Want to Find Meaning in Life? Then Get into Shape.

Healthy Woman With Cute Dog In Park

Good things come to those who sweat.” Anonymous

This article explores the crucial role of being in good physical and mental shape for experiencing Meaning in Life.

Researchers in positive psychology have developed powerful cognitive strategies (such as value alignment and goal setting) to help you discover meaning.

However, an often-overlooked factor that affects your ability to experience Meaning in Life is your overall health.

What is Meaning in Life?

But first, what exactly do I mean by ‘Meaning in Life’?

Here, I defer to Dr. Michael Steger’s elegant definition, where Meaning in Life ‘provides us with the sense that our lives matter, that they make sense, and that they are more than the sum of our seconds, days, and years.’ (1).

This definition beautifully summarizes the three fundamental concepts that underpin Meaning in Life.

  1. You know that your core values and are coherent and make sense.
  2. You have discovered your purpose and your life mission.
  3. Finally, you experience a life that has value and significance.

Why is Meaning in Life so crucial?

Finding Meaning in Life is arguably one of your most important life goals, for several reasons.

First, it should be obvious that following a consistent set of core values, discovering a strong sense of purpose, and living a life of value and significance are intrinsically good outcomes.

In addition, Living a Meaningful Life may protect you against various adverse life events.

For example, people who experience Meaning in Life tend to be better protected than others when confronted with cardiovascular disease, age-related cognitive decline, burnout, social isolation, psychological disorders, and the risk of physical disability (reviewed in (2)).

Causation versus Correlation

A common assumption within the positive psychology literature is that experiencing Meaning in Life improves your health. However, although there is a significant correlation between Life Meaning and improved physical health (3), correlation does not prove causation (3).

Consider the study by Sone and Colleagues (4). Here, the researchers explored the relationship between ikigai and overall mortality in Japan (4).

Ikigai is the Japanese concept that encompasses the idea of a life worth living. Ikigai is the feeling of “joy and a sense of well-being from being alive” and of “realizing the value of being alive” (4). Hence, Ikigai has substantial overlap with our Western conception of Meaning in Life.

Sone and Colleagues found that Japanese people who experience Ikigai had a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and suicide (4). Thus, Ikigai seems to protect Japanese people from suicide, stroke, and heart failure. Great!

The Negative Correlation Between Poor Health and Meaning in Life

However, people without ikigai experience significantly poorer health, increased stress, increased pain, and reduced physical function than those with ikigai (summarized in Table One) (4). Thus, the negative correlation between ikigai and poor health suggests a second hypothesis: unhealthy individuals may struggle to experience Meaning in Life.

IkigaiYesNo
Bad or poor SELF Rated Health (%)12.30%46.60%
Bad or poor perceived mental stress (%)12.40%36.30%
Bad or poor physical pain (%)13.40%33.30%
Limited physical function (%)18.90%48.60%
Table One. Prevalence of poor health indices of Japanese people with or without ikigai (n = 43,391), Adapted from (4).

Unfortunately, the hypothesis that poor health impedes people’s search for meaning is widely supported. For example, several recent studies have found that people suffering from depression and anxiety are less likely to experience Meaning in Life (e.g., see (5-7)).

Collectively, these data suggest that you may find it challenging to experience Meaning in Life while you are unhealthy or in pain. If this hypothesis is true, experiencing poor physical or mental health poses a significant obstacle to your quest for Meaning in Life.

Virtuous versus Vicious Cycles

Figure One shows a simple yet valuable heuristic that may help you find Meaning in Life.

Meaning In Life Virtuous Versus Vicious Cycles
Figure One. Healthy lifestyle choices support good health, which increases your likelihood of experiencing Meaning in Life. In contrast, Depression or other health issues can encourage poor lifestyle choices, which reinforce poor health and decrease your likelihood of experiencing Meaning in Life. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and consistent, high-quality sleep support good health, and in conjunction with professional medical intervention, can help you break the vicious cycle and experience Meaning in Life.

The top panel shows a virtuous cycle where experiencing Meaning in Life supports you in making healthy lifestyle decisions, which maintains your health, which makes it easier for you to find Meaning in Life.

In contrast, when you are in a depressed or anxious mental state (or otherwise in pain), you enter a vicious cycle of poor lifestyle decisions that damage your health, reinforcing a pessimistic worldview that impedes your search for meaning.

Because poor health and Meaning in Life are inversely correlated, I recommend a healthy lifestyle to support your search for meaning. As I’ve discussed, a healthy diet combined with regular exercise and consistent, high-quality sleep goes a long way towards improving your overall physical, psychological, and cognitive health.

However, a healthy lifestyle only goes so far. Significant physical or psychological distress requires professional medical intervention. Thus, if you are in distress, you should seek the help of medical professionals.

Take-Home Message

A careful reading of the literature reveals that people in poor health are less likely to experience Meaning in Life. Therefore, for many, physical or mental illness may present a significant obstacle to their search for meaning.

Thus, I recommend that if you are seeking Meaning in Life, your strategy should include healthy lifestyle interventions such as following a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and consistent, high-quality sleep. Furthermore, during times of need, you should seek out the help of medical professionals.

Health And Meaning In Life

References and Further Reading

1.            M. F. Steger, in The human quest for meaning. (Routledge, 2013), pp. 211-230.

2.            L. A. King, J. A. Hicks, The Science of Meaning in Life. Annu Rev Psychol 72, 561-584 (2021).

3.            K. Czekierda, A. Banik, C. L. Park, A. Luszczynska, Meaning in life and physical health: systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychol Rev 11, 387-418 (2017).

4.            T. Sone et al., Sense of life worth living (ikigai) and mortality in Japan: Ohsaki Study. Psychosom Med 70, 709-715 (2008).

5.            A. Güngör, A. G. Uçman, Depression and hopelessness in Turkish healthcare workers: The moderating and mediating roles of meaning in life. Glob Public Health 15, 236-246 (2020).

6.            C. D. Corona, K. A. Van Orden, B. E. Wisco, R. H. Pietrzak, Meaning in Life Moderates the Association Between Morally Injurious Experiences and Suicide Ideation Among U.S. Combat Veterans: Results From the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. Psychol Trauma 11, 614-620 (2019).

7.            F. K. Sun, M. K. Wu, Y. Yao, C. Y. Chiang, C. Y. Lu, Meaning in life as a mediator of the associations among depression, hopelessness and suicidal ideation: A path analysis. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs,  (2021).

Acknowledgments

Images created by Ridofranz and Drazen Zigic

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Woman Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra for Better Sleep

Disrupted sleep increases anxiety and depression. Yoga Nidra is an effective method that has helped many people overcome insomnia.

Beautiful Woman Running On Treadmill

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Emerging research shows that low-intensity cardio is the best way to improve your metabolic and cardiovascular health.

Strong bones, strong brain.

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Regular exercise releases osteocalcin from your bones. Once in circulation, osteocalcin enters your brain to support learning and memory.