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Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood

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Meaning in life is thought to be important to well-being throughout the human life span. We assessed the structure, levels, and correlates of the presence of meaning in life, and the search for meaning, within four life stage groups: emerging adulthood, young adulthood, middle-age adulthood, and older adulthood. Results from a sample of Internet users (N = 8756) demonstrated the structural invariance of the meaning measure used across life stages. Those at later life stages generally reported a greater presence of meaning in their lives, whereas those at earlier life stages reported higher levels of searching for meaning. Correlations revealed that the presence of meaning has similar relations to well-being across life stages, whereas searching for meaning is more strongly associated with well-being deficits at later life stages.
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Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life
from emerging adulthood to older adulthood
Michael F. Steger
a
; Shigehiro Oishi
b
; Todd B. Kashdan
c
a
Department of Psychology, Colorado State University, Colorado, USA
b
University of Virginia, Virginia, USA
c
George Mason University, Virginia, USA
Online Publication Date: 01 January 2009
To cite this Article Steger, Michael F., Oishi, Shigehiro and Kashdan, Todd B.(2009)'Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and
correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood',The Journal of Positive Psychology,4:1,43 — 52
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The Journal of Positive Psychology
Vol. 4, No. 1, January 2009, 43–52
Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from
emerging adulthood to older adulthood
Michael F. Steger
a
*
, Shigehiro Oishi
b
and Todd B. Kashdan
c
a
Department of Psychology, Colorado State University, Colorado, USA;
b
University of Virginia,
Virginia, USA;
c
George Mason University, Virginia, USA
Meaning in life is thought to be important to well-being throughout the human life span. We assessed the
structure, levels, and correlates of the presence of meaning in life, and the search for meaning, within four life
stage groups: emerging adulthood, young adulthood, middle-age adulthood, and older adulthood. Results from a
sample of Internet users (N ¼ 8756) demonstrated the structural invariance of the meaning measure used across
life stages. Those at later life stages generally reported a greater presence of meaning in their lives, whereas those
at earlier life stages reported higher levels of searching for meaning. Correlations revealed that the presence of
meaning has similar relations to well-being across life stages, whereas searching for meaning is more strongly
associated with well-being deficits at later life stages.
Keywords: meaning in life; purpose in life; existential meaning; well-being across the life span; adult development
Introduction
Meaning in life has enjoyed a renaissance of interest in
recent years, and is considered to be an important
component of broader well-being (e.g., King, Hicks,
Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006; Ryff & Singer, 1998).
Perceptions of meaning in life are thought to be related
to the development of a coherent sense of one’s identity
(Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), and the process of
creating a sense of meaning theoretically begins in
adolescence, continuing throughout life (Fry, 1998).
Meaning creation should then be linked to individual
development, and is likely to unfold in conjunction
with other processes, such as the development of
identity, relationships, and goals. Previous research
has revealed that people experience different levels of
the presence of meaning at different ages (e.g., Ryff &
Essex, 1992), although these findings have been
inconsistent, and inquiries have generally focused on
limited age ranges (e.g., Pinquart, 2002). The present
study aimed to integrate research on dimensions of
meaning in life across the life span by providing an
analysis of its levels and correlates in participants from
age groups ranging from emerging adulthood to older
adulthood.
The presence of meaning in life refers to ‘the extent
to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see
significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to
which they perceive themselves to have a purpose,
mission, or over-arching aim in life’ (Steger, in press).
Numerous investigations have documented the relation
of the presence of meaning to greater well-being
(e.g., Battista & Almond, 1973; Ryff, 1989; Steger &
Frazier, 2005). Although the relative presence or
absence of meaning in life has received the most
attention, the degree to which people are searching for
meaning in their lives has been largely unstudied.
Evidence suggests that the search for meaning is not
equivalent to the absence of meaning and that the
presence of and the search for meaning comprise
independent dimensions (Crumbaugh, 1977; Steger,
Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006). The search for meaning
is concerned with the degree to which people are trying
to establish and/or augment their comprehension of
the meaning, significance, and purpose of their lives
(Steger, in press; Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz,
2007). Investigations that focus exclusively on the
presence or absence of meaning in life may be missing
the full complexity of variation in meaning in life over
the lifespan.
Nearly all meaning measures in life fail to address
the search for meaning. Meaning in life measures have
been widely criticized on other grounds as well,
including poor content and discriminant validity
(e.g., Klinger, 1977; Yalom, 1980) and weak, rarely
replicated factor structures (e.g., Steger, 2006, 2007).
As a prerequisite to any between-group comparisons,
it is critical to first establish the factorial invariance of
the measure used. Lack of structural validity limits the
*Corresponding author. Email: michael_f_steger@yahoo.com
ISSN 1743–9760 print/ISSN 1743–9779 online
ß 2009 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17439760802303127
http://www.informaworld.com
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
conclusions that can be reached from between-group
comparisons. We used a meaning measure that had
previously demonstrated structural validity, and there-
fore anticipated revealing evidence for its factorial
invariance across age groups in the present study.
Levels and correlates of meaning and age
Research has revealed the influence of measurement on
age-related variation in levels of the presence of
meaning. Investigations using the Purpose In Life test
(PIL; Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964) and Life Regard
Index (LRI; Battista & Almond, 1973) have usually
found higher presence of meaning later in life (e.g.,
Meier & Edwards, 1974; Reker, 2005; Reker, Peacock,
& Wong, 1987; Van Ranst & Marcoen, 1997).
However, research using the purpose in life subscale
of Ryff’s (1989) Psychological Well-Being measure
consistently has found lower presence of meaning in
later years (e.g., Ryff & Essex, 1992). Ryff’s (1989)
measure emphasizes having and achieving goals
(i.e., ‘I enjoy making plans for the future and working
to make them a reality’; Ryff, 1989), possibly capturing
content that is more susceptible to change over the
lifespan. For instance, older adults report having fewer
goals they are typically trying to attain (Lawton, Moss,
Winter, & Hoffman, 2002). The only published meta-
analysis concluded that those 69 and younger reported
more meaning than those 70 and older, with a small
effect size r of 0.12 (Pinquart, 2002). The effect size
was larger in studies using single items focusing on
feelings of usefulness and those using Ryff’s scale than
those using other scales. In the present study, we used a
measure of subjective feelings of the global presence of
meaning, which is more similar to the LRI and PIL.
Therefore, we expected increasingly higher levels of the
presence of meaning at life stages through adulthood.
In light of the meta-analytic findings, however, we
expected lower presence of meaning among our oldest
age group. Finally, although levels of the presence of
meaning might vary over the lifespan, theorists have
argued that feeling one’s life is meaningful is important
to every life stage (Wong, 2000). Therefore, correla-
tions among the presence of meaning and other indices
of well-being should be consistently positive during
each life stage we investigated.
Only one relevant study exists to support hypoth-
eses regarding differences in the search for meaning
across the life span. This study found no age-related
differences on the ‘will to meaning’ subscale of the
LAP-R, which is similar conceptually to the search for
meaning in life (Reker et al., 1987). However, this
subscale was shown to have poor psychometric
properties and removed in subsequent revisions
(Reker, 1992). Developmental theories have identified
exploration as a hallmark feature of emerging adult
developmental needs to determine and establish
identity, career, and social roles (Arnett, 2000;
Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1966). The emphasis in these
theories on exploration in this earlier life stage suggests
that younger age groups should report higher levels of
the search for meaning than older age groups.
Developmental theories anticipate that younger
people expend considerable resources on exploring
who they are, what they like to do, and with whom
they want to become intimate (e.g., Erikson, 1968).
It therefore seems likely that although searching for
meaning might be associated with significantly less
well-being in later life, searching for meaning might be
normative or even adaptive in earlier life stages, such
as emerging adulthood, and would therefore be
unrelated to well-being, rather than inversely related.
Finally, we also assessed the ways people report
trying to achieve well-being. Three orientations to
happiness have been proposed, namely, a pleasure
orientation (finding happiness in physical or sensory
pleasure), an engagement orientation (finding happi-
ness through absorption and engagement in important
life activities), and a meaning orientation (finding
happiness through a sense of purpose and under-
standing of how one fits in with the grand scheme of
things) (Seligman, 2002). We did not make any
hypotheses about age-related differences in relations
between meaning in life and orientations to happiness,
and regard these analyses as exploratory.
The present study
The purpose of the present study was to assess the
levels and correlates of both the presence of, and
search for, meaning in life in several age groups
spanning much of the human life span. Data were
collected from a sample of website visitors. Due to
restrictions on this website, participants were sorted
into age groups corresponding with major life stages
proposed by Erikson (1968): Young Adults (25–44
years), Middle-Age Adults (35–64 years), and Older
Adults (over 65 years). In addition, we formed an age
group corresponding to Arnett’s (2000) Emerging
Adults (18–24 years). This approach yielded four
ordered life stage categories.
Hypotheses
As a prerequisite to between-group comparisons, we
expected (1) to find evidence of structural validity and
factorial invariance of our meaning measure across
age groups. Based on our review of the literature on
meaning in life, we expected (2) levels of the presence
of meaning to be highest in young adulthood and
middle-age adulthood, and lower in older adulthood.
We expected (3) higher levels of the search for meaning
44 M.F. Steger et al.
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
in earlier life stages. We did not hypothesize any
significant differences across life stages in the strength
of relations between the presence of meaning and
well-being, whereas (4) we hypothesized that those in
the youngest life stages (adolescence and emerging
adulthood) would exhibit the strongest positive rela-
tions between the search for meaning and well-being,
whereas older adults would exhibit the strongest
negative relations between the search for meaning
and well-being.
Method
Participants
Responses on the measures of interest were received
from 8756 individuals (66.3% female) via a website
between November 2003 and February 2005.
Participants only indicated their ages according to
seven relevant categories (18–20, 21–24, 25–34, 35–44,
45–54, 55–64, and 65 and older), which were assorted
according to developmental life stages proposed by
Erikson (1968) and Arnett (2000): Emerging Adults
(18–24 years; n ¼ 1229), Young Adults (25–44 years;
n ¼ 3649), Middle-Age Adults (45–64 years; n ¼ 3715),
and Older Adults (over 65 years; n ¼ 163). Most
participants (97.7%) were from Western countries
(63.6% USA; 13.0% UK; 8.5% Canada; 7.3%
Australia/New Zealand; 3.4% other European coun-
tries; 1% Asian countries; 0.7% Latin American
countries; 0.2% Middle Eastern countries; and less
than 0.1% African countries). Aside from country of
origin, no ethnicity data was collected.
Procedure
English versions of measures of meaning in life
and well-being were located on an Internet site
(www.authentichappiness.org) along with other
psychological measures not considered here
(e.g., attachment). Prior to completing any measures,
visitors were required to initiate a free, anonymous
account. Account holders could complete measures
multiple times in any order they desired. However, we
only analyzed scores from each account holder’s first
completion of the measures. Participants were free to
select which measures they wanted to complete, leading
to differing numbers of respondents on each measures
(see Table 1).
Measures
Meaning in life
The Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ; Steger
et al., 2006) assesses the extent to which respondents
feel their lives are meaningful (MLQ-presence subscale;
5 items, e.g., ‘I have a good sense of what makes my life
meaningful’) and also the extent to which they are
actively seeking meaning in their lives (MLQ-search
subscale; 5 items, e.g., ‘I am seeking a purpose or
mission for my life’). Each dimension of meaning is
measured by five items rated from 1 (Absolutely
Untrue) to 7 (Absolutely True). The two factor
structure of the MLQ was replicated via confirmatory
factor analyses in multiple samples, and there is
evidence that the structure is robust across cultures
(Steger, Frazier, & Zacchanini, in press; Steger,
Kawabata, Shimai, & Otake, 2008). Both subscales
have demonstrated very good internal consistency in
previous studies (’s between 0.82 and 0.88; Steger
et al., 2006) and adequate test–retest stability over
periods from a month to a year (Steger & Kashdan,
2007; Steger et al., 2006).
Life satisfaction
We used the 5-item Satisfaction With Life Scale
(SWLS; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) to
assess life satisfaction. Respondents rate each item
from 1 (Strongly agree) to 7 (Strongly disagree). The
SWLS is among the most widely used well-being
measures, and numerous studies have confirmed its
reliability ( ¼ 0.85; Diener et al., 1985) and validity
(for review, see Pavot & Diener, 1993).
Happiness
The General Happiness Scale (GHS; Lyubomirsky &
Lepper, 1999) was used to measure subjective happi-
ness. Four items were each rated on a 7-point scale
with lower scores indicating less happiness. The
reliability of the GHS has been good (’s from 0.80
Table 1. Descriptive statistics.
Scale nM(SD)
t-test of sex
differences
MLQ-Presence 8154 23.5 (8.1) 3.55***
MLQ-Search 8154 24.8 (8.2) 3.99***
Life satisfaction 5768 21.3 (7.7) 3.21**
Happiness 5768 18.0 (6.0) 6.88***
Positive affect 5779 24.9 (8.6) n.s.
Negative affect 5779 15.5 (6.8) n.s.
Depression 4531 15.1 (13.1) 2.31*
Pleasure orientation 4770 18.6 (5.4) 7.10***
Engagement orientation 4770 19.2 (4.2) n.s.
Meaning orientation 4770 21.6 (6.0) 5.33***
*p50.05; **p50.01; ***p50.001.
Note: Positive t-values indicate higher female means.
MLQ-Presence ¼ Meaning in Life Questionnaire Presence
of meaning subscale, MLQ-Search ¼ Meaning in Life
Questionnaire Search for meaning subscale.
The Journal of Positive Psychology 45
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
to 0.94 in eight American college samples), and its
validity has been supported in American and Russian
samples (Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1999).
Positive affect and negative affect
We used the Positive And Negative Affect Schedule
(PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988) to measure
positive affect (PA; 10 items, e.g., ‘proud,’ ‘alert’) and
negative affect (NA; 10 items, e.g., ‘jittery,’ ‘ashamed’).
Respondents rated whether they were experiencing 20
adjectives at the present moment, from 1 (Very slightly
or not at all) to 5 (Extremely). The PANAS has been
widely used, and research has demonstrated very good
internal consistency, test–retest stability, and structural
validity (e.g., ¼ 0.88 for PA, ¼ 0.87 for NA; Watson
et al., 1988).
Depression
We used the Center for Epidemiological Studies–
Depression scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977). The
CES-D consists of 20 items touching on depressive
symptoms, which respondents rate in terms of the
frequency with which they have experienced them in
the past week from 1 (rarely or none of the time) to 4
(most or all of the time). The CES-D has been widely
used, and internal consistency has been very good
( ¼ 0.85 for general population, ¼ 0.90 for clinical
populations; Radloff, 1977).
Orientations to happiness
The Orientations to Happiness Scale (OHS; Peterson,
Park, & Seligman, 2005), assesses three approaches to
gaining happiness. Eighteen items rated on a 1 (Not at
all like me) to 5 (Very much like me) scale assess how
strongly respondents endorse finding happiness
through pleasure (Pleasure orientation; 6 items, e.g.,
‘I love to do things that excite my senses’); engagement
(Engagement orientation; 6 items, e.g., ‘I seek out
situations that challenge my skills and abilities’); and
meaning (Meaning orientation; 6 items, e.g., ‘My life
serves a higher purpose’). Peterson et al. (2005)
reported good structural validity and internal consis-
tency ( ¼ 0.82 for Pleasure orientation; ¼ 0.72
for Engagement orientation; ¼ 0.82 for Meaning
orientation), as well as convergent validity via
correlations of each approach with life satisfaction.
Results
Descriptive statistics
Table 1 presents descriptive scale statistics and tests of
sex-related scale score differences. The percentage of
female participants was consistent across the first three
age groups (range ¼ 65.7% to 67.5%). However, there
were fewer female than male participants in the oldest
age group (47.9% female).
Factor structure and invariance of the MLQ
across life stages
Our first hypothesis was that we would find evidence of
structural validity and factorial invariance for the
MLQ. To establish that the MLQ provides adequate
measurement of meaning in life dimensions, we
examined its structure and invariance across age
groups. Although multigroup confirmatory factor
analysis is the primary means by which we evaluated
the factorial invariance of the MLQ across life stages,
we first performed principal axis factor analysis with
oblique rotation (direct oblimin, delta set to 0) to
calculate the amount of variance accounted for. The
variance accounted for across all life stages is
substantial (see Table 2), and exceeds the amount
typically accounted for by psychological measures
(cf., 52.03%; Henson & Roberts, 2006). Scores were
internally consistent (MLQ-P range ¼ 0.91–0.93;
MLQ-S range ¼ 0.88–0.92). Also included in
Table 2 are the correlations between the factors
corresponding to each of the subscales. Interestingly,
correlations between the presence and the search
factors were higher in later life stages, with the oldest
three life stages having significantly stronger correla-
tions than the youngest two (ps50.01). This implies
Table 2. Internal consistency and variance accounted for using the MLQ across the life span.
% Variance accounted for
MLQ-P MLQ-S MLQ-P MLQ-S Total
Correlation between
MLQ-P and MLQ-S
Age 18–24 0.91 0.88 40.03% 24.33% 64.36% 0.22
Age 25–44 0.92 0.92 48.49% 21.65% 70.14% 0.36
Age 45–64 0.93 0.92 49.14% 23.51% 72.66% 0.34
Age 65 and older 0.92 0.92 51.59% 18.90% 70.49% 0.44
Note: MLQ Presence ¼ Meaning in Life Questionnaire Presence of meaning subscale. MLQ Search ¼ Meaning in Life
Questionnaire Search for meaning subscale.
46 M.F. Steger et al.
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
the possibility that, as people advance through life
stages, the search for meaning in life is more contingent
upon whether they already have found a satisfying
level of meaning among older individuals.
Measurement invariance
Establishing the measurement invariance of a
psychological survey is a multi-step process that
simultaneously tests the fit of data from multiple
groups to a proposed structure for that survey (see e.g.,
Byrne, Shavelson, & Muthe
´
n, 1989; Chen, Sousa, &
West, 2005; Cheung & Rensvold, 2002). Tests of fit are
performed in models which constrain successively more
parameters across all groups in a stepwise fashion until
the invariance of the measure across all relevant
parameters is confirmed or refuted (see Chen et al.,
2005). We used the program AMOS 4.0 (Arbuckle,
1999) to perform multigroup confirmatory factor
analyses of the covariance matrices of each life
stage, specifying a simple structure model
(no residuals were allowed to correlate). We used
empirically established criteria (Comparative Fit Index
[CFI]40.95, Root Mean Square Approximation of
Error [RMSEA]50.06, and Standardized Root Mean
Squared Residual [SRMR]50.08; Hu & Bentler, 1999)
to indicate overall model fit, and recommendation
derived from simulation studies (decrease in CFA of
0.01 or less; Cheung & Rensvold, 2002) to indicate
invariance across successive models.
First, we modeled the two sub-factor structure of
the MLQ in all age groups simultaneously. This model
(Model A on Table 3) fit very well across all life stages.
Second, we tested invariance across successively con-
strained models. All models fit well and there were no
significant deteriorations in fit (i.e., CFI did not
decrease by more than 0.01), thereby establishing the
full metric invariance of the MLQ across age groups in
this sample. Thus, we can be confident that any mean
differences observed using this scale are due to
differences in levels of the presence of and search for
meaning in life of participants at different life stages.
Mean differences across life stages
Because the factor structure of the MLQ was
confirmed across life stages, we can interpret the
subscale scores with confidence, allowing comparisons
of mean scores. Mean scores at all life stages were
above the midpoint of 20 on both subscales (Table 4),
indicating that participants at all ages were more likely,
rather than less likely, to feel their lives are meaningful
and also to be searching for meaning. Because of
significant sex differences on several measures, sex was
included in two-way ANOVAs assessing mean differ-
ences across age groups. The omnibus test for sex was
not significant for either the MLQ-P (F(1, 8352) ¼ 0.71,
p40.40) or the MLQ-S (F (1, 8352) ¼ 0.25, p40.40).
Significant differences were found across age groups
for both the MLQ-P (F(1, 8352) ¼ 42.07, p50.001)
and the MLQ-S (F(1, 8352) ¼ 41.32, p50.001). We
performed Tukey’s-b post-hoc analyses of significant
age-group differences and conducted pairwise t-test
comparisons to provide effect size estimates
(see Table 4). In partial confirmation of our hypoth-
eses, MLQ-P scores generally were high in later life
stages (Figure 1), with an exception occurring during
Young Adulthood. As expected, MLQ-S scores were
lower in later life stages. There were no significant sex-
by-age group interactions that approached significance
for either the MLQ-P (F(1, 8352) ¼ 1.96, p40.05) and
the MLQ-S (
F(1, 8352) ¼ 2.00, p40.05).
Correlations of presence and search across life stages
Dimensions of meaning in life and well-being
The presence of meaning was, as hypothesized, related
to well-being, with medium to large effects sizes
(see Table 5). There were no differences in the
magnitude of correlations between presence of mean-
ing and well-being among those at different life stages.
Our expectations regarding the search for meaning
were largely supported. The search for meaning was
more strongly associated with greater distress and less
well-being in later life stages, although there were no
Table 3. Fit indices from confirmatory factor analysis of the MLQ across the life span.
Model
2
df
2
RMSEA 90% CI RMSEA SRMR CFI CFI
A 1487.56*** 152 0.03 0.03,0.03 0.05 0.98
B 1513.48*** 160 25.92*** 0.03 0.03,0.03 0.05 0.98 0.00
C 1850.13*** 190 336.65*** 0.03 0.03,0.03 0.05 0.97 0.01
D 1908.71*** 193 57.58*** 0.03 0.03,0.03 0.09 0.97 0.00
***p50.001.
Notes: Model A ¼ simultaneous modeling of MLQ structure, only item residual loadings fixed; Model B ¼ same model as A but
with factor loadings fixed across age groups; Model C ¼ same model as B but with regression intercepts fixed across age groups;
Model D ¼ same model as C but with covariance between Presence and Search fixed across age groups. RMSEA ¼ Root Mean
Square Error of Approximation, SRMR ¼ Standardized Root Mean Squared Residual, CFI ¼ Comparative Fit Index,
CFI ¼ Change in Comparative Fit Index.
The Journal of Positive Psychology 47
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significant differences in correlations with positive
affect (Table 5).
Meaning and orientations to happiness
The presence of meaning and having a meaning
orientation to happiness were correlated, with a large
effect size (see Table 5). Emerging adults reported a
weaker correlation between an orientation based on
engagement and the presence of meaning in life. Both
engagement and meaning orientations were more
strongly associated with search for meaning at earlier
life stages compared to later life stages.
Discussion
Results from the present study suggest that not only
do most people report that they are more likely to feel
their lives are meaningful than not, but the more
meaning in life people reported, the greater well-being
they experienced, at all life stages. Consistent with
several previous reports, we found that individuals at
later life stages reported more meaning in life than
those at earlier life stages. Overall, the present findings
fit with other data (e.g., Reker, 2005) and theories
(e.g., Wong, 2000) that suggest meaning remains an
important resource for later in life. The search for
meaning in life generally was associated with lower
well-being, particularly among older adults.
Participants at all age groups reported mean scores
above the midpoint on the search for meaning
subscale, which is somewhat surprising among older
adults. We suggest that several explanations exist for
the manifestation of the search for meaning in older
adulthood. One is that later life is simply a more
dynamic developmental stage than previously thought
(e.g., Tornstam, 1997), and that older adults continue
to seek out richness and complexity in their experience.
A second is that older adults may need to look for
meaning in new roles as they transition out of those
more appropriate at earlier ages (e.g., Prager, 1998).
A third possibility is suggested by the finding that older
adults seem to report fewer meaningful projects and
strivings than younger samples (Lawton et al., 2002).
Lacking important projects and strivings may lead
older adults to search for significant pursuits, as well as
meaning in their lives. Finally, it could be that our
sample is more interested in these issues than the
typical older adult, who might not access a webpage
devoted to ‘authentic happiness.’
Results from our study differed in some respects
from previous work that indicated a decline in meaning
across the lifespan. We feel that a number of unique
features of our study could explain this discrepancy.
First, we used a measure that assesses global, subjective
feelings about the presence of meaning in respondents’
lives. As noted in a recent meta-analysis, scales
oriented more toward usefulness and generating goals
were more negatively related to age (Pinquart, 2002).
Table 4. Mean levels, and comparisons of mean levels, of the MLQ subscale across age groups.
1234
Subscale 18–24 25–44 45–64 65þ
Presence 23.94 (7.63) 22.35 (8.16) 24.67 (8.11) 26.93 (7.63)
Search 25.51 (7.12) 25.85 (7.80) 23.32 (8.88) 21.29 (9.46)
Comparison (df ) td
Presence 1 vs. 2 4876 6.02 0.20
1 vs. 3 4342 2.72 0.09
1 vs. 4 1390 4.69 0.39
2 vs. 3 6762 11.71 0.27
2 vs. 4 3810 7.02 0.56
3 vs. 4 3276 3.47 0.28
Search 1 vs. 2 4876 1.36 0.04
1 vs. 3 4342 7.71 0.25
1 vs. 4 1390 6.81 0.57
2 vs. 3 6762 12.46 0.29
2 vs. 4 3810 7.22 0.58
3 vs. 4 3276 2.84 0.23
Notes: Presence ¼ Meaning in Life Questionnaire Presence of meaning subscale, Search ¼ Meaning in Life
Questionnaire Search for meaning subscale. Because of the generally very large sample sizes, effect sizes (Cohen’s d )
are provided in addition to significance tests. Effect sizes in boldface denote differences significant at a 0.05 level
according to Tukey’s-b post-hoc analyses. A positive effect size denotes a higher mean for the older age group,
whereas a negative effect size denotes a higher mean for the younger age group.
48 M.F. Steger et al.
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
Second, many of the studies reporting declines made
distinctions among age groups that we were not able to
make. For instance, the meta-analysis used a cut-off
age of 70 years. When considering meaning in life
across the life span, researchers may differ in whether
they want to focus on distinctions between the old-old
and others, or different demarcations. The conflicting
findings suggest that this decision should not be made
arbitrarily. Third, we were only able to assess those
who had the awareness of, access to, and desire to
participate on an Internet site. Thus, this sample might
not be representative of all individuals at each of the
life stages of interest to the present investigation.
Evidence from a large-scale study suggests that
Internet samples possess generally desirable sampling
characteristics, although they are probably not as
representative as probability samples (e.g., Gosling,
Vazire, Srivastava, & John, 2004). However, the
meta-analysis on meaning in life found that those
who are working and those in higher socio-economic
strata reported more meaning in life (Pinquart, 2002).
Those with Internet access might be employed at
greater rates, and enjoy higher socio-economic status,
than those without access. Thus, it is possible that
Internet access reflects broader demographic features
with implications for meaning in life. In contrast,
Ryff’s work, in particular, frequently has used national
probability samples, and may more accurately reflect
older populations (e.g., Ryff & Essex, 1992).
In addition, we cannot rule out the possibility that
some of the age differences our study revealed are due
to variation in education, socio-economic status, or
race/ethnicity, or other variables not assessed in the
present study.
A final limitation of this study is that it is cross-
sectional, and we are not able to speculate about
65 and older45 6425 4418 24
Age group
28.00
26.00
24.00
22.00
20.00
Estimated marginal means
Female
Male
Gender
Female
Male
Gender
Estimated marginal means of MLQ presence
65 and older45 6425 4418 24
A
g
e
g
roup
28.00
26.00
24.00
22.00
20.00
Estimated marginal means
Estimated marginal means of MLQ search
Figure 1. Mean levels of MLQ subscales across life stages, by gender.
The Journal of Positive Psychology 49
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
causality, or establish that the pattern of age differ-
ences we observed reflect actual age-related changes.
We were not able to address whether these age
differences were due to cohort effects, for example.
The oldest group in the present study were born
around or before 1940, and might well have completely
different ideas about what makes their lives meaningful
than those who will turn 65 in 50 years, as our
youngest age group will. Future research should
attempt to use longitudinal designs and sampling
reflective of the demographics of the population.
It is important that future research consider the
interplay of meaning and physical and mental health
over the lifespan using longitudinal designs. For
example, related work has found that although
subjective well-being is fairly stable over the life span,
health constraints accounted for significant declines
(Kunzmann, Little, & Smith, 2000). Does poor health
detract from meaning in life, or does meaning in
life buffer the effects of health problems on broader
well-being? If, as some have argued, meaning in life is a
protective factor against lower well-being and depres-
sion (e.g., Wong, 2000), it might fend off some of the
deleterious effects of health problems. If this is so,
efforts should be made to understand how to facilitate
the achievement of meaning among individuals at all
life stages.
Future research also should explore what comprises
the search for meaning across the lifespan, but
particularly in later life considering the medium to
large effects of its relations with well-being and
depression. It would also be prudent to continue
investigating age-related differences in the sources
from which people draw meaning in their lives
(e.g., Prager, 1998). At earlier life stages, we would
suggest that research should focus on the processes and
Table 5. Correlations between MLQ subscales and well-being variables by life stage.
12 34
18–24 25–44 45–64 65þ
Significant
comparisons
Correlations with MLQ-Presence subscale
Life satisfaction 0.57*** 0.59*** 0.56*** 0.61***
N 838 2445 2356 130
Happiness 0.57*** 0.57*** 0.59*** 0.63***
N 835 2436 2319 128
Positive affect 0.46*** 0.49*** 0.50*** 0.49***
N 791 2487 2373 129
Negative affect 0.30*** 0.33*** 0.36*** 0.32**
N 791 2487 2373 129
Depression 0.53*** 0.51*** 0.54*** 0.46***
N 626 1892 1903 111
Pleasure orientation 0.16*** 0.13*** 0.15*** 0.10
N 703 1974 1984 110
Engagement orientation 0.34*** 0.42*** 0.45*** 0.35** 1 2*
N 703 1974 1984 110 1 3*
Meaning orientation 0.62*** 0.65*** 0.66*** 0.70***
N 703 1974 1984 110
Correlations with MLQ-Search subscale
Life satisfaction 0.26*** 0.31*** 0.29*** 0.46*** 1, 2, 3 4*
N 838 2445 2356 130
Happiness 0.24*** 0.28*** 0.28*** 0.48*** 1, 2, 3 4*
N 835 2436 2319 128
Positive affect 0.11 0.17*** 0.15*** 0.23**
N 791 2487 2373 129
Negative affect 0.17*** 0.21*** 0.19*** 0.33** 1, 3 4þ
N 791 2487 2373 129
Depression 0.25*** 0.30*** 0.29*** 0.40*** 1 4þ
N 626 1892 1903 111
Pleasure orientation 0.04 0.02 0.02 0.05
N 703 1974 1984 110
Engagement orientation 0.00 0.17*** 0.13*** 0.21* 1 2, 3, 4*
N 703 1974 1984 110
Meaning orientation 0.03 0.03 0.04 0.19þ 2 4*
N 703 1974 1984 110 1 4þ
þ
p50.10; *p50.05; **p50.01; ***p50.001.
Note: The significant comparisons refers to comparing the magnitude of correlation coefficients. MLQ-Presence ¼ Meaning in
Life Questionnaire Presence of meaning subscale, MLQ-Search ¼ Meaning in Life Questionnaire Search for meaning subscale.
50 M.F. Steger et al.
Downloaded By: [Steger*, Michael F.] At: 15:21 28 January 2009
personality features that support the presence of
meaning in life and the development of purpose.
Some have argued that developing a sense of broad,
over-arching goals is crucial during adolescence, and
that such a sense of purpose may facilitate transitions
to later stages of development, and help in the
acquisition of other important psychological strengths
such as self-efficacy and self-regulation skills (Damon,
Menon, & Bronk, 2003; Kosine, Steger, & Duncan,
in press). One of the major transitions commonly
facing adolescents developing into emerging adults is
the move to college. It would be ideal to study whether
and how college students develop or utilize a sense of
purpose or meaning in life in successfully adapting to
their new environments.
Meaning in life appears important to overall well-
being at many life stages, and is somewhat predictable
from developmental theories (Arnett, 2000; Erikson,
1968). Additional evidence was presented that global
feelings of the presence of meaning in life are higher in
later life, suggesting that in the face of changing roles,
declining physical capacity, and accumulating inter-
personal losses, people are able to make sense of their
experiences and their purpose in life. Efforts should be
made to incorporate meaning in life and related
constructs into future work on identity development
and successful aging.
Acknowledgements
The authors are grateful to Martin Seligman for allowing the
collection and use of these data, to Patty Newbold and Peter
Schulman for website and database management and
coordination, and to Erica Adams for her help preparing
this manuscript.
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