A new dimension to a meaningful life News and research

When we think of lives filled with meaning, we often focus on people whose great efforts benefited humanity. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela certainly felt that they had a valuable life. But what about us ordinary people struggling in a typical life?

Many researchers agree that a subjectively meaningful existence often boils down to three factors: the feeling that one’s life is coherent and “sensible”, the possession of clear and satisfying long-term goals and the belief that one’s life matters in the big system . cases. Psychologists call these three things coherence, purpose, and existential significance.

But we think there is another element to take into account. Think of the first butterfly you stop to admire after a long winter or imagine the landscape on top of a hill after a new hike. Sometimes life gives us small moments of beauty. When people are open to appreciating such experiences, these moments can enhance the way they view their lives. We call this element experiential appreciation. The phenomenon reflects the feeling of a deep connection to events when they occur and the ability to extract value from that link. It represents the discovery of and admiration for the inherent beauty of life.

We recently set out to better understand this form of appreciation in a series of studies, published in Nature Human behavior, which involved more than 3,000 participants. Through 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 classical trio of coherence, purpose, and existential significance. If so, empirical estimation can be a unique contributing factor to meaningfulness and not just a product of these other variables.

As a first test of our idea, during the early stages of the covid pandemic, we asked participants to rate their support for different coping strategies to relieve their stress. We found that people who managed stress by focusing on their appreciation for the beauty of life also reported that they experienced life as very meaningful. In the next study, we asked participants to assess 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 variety of experiences”, as well as other statements. which concerned coherence, purpose, existential concern and a general sense of meaning in life. Our results showed that the more people stated that they “appreciated life” and its many experiences, the more they felt that their existence was valuable. In fact, these two elements were strongly related to each other even when we were checking for other aspects of a meaningful life. In subsequent studies, we further investigated the relationship between these concepts. For example, we found that participants asked to remember the most significant event during the past week generally reported high experiential appreciation in these moments.

Finally, we conducted a series of experiments in which we gave people specific tasks and, once again, asked them to report how strongly they identified with statements related to purpose, meaning, etc. In one case, we found that participants who watched an impressive video, which the opening sequence of the BBC documentary Planet Earth, reported that they had a greater sense of experiential appreciation and meaning in life, compared to participants who watched more neutral videos, such as an instructional video on woodworking. Similarly, participants who wrote about a recent experience that they were grateful for had a greater sense of meaning and experiential appreciation afterwards compared to participants who simply wrote about a regular 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, project-oriented lifestyles fill the day with goals and objectives. We are on the go and we try to maximize results both at work and in our free time. This focus on future results makes it all too easy to miss what’s happening right now. Yet life happens in the present. We should slow down, let life surprise us and embrace the meaning of everyday life. As India’s former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1950, “We live in a wonderful world … There is no end to the adventures we can have if we just seek them with our eyes open.”

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recently reviewed article that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Send suggestions to Scientific Americans Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at pitchmindmatters@gmail.com.

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