(ORDO NEWS) — When we think about a meaningful life, we often look to people whose great contributions have benefited humanity. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela certainly felt they had lived a decent life. But what about us ordinary people leading an ordinary existence?
Many scholars agree that a subjectively meaningful existence often boils down to three factors: a sense that one’s life is coherent and “meaningful”, having clear and satisfying long-term goals, and believing that one’s life matters in the grand scheme of things. Psychologists call these three things consistency, purpose, and existential significance.
But we believe there is another element that needs to be taken into account. Think of the first butterfly you stopped to admire after a long winter, or imagine the scenery on a hilltop after a fresh hike. Sometimes existence gives us small moments of beauty.
When people are open to appreciating such experiences, these moments can improve their outlook on life. We call this element experiential gratitude. This phenomenon reflects a sense of deep connection with ongoing events and the ability to extract value from this connection. It represents discovering and admiring the inherent beauty of life.
We recently set out to better understand this form of gratitude in a series of studies published in the journal Nature Human Behavior involving more than 3,000 people.
In these studies, we were interested in whether emotional evaluation is associated with a person’s sense of meaning, even if we account for the influence of the classic trinity of consistency, purpose, and existential significance. If this is the case, then the evaluation of experience may be a unique contributor to meaningfulness, and not just a product of these other variables.
As an initial test of our idea in the early stages of the COVID pandemic, we asked participants to rate their approval of various coping strategies. We found that people who dealt with stress by focusing on the beauty of life also reported that their lives were filled with meaning.
In a subsequent study, we asked participants to rate their degree of agreement with various statements such as “I greatly appreciate the beauty of life” and “I value a variety of experiences”, as well as other statements regarding sequence, purpose, existential significance, and a general sense of meaning in life.
Our results showed that the more people indicated that they “value life” and its varied experiences, the more they felt the value of their existence. Actually, these two elements are strongly related to each other, even when we controlled other aspects of a meaningful life.
In subsequent studies, we explored the relationship between these concepts more deeply. For example, we found that participants who were asked to remember the most significant event of the past week tended to report a high emotional appreciation of those moments.
Finally, we ran a series of experiments in which we gave people specific tasks and again asked them to report how strongly they identified with statements related to purpose, significance, and so on.
In one case, we found that participants who watched an awe-inspiring video, such as the opening episode of the BBC documentary Planet Earth, reported experiencing a greater sense of practical gratitude and meaning in life, compared to participants who watched more neutral videos. , for example, a training video on woodworking.
Similarly, participants who wrote about a recent experience for which they were grateful subsequently experienced a greater sense of meaning and practical appreciation compared to participants who simply wrote about a common place,
The results supported our original theory that gratitude for small things can make life more meaningful. But applying this understanding can be tricky. Our modern, fast-paced, project-oriented lifestyle fills the day with tasks and goals.
We are constantly on the move and trying to achieve maximum results both at work and at leisure. With such a focus on future results, it is very easy to miss what is happening right now. But life happens in the present moment.
We must slow down, let life surprise us, and accept the importance of everyday life. As former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1950: “We live in a wonderful world. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if we only look for them with open eyes.”
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