Life Is Meaningful, Or Is It?: The Road To Meaning In Survey Data

Samantha Heintzelman and Laura King, at the University of Missouri, published an article in American Psychologist in 2014 titled, “Life is Pretty Meaningful.” In this article the authors meaningful walkdiscuss their work that explores the answer to the “lofty” question “How meaningful is life, in general?” To do this, Heintzelman and King examined two broad categories of data sources: 1) large-scale surveys – six representative surveys conducted in the U.S. and a worldwide poll; and 2) articles published in the literature that explicitly report on research studies utilizing one of two established measures of meaning in life – the Purpose in Life Test (PIL) and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ). The large-scale surveys asked yes-and-no questions such as “Did you feel that your life has meaning [in the past 12 months]?” as well as agree-disagree rating scale items such as “My life has a real purpose.” Their analysis of these surveys concluded that “for most people, life is meaningful [and] comparatively few felt that their lives lacked meaning” (p. 565). Similarly, the authors’ investigation of studies in the literature using the PIL or the MLQ (20- and 10-item measures, respectively) resulted in the identical finding – that is, “life is pretty meaningful” (p. 567).

In anticipation of criticisms regarding their conclusions, Heintzelman and King openly acknowledge limitations of their work, including limitations associated with self-report measures, social desirability biases, and the definition of “meaning in life.”

As expected, many criticisms and concerns were expressed in response to the Heintzelman and King article. A few of these responses were published in the September 2015 issue of American Psychologist. Not surprisingly, these commentators question: the “oversimplicity” of using “self-ratings above an arbitrary midpoint” to conclude that most people find their lives meaningful (Friedman, 2015); the choice of measures (i.e., PIL and MLQ) and “positivity bias” resulting from people maintaining their positive self-concept (Brown & Wong, 2015); and the subjective, rather than the intersubjective, theory of meaning (i.e., meaning is derived from “coordinated activity among people” not a purely subjective experience) espoused by the authors (Fowers & Lefevor, 2015).

When Pew Research Center conducts a study on the use of cell phones, the yes-no questions – and the meaning of the questions – are unambiguous: Do you ever use your cell phone to participate in a video call or video chat? Do you ever use your cell phone to buy a product online, such as books, music, toys or clothing? Quantitative research of this nature is effective because the questions the researcher is asking are clear to the respondent (minimizing respondent burden and facilitating survey completion) as well as the researcher conducting the analysis (who is able to derive legitimate conclusions and recommendations based on a high level of certainty that respondents understood the questions as intended).

But not all research topics lend themselves to a standalone quantitative solution. Meaning in life is one example but there are others. Research on health and nutrition does not always fit neatly with a quantitative-only design when – as discussed in this post concerning a 2014 Gallup report – food groups are not clearly defined (what exactly constitutes a “fruit” and a “vegetable”?), or when attempting to discern the importance of taste in consumers’ decisions to purchase “more-nutritious foods” (as reported by two Danish researchers), or when trying to decipher a high importance rating to dietary habits such as “avoiding processed foods” and “eating natural foods” (Goodreau, 2015, p. 59).

The subject of God is another example of a complicated, highly personal, and potentially sensitive topic not easily reduced to a closed-ended survey question format. To illustrate, a July 2012 RDR post discussed The God Survey from SurveyMonkey that begins with the question “I wonder about God…A lot, A little, Rarely, Never.” The lack of clarity – meaning – in this question is a problem for the respondent and ipso facto the analyst. As stated in the 2012 post

“As the respondent, I can only speculate what the researcher wants me to wonder about.  Do I wonder about the existence of God?  Do I wonder what God wants from me?  Do I wonder if God is all around me or just in certain aspects of my life?  Do I wonder if there is a universal God?”

So, do most people find life “meaningful”? These and other profound, complex targets of exploration deserve a more intricate research design than a series of closed-ended questions that effectively ignore respondents’ understanding and personal meaning of the questions being asked, leaving behind important knowledge that is

“ultimately swallowed up in an analytical black hole where the meanings respondents give to research questions are lost forever.” (RDR, July 2012)

As discussed in these April and May 2015 posts, there is an important role that qualitative research can play in shedding light on quantitative data and, as importantly, enabling respondents’ voices – thoughts, meanings – to be heard. There are ways to accomplish this (e.g., various platforms that integrate qualitative “probes” with an online survey, full-blown concurrent qualitative interviews). They require more involved designs (and greater resources) than the closed-ended survey format. Yet, researchers are encouraged to take the road less traveled, to explore these alternative approaches, and contribute meaning to survey research.

Brown, N. J. L., & Wong, P. T. P. (2015). Life seems pretty meaningful. American Psychologist, 70(6), 571.

Fowers, B. J., & Lefevor, G. T. (2015). The inescapability of intersubjectivity in meaning. American Psychologist, 70(6), 573.

Friedman, H. L. (2015). The need for a more nuanced conclusion than life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist, 70(6), 570.

Heintzelman, S., & King, L. A. (2014). Life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist, 69(6), 561-574.


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