Meaning in Life Can Be Manipulated by Cognitive Scientists

Jackson Pollock

When we are presented with random stimuli, we report lower degrees of meaning in life, research shows.

The experience of life as meaningful or purposeful is important as it is associated with a higher quality of life, better self-reported health, better occupational adjustment, better adaptive coping, lower incidence of psychological disorders, slower age-related cognitive decline, and decreased mortality (Heintzelman et al., 2013).

The experience of meaningfulness involves three themes:

  • Purpose
  • Personal significance
  • Coherence

This article is centered around the third aspect of meaningfulness: coherence. Do we perceive the world to be coherent? The world must show reliable and coherent connections, which we find meaningful, to increase our experience of meaning in life.

Defining what exactly is meaningful is a slightly greater challenge as people experience meaning differently. Meaning may be seen as a constructive process, meaning that people are “meaning makers” themselves. Thus, coherence can be constructed by people, but it is also a characteristic of nature or the environment itself.

Heintzelman and colleagues (2013) suggest that the feeling of meaning  can be increased in both ways. Therefore, people may construct as well as detect meaning.

Meaning can be manipulated in different ways. For example, social exclusion leads to lower meaningfulness of one’s existence, whereas positive emotions lead to feelings of meaningfulness.

Until recently, no studies have examined the impact of stimuli coherence on ratings of meaningfulness. In a new experimental study by Heintzelman and colleagues (2013), participants reported higher degrees of meaning in life when they experienced coherence of stimuli compared to randomness or incoherence.

The experience of stimuli as either coherent or random, however, cannot fully encompass how we experience meaning, but it may at least make the perception of the world/life more meaningful.

Image: lcrf

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