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How do young men experience meaning in life?

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Abstract

Cite: Hughes, P., & Lomas, T. (2021). ‘How do young men experience meaning in life?’ European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 5, 13, 1-13. Background: Despite indications that the presence of meaning in life is associated with potential benefits for common crises men face, few meaning in life studies examine this population, and a lack of qualitative meaning in life research in general exacerbates the concept’s “definitional ambiguity”. Objectives: This study seeks to address these imbalances by examining how those young men who do feel a sense of meaning report its development, with the aim of identifying themes which may highlight protective factors for young men’s mental health. Methods: We use interpretative phenomenological analysis to explore semi-structured interviews from four British men aged 18-24, following purposive sampling of 129 survey respondents. Results: Participants describe a journey to meaning through three themes; (1) engagement in an active searching process, (2) seeking authentic significance, and (3) the application of the felt effects of meaning in life toward goal formation and as a buffer against stressors. Discussion: This paper provides a unique ideographic insight into the development of meaning in life for young men which contributes to the ongoing discussion on the concept’s definition and asset-based responses to the common crises of masculinity. Conclusion: Our research explores young men’s experience of meaning in life as part of their identity development. Limitations and suggestions for future research are provided. Keywords: meaning in life, life purpose, youth, masculinity, gender, phenomenology
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Abstract
Background: Despite indications that the presence of meaning in life is associated with
potential benefits for common crises men face, few meaning in life studies examine this
population, and a lack of qualitative meaning in life research in general exacerbates the
concept’s “definitional ambiguity ”.
Objectives: This study seeks to address these imbalances by examining how those young
men who do feel a sense of meaning report its development, with the aim of identifying
themes which may highlight protective factors for young men’s mental health.
Methods: We use interpretative phenomenological analysis to explore semi-structured
interviews from four British men aged 18-24, following purposive sampling of 129 survey
respondents.
Results: Participants describe a journey to meaning through three themes; (1) engagement
in an active searching process, (2) seeking authentic significance, and (3) the application of
the felt effects of meaning in life toward goal formation and as a buffer against stressors.
Discussion: This paper provides a unique ideographic insight into the development
of meaning in life for young men which contributes to the ongoing discussion on the
concept’s definition and asset-based responses to the common crises of masculinity.
Conclusion: Our research explores young men’s experience of meaning in life as part of
their identity development. Limitations and suggestions for future research are provided.
Keywords: meaning in life, life purpose, youth, masculinity, gender, phenomenology
European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology
Vol 5, Article 13, 2021
ISSN 2397-7116
www.nationalwellbeingservice.com/journals
How do young men experience meaning in life?
Peter Hughes1 and Tim Lomas2
RESEARCH PAPER
Corresponding author
Peter Hughes, 1410 Cypress Place, Manchester, M4 4EH, UK
E-mail: peter@phugh.es
Affiliations
¹ 1410 Cypress Place, Manchester M4 4EH, UK; 2 University of East
London, University Way, Royal Docks, London E16 2RD, UK
Copyright
© National Wellbeing Service Ltd
Processing dates
Submitted 21st November 2020; Resubmitted 21st April 2021;
Accepted 4th May 2021; Published 15th September 2021
New paper statement
We confirm that the paper has not been published elsewhere and
is not under consideration in any other publication.
Ethics
The School of Psychology at the University of East London granted
ethical approval for this study, which was carried out in accordance
with BPS codes and principles. Informed consent was obtained from
all individual participants included in the study and each was briefed
on the purpose and method of this research before taking part.
Competing interests
We confirm that that no competing interests exist with regard to the
paper or this submission.
Funding
We received no financial support with regard to the paper or this
submission.
Acknowledgments
Sincere thanks are given to the young men who took part in this
study, for the depth and honesty of their responses. Thanks also to
my supervisor and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable
feedback. Finally, thanks to Tom Baker, without whom this paper
would not be possible.
BACKGROUND
It has become common to refer to young men as ‘in crisis’ in both scientific
discourse and popular media (Pontuso, 2017). Whether this crisis is of masculinity
(e.g. Clare, 2010), education (e.g. Jaschik, 2008), or mental health (e.g. The
Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, 2013), young men are rarely
described as flourishing.
Whether or not we accept the crisis narrative, it is evident in the west that young
men are over-represented when it comes to substance addiction, problematic alcohol
consumption, rates of mental illness, and lower educational attainment (White et
al., 2011). While ‘boys and men have historically been the focus of psychological
research and practice’ (American Psychological Association [APA], 2018), most
current literature on men’s wellbeing focuses on maladaptive responses and negative
coping strategies (Whittle, et al., 2015). Despite this attention, men continue to
report significantly lower levels of life satisfaction than women of the same age
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(Boarini, Comola, Smith, Manchin, & De Keulenaer, 2012) and
among other physical, mental, and quality-of-life issues, suicide
remains a leading cause of death for young men around the world
(World Health Organisation, 2015).
Recognising that a deficit-based approach often fails to
prevent or fully address many psychological concerns, positive
psychology seeks to ‘take seriously as a subject matter, those
things which make life worth living’ (Peterson, 2006, p. 4).
By promoting the study of wellbeing more holistically and
challenging the field to re-examine its preoccupation with
pathology, positive psychology aims to help men and women
alike live ‘the good life’ (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000),
and by doing so, offer an asset or strengths-based approach to
the treatment and prevention of psychological ills.
While theories and models of wellbeing and the good life
existed long before the inception of positive psychology (e.g.
Ryff, 1989; Diener, 1984), a common factor many historic
and modern models share is the importance of meaning in life
(MIL). Though the subject has more recently gained prominence
as part of Seligman’s PERMA model (2011), MIL has been
an important therapeutic factor since Frankl (1963), and is an
empirically accepted component of psychological wellbeing
(Steger, 2009).
Feeling a sense of MIL is associated with positive effects
in many of the problem areas in which young men are over-
represented. Researchers report the presence of MIL decreases
substance misuse (mediated by boredom; Csabonyi & Phillips,
2017) and need for psychiatric intervention (Battista &
Almond, 1973), while ‘strong negative associations’ exist
between MIL and ‘depression, anxiety, interpersonal sensitivity
and general psychological distress’ (Debats, Van Der Lubbe,
& Wezeman, 1993, pp. 343-344). Presence of MIL also
increases life satisfaction (Santos, Oguan, Magramo, Paat, &
Barnachea, 2012) and ‘global psychological wellbeing, self-
acceptation, environmental mastery, and positive relations’
(Garcia-Alandete, 2015, p. 89).
Given the overlap between these positive effects and the
struggles of young men outlined above, it is perhaps surprising
that little research explores MIL in this population. Hence, while
framed in the context of the crisis narrative, the aim of this study
is not to directly offer a solution to these issues, but to provide
a qualitative, asset-based counterbalance to the quantitative,
deficit-based research that already exists, informing a positive
approach to working with young men.
Current Issues in Meaning in Life Research
Three principle issues face MIL research currently: a lack of a
commonly accepted definition, a lack of qualitative research, and a
lack of clear causal directionality between MIL and associated effects.
Despite shared factors (i.e. comprehension, significance and
purpose; Steger, 2009) existing between current attempts to define
and operationalise the concept, MIL research suffers from a ‘nagging
definitional ambiguity’ (Martela & Steger, 2016, p. 531).
This definitional ambiguity includes the conflation of meaning
in life, and the meaning of life; the latter of which ‘explores the role
human beings play in their own lives on a global, non-personal,
level’ (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016, p. 56), while
the former is a cognitive, sense-making, motivational concept at
the local, subjective level. Another common conflation is between
‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, often used interchangeably. More recently
however, theorists are using ‘purpose’ to mean the motivational
subcomponent of MIL (Martela & Steger, 2016, p. 532).
Reductionism in psychological research exacerbates these
ambiguities, as noted in Martela and Steger (2016, p. 531). While
diverse approaches to MIL have appeared over the years, such as
the purpose centred approaches of Klinger (1977), and Ryff and
Singer (1998) which prioritise personal goals; the ‘informational
significance’ approaches of Yalom (1980), and Crumbaugh and
Maholick (1964) which focus on the information or message a life
conveys; or the ‘meaning systems’ approaches from Baumeister
and Vohs (2002), and Heine, Proulx and Vohs (2006) which
prioritise connection; the tendency has been to condense the
multidimensionality of meaning into a single concept (see Steger,
2009, for a review).
While reductionism has a vital role in psychological research,
solving the definitional ambiguity of MIL may be better served
by renewing focus on its qualitative lived experience, allowing
better categorisation of its antecedents, facets, and effects.
Prominent MIL researchers have also called for more qualitative
research (e.g. Hill, et al., 2014; King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso,
2006), claiming that a focus on quantitative self-report measures
can ‘limit the depth of data’ (Hill, et al., 2014, p. 3), giving
participants no scope to explore the complex reasoning behind
their answers. By forgoing phenomenological data, we risk losing
the depth and contexts of MIL, thereby limiting applicability,
and further heightening the already mentioned issues.
A further issue is a lack of causal inference. While MIL
is associated with many positive effects, the directionality is
either unestablished or unstated in many cases. For example,
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RESEARCH PAPER: YOUNG MEN AND MEANING
while a sense of meaning may be associated with fewer visits
to a psychiatrist (Battista & Almond, 1973, p. 413), it isn’t
established whether MIL causes a decreased need for psychiatric
intervention, or if this decreased need leads to greater MIL. While
it is beyond the scope of a qualitative study such as this to make
causal claims, it is hoped that in exploring the phenomenology
of the development of MIL we will be able to shed light on how
this population talk about and experience the causal direction of
MIL and its effects.
This Study
Given the struggles of young men presented earlier, their context
for personal meaning may initially seem bleak: scientific literature
articulates the potential pathologies of traditional masculinities
(APA, 2018), ‘positive images of young men have almost
disappeared from popular cultures’ (Pontuso , 2017, p. 42), and
in our own field of psychology there is a ‘pervasive negative bias
toward the situation and capacities of young people’ (Damon,
Menon, & Bronk, 2003, p. 124). Yet meaning and purpose
are not only central themes in the lives of adolescents (both
in their own estimation and as a key factor in positive youth
development as Damon et al. point out), but the experience
of meaning, contrary to popular belief, may be ‘commonplace’
(King, Heintzelman, & Ward, 2016, p. 213).
Taking the asset-based approach of positive psychology, what
does this commonplace meaning look like in young men who
feel the presence of MIL in their lives, and how might their
experiences shed light on our current attempts to define MIL?
To answer these questions, this study asks: how do young men
experience meaning in life? To better understand qualitatively the
sources, context, and experience of MIL in this population, this
study will use interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA; Smith,
Flowers, & Larkin, 2009; Smith & Osborn, 2003) to analyse the
reports of those who feel a high presence of MIL in their lives.
METHOD
Design
This study involves four young men from the United Kingdom,
aged 18-24, participating in semi-structured interviews following
purposive sampling from 129 survey respondents.
We chose an interpretivist epistemology with an ideographic
focus for this study because interpretivism seeks the ‘culturally
derived and historically situated interpretations of the social
life-world’ (Crotty, 1998, p. 67) as opposed to epistemologically
verifiable external objects. IPA was used to analyse the interview
data because of its focus on ‘personal meaning and sense-making
in a particular context’ (Smith et al. 2009, p. 45). As such,
we avoid favouring one or more theories of MIL by playing
to the concept’s definitional ambiguity, attempting to elicit
the participant’s personal definition, understanding and sense-
making experience of MIL.
Participants of neither the survey nor interview stages received
remunerations for their participation. Informed consent was
obtained from all individual participants included in the study
and each was briefed on the purpose and method of this research
before taking part. The School of Psychology at the University of
East London granted ethical approval for this study, which was
carried out in accordance with BPS codes and principles.
Participants
A survey consisting of demographic questions (age, gender, education
level, and country of residence), the ‘Meaning in Life Questionnaire’
(MLQ-10: Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006), and an invitation
to take part in the interview stage was posted on three popular social
media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.
The MLQ-10 is a ten-item scale featuring two subscales which
measure the presence of meaning (MLQ-P), which the authors
define as ‘how much respondents feel their lives have meaning’,
and the search for meaning (MLQ-S), defined as ‘how much
respondents strive to find meaning and understanding in their
lives’. The measure was selected for its validity, brevity, and
because it is ‘relativistic and value-free’ (p. 84). This means the
scale does not presuppose the nature of MIL, instead offering
statements such as ‘I understand my life’s meaning’, lending itself
to our chosen approach. The MLQ-10 was used to allow us to
purposively sample those respondents who reported feeling a
high presence of MIL.
To define youth, common age classifications from the United
Nations were used, which place youth between the ages of 15 and
24 inclusive (United Nations, 1982).
Of the 129 people who responded to the initial survey 112
(87%) were male, 17 (13%) were female or responded ‘other’. To
create a more homogenous sample concordant with the research
criteria, respondents not identifying as male, those outside the
youth age range, and those not reporting a high presence of MIL
(i.e., 24 or above in the MLQ-P subscale, defined in Steger et al.,
2006) were removed.
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Nine respondents remained (7% of the original sample), with
a mean age of 20 (SD = 2.24, range 18-24 years) and a mean
MLQ-P score of 27 (SD = 2.26, range 24-31). All nine remaining
respondents reported they were UK residents. These nine were
contacted and four replied.
Pseudonym Age MLQ-P score MLQ-S score
Joe 18 26 16
Tom 19 24 19
Will 22 29 23
Dean 24 24 15
Procedure
Semi-structured interviews were chosen as our method (see
below) in order to provide comparable data across interviews,
while answering Hill et al.’s call for interviews which allow
participants to provide answers in greater depth (2014).
Questions were given relativistic wording, like the MLQ-
10, to avoid biasing the questions toward a specific theory
or model of MIL or influencing the participant’s answers.
IPA has its roots in existentialism and phenomenological
psychology, meaning that it seeks to develop an in-depth,
embodied understanding of human existence (see Valle &
Halling, 1989), and the interview schedule was designed with
this in mind. For example, questions three and six attempt to
facilitate eidetic reduction, an approach in phenomenological
inquiry which seeks to highlight the essential features of an
experience by asking the participant to imagine variations in
their narrative.
Nine questions were asked in four categories: definition,
MLQ-P answers, personal experience, and social comparison.
Personal definition of MIL was asked for first, so the participant
could ‘set the parameters of the topic’ (Hefferon & Gil-Rodriguez,
2011, p. 757) thereby avoiding the researcher’s interpretation of
MIL biasing their answers. Three questions expanding on the
answers given in the MLQ-P subscale were asked to gauge the
participants interpretation of the questionnaire’s statements,
further allowing the participants to express their interpretation of
MIL. Four questions then explore experiences that gave a sense of
MIL, covering the details of the event(s), the nature of the sense
of meaning, and its effect on the participant.
Category Question
Definition 1: What does ‘meaning in life’ mean to you?
MLQ-P 2: In your survey response, you indicated that the statement, ‘I have a good sense of what makes my life
meaningful’, is [mostly true] for you. Please expand on why that is: what is it that makes your life meaningful,
and how did you discover that?
3. In your survey response you indicated that the statement, ‘I understand my life’s meaning’, is [somewhat
true] for you. What made you choose that option and not a lower one? And what would it take for you to
choose the next option up the scale: ‘[mostly true]’?
4. Your survey responses indicate that you feel a sense of meaning in life. How true is that? If that is the case,
what does that sense of meaning feel like?
Personal experience 5. Think back to an event in life that gave you a sense of meaning. Please describe that event in as much
detail as possible.
6. What was it about that event that contributed to a sense of meaning? How did that event differ from
other events that did not contribute to a sense of meaning?
7. What effect, if any, has that event had on your life, and what effect, if any, has a sense of meaning had on
your life?
8. Has that event changed how you think about meaning in life? If so, in what way(s)?
Social comparison 9. How do you think your sense of meaning compares to other men of a similar age? Why?
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Social comparison was the final category because it is
considered an important area for wellbeing research in young
people (e.g. Hanna et al., 2017), with social comparison being
a moderator and mediator of subjective wellbeing in a variety
of contexts (see Buunk & Pieternel, 2017). Exploring how
the participants compare themselves to peers also allowed us
to enhance IPA’s ideographic approach by examining which
parts of the MIL experience participant’s see as unique to
them, as opposed to products of their respective culture or
background.
Three of the four participants indicated they were not willing
to be interviewed in person or via video call (Skype etc.), for
reasons including embarrassment and time constraints. Because
of this, interviews were conducted through email and instant
messaging. While face-to-face interviews were the authors’
preference, online interview approaches have a growing evidence
base (see Dal, 2011).
Participants were asked the interview questions in sequence
and follow-up prompts to continue (e.g. ‘is there anything more
about that?’, ‘can you describe that?’) were posed where necessary
to gain further clarity. Repeat interviews were not conducted
and the data collection process involved only the authors and
participants.
Analysis followed the process in Smith et al. (2009) which can
be summarised in four stages. The first stage is ‘familiarisation’,
in which the interview responses are read repeatedly, and
extensive notes are taken with each reading with particular
examination of descriptive, linguistic, and conceptual content.
The next stage is ‘exploratory coding’. Coding in IPA is
inductive, meaning codes are developed from the data rather
than being predefined. In generating these codes, the researcher
‘brackets’ (i.e. sets aside) insights from previous cases as
well as their own preconceptions of the case. Next, themes
are developed and mapped into a master list of themes for
each case. Once this process has been repeated for all cases,
superordinate themes are developed from collective recurrent
themes across all cases.
Only the authors were involved in the coding process and
participants did not provide comment or correction on the
findings. The primary author conducted each interview, using
prior training in therapeutic counselling and a reflective journal
through the analysis to aid in the bracketing process. Data
saturation was not considered as it is not the intention of this
study to produce generalisable theory.
ANALYSIS
On analysing the interview data, we found three superordinate-
and eight sub-themes. 1) A period of ‘active searching’, 2) the
desire for ‘authentic significance’, and 3) the application of the
felt effects of meaning toward goal formation and as a buffer
against stressors, were common threads across all participants.
The young men involved are referred to by pseudonyms
throughout. Dean, 24, provided the shortest interview, speaking
of his journey to a sense of MIL following the loss of his son. Will,
22, gave his account of MIL as a student medical doctor. Tom,
19, born in North America but living in England for most of his
life, spoke of meaning through service and entrepreneurship. Joe,
an undergraduate student, and the youngest participant at 18,
recalled his experiences of MIL as rooted in a difficult childhood.
Active Searching
In all cases participants reported their sense of meaning resulted
from an active choice to pursue meaning as an autonomous
agent. A sense of dissatisfaction with life resulting from self-
reported crisis or adversity triggered this search.
Adversity and Dissatisfaction
All participants referred to feeling dissatisfied as the context of
their narrative. For some this state resulted from life changes, e.g.
Will’s case, in which he describes experiences of social isolation
following relocation and changing schools, ‘…I got sad, then
I started to search’ he writes. For others, it was the result of
hardship (a difficult home life in Joe’s case) or personal tragedy
(the loss of a child in Dean’s case).
‘I ended up finding out what made my life meaningful by
living a really unmeaningful life. I was living with my alcoholic
mother in an environment of extreme neglect and apathy…
Eventually I got an idea of what I was aching for and started
going after it’. (Joe)
The narratives beginning with adverse experiences reflects
Hicks and King (2009), who found that ‘constructed meaning
was more likely to occur in response to negative events while
detected meaning was more likely to be associated with positive
events.’ (p. 325). Indeed, the young men each describe a
negative context as the backdrop for a gradual revelation of
meaning, suggesting an element of construction as opposed to
detection.
‘[It’s] the sum of many small, almost insignificant events, not
one big life changer’. (Joe)
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‘I didn’t have a Hollywood-like experience. No, it was basically
knowing deep down that something is missing, and searching for
it’. (Will)
It is interesting to note that the nature or intensity of the
adversity they report did not seem to impact their MLQ-P scores,
with all participants scoring similarly (see Table 1).
In contrast, when comparing their sense of meaning against
other young men they imagined had low or no MIL, the
participants felt these men live lives of relative comfort which
precludes them from engaging in this search.
‘Many people I’ve met are comfortable where they’re at now,
in how they think and feel, their skills and everything else... As
long as I’m alive there’s always something to improve on, and that
is a major difference between me and most other men...’ (Tom)
‘From my personal experience, I noticed many men my age
are content with living life as though they are still in high school.
They’re just chilling, happy to live on autopilot.’ (Dean)
Personal Agency and Engagement
Following their encounters with crisis and adversity, the young
men recognised a need for personal action as vital for achieving
MIL. ‘I don’t think meaning in life is something that just falls on
your lap,’ writes Will.
This theme is also evident in the language choices of the
participants, for example, ‘obtaining,’ ‘finding,’ and ‘working
towards’ MIL. The sense for the participants was that MIL is
not something which arrives complete, instead it is uncovered
or constructed gradually. ‘I definitely now know that meaning
is built, not just given,’ writes Tom. Joe agrees, ‘It’s more of a
personal decision than a handed down meaning,’ again consistent
with Hicks and King’s findings on constructed meaning.
For our participants, this engagement in pursuing meaning was
an individual effort rather than interpersonal or communal. ‘I feel
as though every person has their own meaning in life,’ says Tom.
Will writes, ‘I don’t think meaning in life is ‘one-size-fits-all’,
every individual should find it for themselves.’
When comparing themselves with other imagined young men,
being engaged in this process of search and creation was a key
differentiator. The young men saw themselves as active, while low
MIL men were imagined as passive.
‘I feel as though men my age are far too comfortable with being
given a meaning instead of finding it for themselves.’ (Tom)
‘Most seem pretty apathetic and directionless, only really doing
something because it’s the path of least resistance.’ (Joe)
It is interesting to note that none of the participants scored
highly on the MLQ-10’s “search” subscale, though notably Will,
who scored the highest on presence (29), also scored the highest in
search (23). Will’s account did not testify to the generally negative
image of the search for meaning; a finding supported by Bronk et
al., who found that ‘searching for a purpose was only associated
with increased life satisfaction during adolescence and emerging
adulthood’ (2009; p. 506). However, the participant’s answers
do portray the search for meaning as something experienced only
through effort and potential discomfort.
Authentic Significance
The second major theme was the young men’s desire for a sense of
authentic significance. Authentic in that the young men wanted
to show something true and inner about themselves and their
values, which would translate to something of genuine service to
others; significant in that their service wouldn’t be superficial and
would translate to some tangible impact, recognised far and wide
on its own merit.
This superordinate theme has two sub-themes: acting on an
opportunity for service, and desire for impact and influence.
Acting on an Opportunity for Service
The young men describe their transition from searching to having
beginning with an opportunity they felt they could fulfil in the
service of others.
For Tom this happened while volunteering with a local church
group to restore a derelict community centre; ‘I realised that
someone had to step up and make a difference, even if it was just
me, I could still accomplish something big.’ While for Joe this
came from realising a demand for content that was not being met
on a social media platform and taking it upon himself to offer it.
For some this also involved recognising values and character
traits they felt were important and wanted to emulate. ‘I believe
that hard work, courage, a sense of self, self-respect, justice and
similar qualities make one’s life meaningful,’ writes Will. Dean
explains, ‘ever since a young age I admired men who were good
fathers, and went the extra mile to provide for their children.’
Personal values are present in several MIL models (e.g.
Baumeister, 1991; Yalom, 1980). Looking at relationship
between values and identity, Luyckx et al. (2006) present a model
of late adolescent identity formation, which Negru-Subtirica et
al. (2016) used to explore longitudinal links between MIL and
identity development. They found positive reciprocal associations
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between commitment processes (as in our participants action
toward a service opportunity) and the presence of meaning in
adolescents. While this study only explored the experiences of
young men, Negru-Subtirica et al. found that these identity
processes ‘applied equally to boys and girls and to early to middle,
and middle to late adolescents’ (p. 1932).
Conversely, participants describe periods of personal
meaninglessness, or other men who they imagined lacked MIL, as
self-serving. For example, Joe says of his former life, ‘…previously
I was only consuming, never producing.’
Desire for Impact and Influence
From their answers it appears that the service opportunities
were chosen because the young men saw them as a way to do
something genuinely valuable for others, that would create a
lasting impact and boost their sense of influence on the world.
Interestingly, two participants used similar phrasing to describe
this aspiration for influence:
‘[I] want to see the ripple effect of my actions.’ (Joe)
‘…because of this [goal]… my actions would have a ripple
effect across the generations.’ (Tom)
The young men felt that for their efforts to be truly impactful
they must express authenticity. Joe explains, ‘[creating things]
allows me to take my internal experience and turn it into
something tangible and permanent.’ For Will, ‘[it’s] accepting
things, accepting yourself, accepting your nature and acting the
way you really want.’
This echoes their sense that MIL is a subjective, individual
experience, however they also expressed that the creation must be
valuable in its own right, as Joe explains:
‘The fact that [what I created] was considered so good that
they continue to be reused out of pure appreciation of the
creation more than a year after they were produced is more than
enough for me.’
Fatherhood appears as a significant way the young men feel
they can extend their influence. ‘My life seems to have the
greatest meaning when I’m responsible for the wellbeing of
another life,’ writes Dean. Tom adds, ‘[I plan on being] a major
patriarch figure in my family tree.’
This notion that for a life to be meaningful it must offer
something that expands beyond the individual is strengthened by the
participant’s descriptions of times of meaninglessness which speak of
isolation or disconnection from others. Joe says, ‘[when I didn’t have
meaning] my influence in the world ended at my front door.’
Applied Effects
The final superordinate theme covered the effects and direct
experience of meaning. This is here termed ‘applied effects’
as four sub-themes became clear in two groupings. The first
grouping focused on the felt sensations of MIL, while the second
focused on the applications of those sensations to drive the
experience going forward.
Positive Affect and Physical Vitality
This theme covers the positive nature of the MIL experience.
All participants described MIL as wholly positive, both in the
language used to describe it, and in its effects, particularly
on mood. ‘You feel an immense sense of pride and joy. It’s
something truly amazing,’ writes Dean. Will explains, ‘it’s a
feeling of joy, accomplishment, courage, tranquillity.’ For Tom,
‘a sense of meaning is very calming, freeing and empowering.’
The young men also described MIL as feeling akin to physical
vitality; ‘A huge burst of energy overtakes you,’ writes Dean. ‘It
feels like being young.’ says Will. For Joe, ‘It’s feeling sharp and
alert… You feel strong, and that your strength is growing…. It’s
like the difference in your entire body’s sensation between being
sick and being healthy.’
While participants describe their sense of meaning causing
these effects, King et al. (2006) suggests positive moods may
increase sensitivity to the meaning-relevance of a situation. It is
unclear from their answers what their mood was at the time of
their opportunity for service, and how that may have affected
their experience. For example, despite the young men describing
MIL as something built through effort and discomfort, they did
not use such language to describe their catalytic event. Could
it be that the opportunity was enjoyable and so remembered as
meaningful; that the experience of meaning overshadowed the
discomfort of acting on the opportunity; or both?
Self-Confidence, Self-Efficacy, and Self-Worth
The second major felt effect was increased confidence in the
men’s abilities, self-worth, and life direction.
‘Meaning is to have a clear goal and to be confident… I can
confidently build my life towards something without fear that it’s
the wrong thing.’ (Tom)
‘You feel extremely secure in yourself, and your abilities,’
writes Dean.
Conversely, some also describe experiences of meaninglessness
as akin to self-doubt. ‘To say I don’t understand my life’s meaning
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HUGHES AND LOMAS
is to doubt what I’ve almost always wanted to do’. (Tom)
While self-efficacy appears explicitly in this theme, it appears
implicitly in our first theme also. Here, the young men describe
a sense of personal agency and individual responsibility in
overcoming their situations. While our participants describe
a boost to their self-efficacy from their initial meaningful
experiences, it is not clear to what degree the young men already
felt a sense of self-efficacy. It is possible that it is only because of
a pre-existing sense of self-efficacy that the men felt confident
enough to offer themselves in service to others, thereby allowing
them to progress past our first theme.
Goal Formation
Participants described a newfound sense of purpose in the form
of goals. They report this as projecting the confidence felt in the
earlier theme into the future.
Will writes, ‘[having] meaning in life means my life now has a
goal.’ Joe adds, ‘It helped cement in my mind that I wanted to be
a creator… all I can really do is pick a goal.’
‘Finding that sense of meaning has given me the knowledge
of what gives me purpose,’ explains Dean, adding, ‘[my] focus is
drawn to more important things.’
Aligning their values to their actions, the young men felt a
sense of purpose. Purposes in Steger’s work are defined as ‘highly
motivating long-term goals’ (2009, p. 679), while for Baumeister
purpose is the orientation toward goals, as opposed to the actual
achievement thereof (1991, p. 32). ‘To have a sense of meaning is
to have a clear goal and to be confident with what you are doing
to further that’, summarises Tom.
This sense of accomplishment and positive affect leading to
further goals is consistent with MacKenzie and Baumeister’s
notion of fulfilments which ‘usually consist of a feeling of positive
affect as well as an attainment of some goal’ (2014, pp. 30-31)
which are used as a framework for creating and organising short-
term goals. Indeed, while cliched popular images of the gaining
of meaning imply a one-off event, for example on a mountain
top (King, 2014), the men’s accounts imply a continuing upward
spiral of multiple meanings and purposes in which the felt effects
of the previous meaningful experience facilitate future meanings
through the development of new goals.
Buffering Against Stressors
Finally, the young men describe MIL acting as a support or
buffer against negative affect and stressors.
‘I can say a sense of meaning helped me about my mental
health… school is stressful… having a meaning of life helped me
tremendously in dealing with these negative emotions.’ (Will)
For Tom, the sense was vaguer, ‘... [it’s] being able to live almost
comfortably and enjoy life.’ Similarly, Joe writes, ‘[it’s] something you
feel inside especially when you’re going through tough situations.’
Participants describe MIL providing tools to form purposeful
goals and ward off stressors, consistent with research which
suggests a link between MIL and reductions in self-reported
stress (Park & Baumeister, 2016), as well as being a moderator of
stress and avoidant coping (Halama & Bakosova, 2009). Marco
et al. also found that meaning in life moderated the association
between suicide risk factors and hopelessness (2016). While none
of the participants describe experiencing the common crises of
masculinity described earlier, it is useful to see that this buffer
effect is felt in this population as current literature focuses on
older populations in specific contexts such as work.
DISCUSSION
The results of this study provide a unique ideographic chronology
of how young men report the development of MIL. This research
illustrates that young men both experience meaning in life, and
are able to recognise it, as well as its development and effects.
The young men describe their experience of MIL as a kind of
identity building, i.e. while their task in the opportunity for service
was to offer something of value to others, this was just one part in a
process which involved the forming of a meaningful identity through
value integration and goal development through a commitment
process as mentioned earlier in Negru-Subtirica et al. (2016).
This process resulted in a sense of self-worth which was
not explicitly present when the young men were describing
their initial adverse experiences. While explicit in our third
theme, worth-seeking and downward social comparison appear
throughout. The need for self-worth is the need to feel positively
self-biased (MacKenzie & Baumeister, 2014, p. 32). In their
descriptions of their imagined opposites, other young men who
the participants felt lead lives without meaning are talked of
in negative terms, as if the acquisition of meaning is a symbol
of worth and status itself. The participants did not explicitly
say this, speaking of their journey to meaning as an altruistic
endeavour, viewing themselves as overcoming hardship to help
others. On examination however, self-worth, self-efficacy and
influence are woven throughout each narrative, particularly
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RESEARCH PAPER: YOUNG MEN AND MEANING
through downward social comparison, where their ‘MIL-less’
peers are described as having no control, being ‘directionless’,
‘passive’, and following ‘the path of least resistance’.
On reflection however, it seems that the opportunities for
service the young men committed to were themselves chosen
as a way of maximising self-worth. Participants spoke of these
opportunities as a challenge, but one in which they were sure they
would emerge more confident in both their values and efficacy.
In terms of MIL’s definitional ambiguity, the conflation
between meaning and purpose is mirrored in our participant’s
responses, with “meaning in life”, “meaning of life”, and
“purpose” often used interchangeably. Two participants speak
of ‘meaning’ giving justification or clarification of ‘purpose’
however, suggesting they see meaning as a cognitive or passive
concept, and purpose as motivational or active, consistent with
Reker and Wong’s model (1988).
Our participants define MIL as a subjective process with
several discreet stages and associated qualia. Seligman notes
however that ‘meaning is not solely a subjective state.’ (2011, p.
17). Despite this, the young men only spoke of fatherhood as a
direct source of MIL stemming from another person; in all cases,
others were present in the narratives only as a means of allowing
the participants to enact their values through the opportunity
for service; MIL for these young men was not seen as co-created.
Also notably absent is the notion of ‘higher meaning’. While
‘religious meaning systems’ are positively associated with MIL
(Krok, 2015), they are only touched on in the answers of two
participants. Tom remarks that ‘being a Christian feels a bit like
a cheat,’ explaining that he feels more predisposed to meaning by
being religious. Joe, when asked what he feels might increase his
sense of MIL, responded, ‘if I wanted to move up the ladder, I’d
probably have to be more religious or spiritual than I am now.’
Joe’s idea is supported by Reker and Wong’s ‘depth postulate’
which states, ‘an individual’s degree of personal meaning will
increase in direct proportion to his or her commitment to higher
levels of meaning’ (1988, p. 226).
Given the contrasting and complimenting research discussed,
it is possible to tentatively orient the results of this study in the
broader theoretical picture and answer our research question.
Young men experience meaning in life as part of their identity
development. Ruminating on their felt adversity, they see
personal agency as the differentiator between those who find
meaning and those who do not. Seeking ways to enact this sense
of agency, they find opportunities to be of service to others in line
with their existing values. Feeling fulfilment on having acted in
line with their values, the young men imagine what it might be
like to extrapolate this into the future, represented in our findings
in the ‘desire for impact and influence’ theme. In integrating these
experiences, the young men sense a newfound comprehension of
their life and its direction, leading to positive affect and increased
self-confidence and self-worth. Coming full-circle, the young
men report an ability to better withstand the personal crises that
set them on this path, and a set of goals or purposes which allow
them to explore and further develop their identity.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
The focus of this study was young men, and while this was by
design, future research might seek to explore the phenomenology
of MIL in other populations. While the homogeneity of the sample
is ideal for an IPA study, it presents its own limitations and more
diverse samples may reveal cultural differences in the experience
of meaning. These limitations are not confined to MIL research
and calls for greater sample diversity are heard across both positive
psychology (e.g. Rao & Donaldson, 2015) and psychology ‘as
usual’ (e.g. Nielsen, Haun, Kärtner, & Legare, 2017).
Due to most of the participant’s being unwilling to be
interviewed in person or via video, interviews were conducted
through email or instant messenger. While the interviews are of
sufficient depth to allow proper analysis, face-to-face interviews
may yield a more spontaneous range of answers. Often in
qualitative research the construction and protection of masculine
identities is seen as a barrier to good data (Allen, 2005). By
refusing ‘real-time’ interviews, the young men give themselves
opportunity to review the questions and mitigate the risk of
unexpected vulnerability.
Further, because of its interpretative qualitative design the
ability to draw empirical conclusions or causal relationships
is limited, however, ‘where the reader of the report is able to
assess the evidence in relation to their existing professional and
experiential knowledge’ Smith et al. claim IPA studies may
extend to ‘theoretical generalizability’ (2009, p. 4).
CONCLUSION
This study has explored young men’s lived experience of meaning
in life (MIL). It is hoped that the qualitative, phenomenological,
and ideographic nature of the study will enhance our
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HUGHES AND LOMAS
understanding of how MIL forms in the lives of young men and
how they experience it.
Participants describe a journey to meaning through three
themes; (1) engagement in an active searching process, (2)
seeking authentic significance, and (3) the application of the felt
effects of meaning in life toward goal formation and as a buffer
against stressors.
The study uses the accounts of four participants, and,
while ideal for an IPA study, is limited in the claims it can
make. Future research is called for to broaden the scope of
phenomenological MIL research across diverse populations, and
to examine qualitatively the nuances of individual facets of MIL
from multidimensional models.
The results of the study show a complete, ideographic
development of MIL in the lives of young men, which
compliments and builds upon current research across MIL and
youth development. nCitation
Hughes, P., & Lomas, T. (2021).How do young men
experience meaning in life?’ European Journal of
Applied Positive Psychology, 5, 12, 1-13. http://www.
nationalwellbeingservice.org/volumes/volume-5-2021/
volume-5-article-13/
Biographies
Peter Hughes, 1410 Cypress Place, Manchester, M4 4EH, UK
E-mail: peter@phugh.es
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6566-9827
Dr Tim Lomas is at University of East London, University
Way, Royal Docks, London E16 2RD
E-mail: t.lomas@uel.ac.uk
Website: https://www.drtimlomas.com/
https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9458-6185
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