When we think about lives filled with meaning, we often focus on people whose grand contributions benefited humanity. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela surely felt they had a worthwhile life. But how about us ordinary people, toiling away in a typical existence?
Many scholars agree that a subjectively meaningful existence often boils down to three factors: the feeling that one’s life is coherent and “makes sense,” the possession of clear and satisfying long-term goals and the belief that one’s life matters in the grand scheme of things. Psychologists call these three things coherence, purpose and existential mattering.
But we believe there is another element to consider. Think about the first butterfly you stop to admire after a long winter or imagine the scenery atop a hill after a fresh hike. Sometimes existence delivers us small moments of beauty. When people are open to appreciating such experiences, these moments may enhance how they view their life. We call this element experiential appreciation. The phenomenon reflects the feeling of a deep connection to events as they transpire and the ability to extract value from that link. It represents the detection of and admiration for life’s inherent beauty.
We recently set out to better understand this form of appreciation in a series of studies, published in Nature Human Behaviour, that involved more than 3,000 participants. Across these studies, we were interested in whether experiential appreciation was related to a person’s sense of meaning even when we accounted for the effects of the classic trio of coherence, purpose and existential mattering. If so, experiential appreciation could be a unique contributor to meaningfulness and not simply a product of these other variables.
As an initial test of our idea, during the early stages of the COVID pandemic, we had participants rate their endorsement of different coping strategies to relieve their stress. We found that people who managed stress by focusing on their appreciation for life’s beauty also reported experiencing life as highly meaningful. In the next study, we asked participants to rate the extent to which they agreed with various statements, such as “I have a great appreciation for the beauty of life” and “I appreciate a wide variety of experiences,” as well as other statements that related to coherence, purpose, existential mattering and a general sense of meaning in life. Our results showed that the more people indicated that they were “appreciating life” and its many experiences, the more they felt their existence was valuable. In fact, these two elements related strongly to each other even when we controlled for other aspects of a meaningful life. In subsequent studies, we further explored the connection between these concepts. For example, we found that participants asked to recall the most meaningful event of the past week generally reported high experiential appreciation in those moments.
Finally, we conducted a series of experiments in which we gave people specific tasks and, once more, asked them to report how strongly they identified with statements linked to purpose, mattering, et cetera. In one case, we found that participants who watched an awe-inspiring video, such as the opening sequence of the BBC documentary Planet Earth, reported having a greater sense of experiential appreciation and meaning in life, compared with participants who watched more neutral videos, such as an instructional woodworking video. Similarly, participants who wrote about a recent experience for which they were grateful had a greater sense of meaning and experiential appreciation afterward when compared with participants who simply wrote about a common place they had visited in the past week.
The results confirmed our original theory: appreciating small things can make life feel more meaningful. But applying that insight can be difficult. Our modern, fast-paced, project-oriented lifestyles fill the day with targets and goals. We are on the go, and we attempt to maximize output both at work and at leisure. This focus on future outcomes makes it all too easy to miss what is happening right now. Yet life happens in the present moment. We should slow down, let life surprise us and embrace the significance in the everyday. As former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1950, “We live in a wonderful world.... There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at firstname.lastname@example.org.