I framed my TEDx talk on meaning in life in terms of the evolution of my relationship with my life partner, and despite being a moderate introvert and slight grouch, the importance of other people and my relationships with them to my life and meaning was pretty clear. My research team later reviewed the literature and found there was consistent and diverse support for this intuition: Good relationships and meaning go together.
But is this a strong link? Is there something special about meaning and relationships? Is meaning in life a sufficient foundation for good relationships, or do we need to actively look at our interactions and connections with others through a relationship-specific lens of meaning?
The answer, according to recent research, sounds like an Improv for Beginner’s class: “Yes … AND!”
In a relatively simple research design, Elizabeth Yu and Edward Chang used the online survey platform Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to survey a sample of 190 adults (average age of 39, 98 female, 91 males, and 1 unspecified, 77.4 percent Non-Hispanic White, 7.9 percent Asian or Asian American, 6.8 percent Black or African American, 5.3 percent Hispanic or Latinx). Participants reported their demographic characteristics and completed the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ) and the Relational Meaning in Life Questionnaire, which built off the MLQ but with a focus on how relationships help build meaning in life. A sample question provided by the authors is “I understand my life’s meaning through my relationships with others.”
A series of surveys was completed by participants about relationships five weeks later.
- Friendship includes (a) Stimulating companionship; (b) Intimacy and intimacy with a close friend; (c) Reliable alliance and support from a friend; (d) Validation and (e) Emotional safety from a friend
- Relationship satisfaction, including (a) Romantic relationships, (b) Family relationships, and (c) Social life satisfaction
- Positive relationships
- Quality of social relationships
Whew! That’s a lot of questions about relationships. As a methodological point, you might expect your participants to get tired or bored of answering so many questions, which might entice them to start clicking buttons at random just to get through the survey. In my research using MTurk, we include distraction indicator items, or what I like to think of as “BS responding detectors” to drop data from people who are just clicking the buttons without reading the questions. Yu and Chang did the exact same. Also, they wisely separated the surveys into two sessions, weeks apart, to reduce people’s natural tendencies to mush their responses together on long lists of questions. The survey was a simple one, but the researchers did a good job of trying to account the limitations of the method.
These are the key findings
1. Meaning in life, as indicated by the MLQ’s Presence of Meaning scale, was positively and significantly related to every single relationship variable: Less loneliness, better friendships, higher quality, more positive, and more satisfying relationships. The surveys were conducted five weeks apart. This shows that finding meaning in life is not a predictor of better quality relationships five weeks later. Now, there are a lot of reasons why we can’t say that more meaning causes better relationships, but at least we can say that it’s a question worth exploring in more rigorous research methods.
2. Positively related to each relationship variable was also the meaning of relationships.
3. The statistical analysis included both the MLQ as well as relational meaning in our lives. Finding meaning in our lives was still positively and significantly associated with every single relationship variable. Even accounting for all of its predictive power, relational meaning still showed small, significant relations with family life satisfaction, positive and quality relationships, and the quality of those relationships.
This is truly fascinating and exciting. We see that there is a wide range of ways that finding meaning in life can be linked to better relationships. It is also worth looking at how people view their relationships.
In the famous words of the late, great Christopher Peterson, when it comes to happiness, “Other People Matter.” I’ll add, “Meaning Matters Too!” And it is becoming increasingly clear that the two support each other. It’s like a good relationship!
This post was originally published at PsychologyToday.com.