Positive and Existential Psychological Approaches to the Experience of Meaning in Life


The positive psychology and experimental existential psychology movements have greatly advanced our understanding of the variables that augment and detract from the personal experience of meaning in life. In this chapter, we describe differences in these two perspectives. In our view, experimental existential psychologists have primarily examined variables that contribute to a sense of meaninglessness, whereas positive psychologists often place more emphasis on variables that augment one’s belief that his or her life is meaningful. For each of these perspectives, we further describe variables that relate to the experience of meaninglessness and meaningfulness, respectively. Namely, we argue that a lack of personal freedom, social isolation, and self-alienation are three fundamental threats to meaning that, if experienced, evoke a sense of meaninglessness, whereas personal goals and a grand sense of purpose help augment the feeling that life is meaningful. While we do not suggest that these are the only variables that influence perceptions of meaning, based on current findings in the experimental existential and positive psychology literature, we argue that each of these variables represent fundamental contributors to perceptions of meaning (lessness) in life. Overall, we believe psychologists from both existential and positive psychology perspectives have made great contributions to help us understand the causes and consequences of the experience of meaning in life. This brief chapter represents an initial step to help differentiate these two complimentary perspectives in hopes of generating research ideas for scholars across disciplines.

Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology