as people who have meaning in life. 

So, what gives?  Do we need meaning or not? 

To understand why people say they need meaning, it might be useful to think about the environment humans evolved in (Martin, 1999, Martin, et al., 2013).  Humans started off as hunter-gatherers, and we can imagine the lives of ancient humans by looking at groups that still follow that lifestyle.  We might imagine that hunting and foraging all of the time is hard, but in many ways it is probably easier.  They need surprisingly little time for hunting or searching for food.  A substantial portion of time is spent socializing with others or playing games.

What is really amazing is that hunter-gatherers seem to perceive the world very differently than we do.  They see the world as purely a matter of the present.  Their hunting plans for that day pay off or don’t relatively quickly.  If the group isn’t working out for someone, that person can leave and join another group.  They live in what is called an “Immediate Return” world.  The outcomes of their activities are known relatively quickly so hunter-gatherers can adapt as needed to changes in the environment. 

Compare that to the modern world we live in.  Our world is focused on the future.  We engage in long-term activities that have consequences that may not be known for years or decades.  Think of going to college.  We have to choose a major and work hard in classes for years before we get our degrees.  Then, we have to make a resume and apply to jobs, uncertain if we will get one. 

We live in what can be called a “Delayed Return” world.  Many things we do, like going to college or saving for retirement, are long-term goals that have uncertain pay-offs at the end.  In order to compensate for that uncertainty, we have developed justifying beliefs and social arrangements that make us feel better about life.  We structure life with legal, binding contracts with schools and employers to assure scholarships and retirement plans, respectively. 

My colleagues and I thought that meaning in life might serve as a justifying belief, making uncertainty in the present seem like it will pay-off in the future.  So, our modern (“Delayed Return”) world may put people in a position where having meaning in life is helpful.  However, in our hunter-gatherer (“Immediate Return”) past people probably did not need meaning, as they focused on their personal experience in the present moment. 

To study this hypothesis, we had some participants write about an activity they do for an experience (e.g. reading for fun) and some write about an activity they do to reach a future goal (e.g. reading to get a good grade).  We found a significant correlation between having meaning in life and happiness when people wrote about a future goal, but not when they focused on an experience (Martin, et al., forthcoming, Martin, et al., 2013).  In another study, we had participants read statements reflecting Immediate-Return values (e.g. long-term contracts restrict freedom) or Delayed-Return values (e.g. long-term contracts assure payoffs).  Again, we found that there was a greater correlation between having meaning and happiness when thinking about a Delayed-Return world than an Immediate-Return world.    

It seems that meaning in life is important primarily when people are working for future payoffs that are uncertain.  However, people who are focused on their present experience don’t need a meaning in life.  If you are reading to get a good grade, having a sense of meaning can make all that work seem like it will produce a good outcome.  If you are reading just for fun, then the experience itself is rewarding. 

So, do we need a meaning in life?  Yes and no.  The thing about modern life is that it is full of experiences that are focused on an uncertain future.  With tumultuous world events and an uncertain economy, the situation can only be exacerbated.  Having meaning in life can help you justify dealing with stress now in exchange for future pay-offs.  However, having meaning in life is not the end-all-be-all some people might make it out.  When we can relax and focus on our life experience, by reading or playing guitar, we might find that meaning doesn’t matter much at all.


Davis, C. G., Wortman, C. B., Lehman, D. R., & Silver, R.C. (2000). Searching for meaning in loss: Are clinical assumptions correct? Death Studies, 24, 497-540.

Martin, L. L. (1999). I‑D compensation theory: Some implications of trying to satisfy immediate‑return needs in a delayed‑return culture. Psychological Inquiry, 10, 195‑208.

Martin, L. L., Anderson, W. C., Kulkarni, A., Sanders, M. A., Burgin, C. J., & Shirk, S. D. (2013).  Finding life satisfaction beyond meaning:  An I-D Compensation perspective.  In Batthany, A. & Russo-Netzer, P. (Eds.), Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology.

Steger, M. F., & Kashdan, T. B. (2007). Stability and specificity of meaning in life and life satisfaction over one year. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 161-179.