The Hardest Things We Do In Life Might Bring Us The Most Meaning

Psychologist Brodie Dakin explains how meaningfulness differs from happiness, and why that matters.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 24, 2022

A new study published in PLOS ONE explains how a life lived meaningfully (as opposed to a life lived for pleasure) is rooted in other-focused behaviors that usually come at a personal cost.

I recently spoke to psychologist Brodie Dakin of the University of Queensland in Australia to understand how humans derive meaning out of effortful and sometimes difficult endeavors. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of life meaning and its relationship to costly prosocial behaviors?

I am interested in exploring existential questions using psychological methods: is life meaningful, and if it is, what makes it so?

Through reading existential and religious philosophers, I became interested in the hypothesis that we fundamentally achieve a sense of meaning in life through positive, helpful relations with others.

This is an old idea that exists in several spiritual and philosophical traditions.

However, it has seen limited empirical investigation. So, our research team set out to empirically study whether our sense of (and search for) meaning is positively related to prosocial behaviors.

Part of the broader project was testing whether people experience heightened meaning from enacting prosocial behaviors. Then we further tested if people searching for meaning were more likely to enact prosocial behaviors (due to their meaningfulness).

'Costliness' entered into it when we realized that behaviors that are more sacrificial, effortful, and demanding of the self are perceived as more meaningful.

So, we hypothesized that people searching for meaning might be more attracted to performing costlier prosocial behaviors, as these behaviors are seen as the most meaningful.

Could you briefly explain how you defined meaning in your study?

Following Michael Steger's work, we defined meaning in life as the aggregate of one's sense of purpose, significance, and coherence.

When considering how prosociality is relevant to meaning, I believe that 'significance' is the element in meaning that is most important.

People may feel that their own life is significant because it makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

There are slightly different elements of meaning in life provided by Baumeister (1991), and Morgan and Farsides (2009). However, they generally share a similar structure to the one we used.

You state that the value of an action is moderated by how much it costs to enact it. Could you elaborate on this?

Behaviors that provide meaning often do not come easy.

When we look at the most meaningful endeavors that exist cross-culturally (e.g., heroism, parenthood, educational and occupational achievement, cultural rituals, etc.) they almost always involve clear elements of costliness, be it pain, expenditure of energy, time, or resources, or some other kind of sacrifice.

So from this, we argued that the meaningfulness of an action will be strongly moderated or determined by how costly it is for the actor. Part of the explanation for this effect is through cognitive dissonance, where we attribute more value or meaning to things as a way of justifying their costliness.

Costlier, effortful behavior may also be meaningful because they are more likely to lead to a sense of competence if completed.

Finally, undergoing difficult endeavors with other people seems to build strong social bonding, which is a powerful source of meaning. So these are some of the theoretical reasons why high-cost actions may be more meaningful than low-cost actions.

What are the differences and similarities between the search for meaning and the pursuit of happiness?

Compared to the definition of meaning provided above, happiness can be defined as the experience of positive emotions (e.g., joy, pleasure) and the absence or near absence of negative emotions (stress, sadness, etc.).

The similarity between searching for meaning and pursuing happiness is that both involve striving to improve one's subjective quality of life.

I believe that they differ in two important respects:

  1. First, striving for meaning may orient one outwards toward concern for others, while searching for happiness may involve more self-focus
  2. Second, a lot of research shows that pursuing happiness too intently may ironically lead to less happiness. However, I think that the pursuit of meaning is more hopeful if it orients people to do things to improve the world and the lives of others.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on meaning in life?

The findings of this paper join with and extend two separate research programs, one of searching for meaning, and the other on the relationship between prosociality and meaning.

Our findings extend previous empirical work on searching for meaning, which has largely shown that meaning-seeking is related to negative things, like poorer well-being, and an inclination toward extremism.

Our findings show that searching for meaning can also be associated with positive outcomes, such as costly prosocial behaviors.

The findings also connect with previous research, such as work by Daryl Van Tongeren, and Frank Martela, that displays the intimate connection between our sense of meaning and having positive relationships with the world and other people.

Considering your results, how would you recommend someone to instill meaning within their lives?

The results of our paper add to a broader research program indicating that we experience greater meaning in life when we live our life in dedication towards others or improving the world.

So the key to finding meaning in life may ironically come from spending less time and energy concerned with oneself and more time actively contributing to the lives of others through prosocial actions.

It further suggests that actions which are difficult and call for personal sacrifice may be the most meaningful and worth enacting.