Think about the most meaningful experiences in your life. You will probably recall your wedding, or a trip across Europe, or your first skydive. You won't name brushing your teeth. Yet recent research suggests that the mundane regularities of life can very much contribute to your overall sense of meaning.
As squishy as the concept sounds, meaning in life is an integral part of our well-being. Research has associated it with good mental health, success at work and longevity. Psychologists have proposed three aspects: significance, purpose and coherence. In other words, life is meaningful when it feels important, when it seems to have a point and when it makes sense. The first two aspects have been widely studied, but the contribution of coherence was not directly tested until 2013, when University of Missouri psychologists Samantha Heintzelman, Jason Trent and Laura King reported in Psychological Science that even a simple visual pattern can engender larger meaning.
In the paper, 77 subjects looked at 16 photographs of trees, ordered randomly or according to the seasons. Those who saw the seasonal pattern reported that they found life more meaningful than the other subjects, as measured by a questionnaire completed shortly after the visual task. Another 229 volunteers saw triads of words for a few seconds at a time; some were semantically connected (for example, falling, actor and dust could each pair with star); others were not. Those who saw the coherent sets of words similarly reported life to have more value than did those who had seen random words.
Heintzelman and King reported last year in American Psychologist that people in general find life pretty meaningful. “So combining those two lines of thought,” Heintzelman says, “that meaning is common and that it can be drawn from coherence, we started to think, what are the coherent aspects of our daily lives?”
One answer lies in routines. In work presented in February at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers asked subjects to complete five mazes. For some, all the mazes had similar solutions, thus inducing a habit. These subjects then reported greater meaning in life. The scientists also reported at the conference that they found that people who said they do “pretty much the same things every day,” according to a survey of daily routines, found life more meaningful, even after the researchers controlled for mindfulness, positivity and religiousness.
The notion that meaning can be found in mundane habits and patterns is a bit surprising, Heintzelman says: “It's not the way that we've historically thought about meaning in life. It sort of knocks it off its pedestal.”
Stepping away from trees, triads and weird mazes, Heintzelman suggests we might find meaning by maintaining a tidy office, keeping a daily schedule, having weekly dinners with friends or driving the same route every day. “The applications sort of jump out,” she says. The coherence of an ordered life also lays the groundwork for pursuit of larger goals—and thus the equally important aspects of purpose and significance.