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Friday, April 9, 2021

The Ordinary Concept of a Meaningful Life

Prinzing, M., De Freitas, J., & Fredrickson, B. 
(2020, May 5). 


The desire for a meaningful life is ubiquitous, yet the ordinary concept of a meaningful life is poorly understood. Across six experiments (total N = 2,539), we investigated whether third-person attributions of meaning depend on the psychological states an agent experiences (feelings of interest, engagement, and fulfillment), or on the objective conditions of their life (e.g., their effects on others). Studies 1a–b found that laypeople think subjective and objective factors contribute independently to the meaningfulness of a person’s life. Studies 2a–b found that positive mental states are thought to make a life more meaningful, even if derived from senseless activities (e.g., hand-copying the dictionary). Studies 3a–b found that agents engaged in morally bad activities are not thought to have meaningful lives, even if they feel fulfilled. In short, both an agents’ subjective mental states and objective impact on the world affect how meaningful their lives appear.

General Discussion

What, according to the ordinary concept, makes a life meaningful?  Studies1a-b found that  laypeople  think positive  mental states (interest,  engagement, fulfillment) can make an agent’s life meaningful. These studies also found that, according to lay assessments, doing something that has value for others can also make an agent’s life meaningful. These findings conflict with the predominant philosophical theories of meaning in life. These theories posit an exclusive role for either positive mental states (subjectivist theories) or objective states of an agent’s life (objectivist theories), or they require that both criteria be met (hybrid theories). In contrast, we found that laypeople think an agent’s life is meaningful when either criterion is met.This indicates that the ordinary concept of a meaningful life does not fit neatly with these three philosophical theories. Instead, they seem to be captured by what we will call the independent-additive theory: subjective factors  (positive mental states like fulfillment) and objective factors (like contribution, sensibility, and morality)each affect the meaningfulness of an agent’s life, and their effects are both independent and additive.  

We investigated the roles of sensibility and morality as plausible boundary conditions for lay attributions of meaningfulness. For sensibility, we saw somewhat mixed results. Study 2a found no evidence that a life characterized by sensible activities (wine connoisseurship) was  seen as more  meaningful than a  life characterized  by senseless  activities(rubber  band collecting). However, Study 2b, with a larger sample and wider variety of vignettes, did find such  an  effect. Nevertheless, in both  studies, fulfilling  lives were seen as  more  meaningful than  unfulfilling  ones—regardless  of  whether  that fulfillment was derived  from sensible  or senseless activities.  Hence, on the ordinary concept, sensibility contributes to meaningfulness, though  not  as  much  as  fulfillment  does. Moreover, in  alignment  with  the independent-additive theory, fulfillment maintains its additive effect, independently of sensibility.  Regarding morality, Studies 3a-b found that morally good lives were viewed as much more meaningful than morally bad ones. In fact, morally bad agents were not thought to live meaningful lives, even if those agents felt very fulfilled. In contrast, morally good agents were seen as having meaningful lives even if they didn’t feel fulfilled.Nevertheless,  though the effect of morality was larger than that of fulfillment, participants still thought that a fulfilled, immoral agent was living more meaningfully than an unfulfilled, immoral agent. Supporting the independent-additive  theory,  the additive  effect  of  fulfillment was independent  of morality.

In short, we identified four factors (fulfillment, contribution, sensibility, and morality) that seem to have independent, additive effects on third-person attributions of meaningfulness.  There  may well be more such  factors.  But  the  evidence  from  these  six experiments supports a model of third-person meaningfulness judgments that—in contrast to subjectivist,  objectivist,  and  hybrid  theories—emphasizes  independent  and  additive  factors that  contribute  to  the  meaning in a person’s life.  We  have called such a model the “independent-additive theory”.