Meaning in life (shortened by researchers to MiL) has not been the subject of much rigorous academic research, perhaps because it is so difficult to define. Yet the little research that has been done suggests it could be an incredibly important variable in determining our overall contentment.
In a paper published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr Laura King and her colleagues at the University of Missouri, Columbia, report that, among various personality variables, MiL was the most consistent predictor of psychological well-being. But what do the scientists mean when they talk about "meaning in life"?
One view is that we interpret "meaning" in the context of a wider framework, such as religion or a philosophy of life. Long-term goals also count, whether it be an ambition to become prime minister or a pole dancer.
Scientists say it doesn't matter what the goal is; they all count equally as a source of finding meaning in life.
Dr King and her colleagues' study found that when people are in a positive mood, they are more apt to feel life is meaningful. A broadened mindset, produced by feelings of optimism, plus the capacity to make unusual and creative connections between elements, might help us derive more meaning from our lives. This finding could radically change psychologists'
traditionally rather negative view of the pursuit of short-term pleasure.
Dr King and her colleagues say their results suggest that the lines between hedonistic pleasure and more "meaningful pursuits" should not be drawn too rigidly. They accept that hedonism can have a deservedly bad reputation (the Marquis de Sade, for example), but argue that pleasure itself need not be viewed as inconsequential or routinely destructive. They suggest that hedonistic experiences have a role in MiL. The trouble is that the short-term pursuit of pleasure, such as watching TV, is often in opposition to longer-term targets, such as good exam results.
But it's also possible to learn to derive pleasure from good exam results; it just requires more training than the pleasure derived from watching TV.
Maybe the true art of the good life is to learn to enjoy things that produce longer-term benefits, an investment that repays short-term dividends as well as maturing eventually into a golden nest egg.
Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org