Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet
Being part of a social community is a key source of meaning – and a basic psychological need. It allows us to better cope with what psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes as “existential isolation” – that we are always, fundamentally, alone in ourselves. There is always an unbridgeable gap between ourselves and other people. But being with other people and experiencing actual closeness can make that gap disappear, or become invisible. At least in the moment.
When you ask people what gives them meaning in life, the vast majority of adults (84%) say family. Younger adults (19-26) mention friends more often, but still there is an overwhelming agreement: the closest people in their life is most people’s main source of meaning. Being with close friends is good for your soul. You benefit yourself when you are there for others, when you are part of a community. The experience of care and support, or of laughing with friends so hard you can hardly breathe, and feeling completely safe with them.
Having a partner means that you experience fewer crises of meaning. Many of the benefits of marriage also seem to come from the experience of meaning – both men and women who are married experience more meaning in their lives. Although both sexes often become less happy and joyful after having children, women in particular gain more meaning in their lives from becoming mothers. This does not seem to be the case for most fathers, but being married gives men substantially more meaning in life than not being married – at least in German-speaking countries. However, it can be assumed that there are strong cultural differences here, and that these results will change with the changes in our relationship models!
As social animals, feeling socially included is essential for us to feel safe. Social exclusion, being rejected, is devastating to us psychologically. That’s because in evolutionary terms, being rejected from your pack almost certainly meant being doomed to starve and die. The psychologist Twenge and colleagues (2003) described that being socially rejected created a state of what the psychologist Baumeister (1990) calls cognitive deconstruction. This was demonstrated in an experiment where they made participants feel socially excluded by being told that none of the other participants (whom they had spoken to in groups beforehand) would work with them. Even being rejected by strangers in an artificial situation like this made them have slower reaction times, think less about the future, have less self-control, have more flattened emotions, try to avoid self-awareness, and feel to a greater extent that life is meaningless.
On the other hand, we experience life as more meaningful when we feel part of a community. Especially a community we have belonged to for a long time. For older people, it is especially important at the end of life to feel reassured that someone will be there for them when they can’t manage their life on their own. It also works in the opposite direction – feeling that life is meaningful makes people feel more able to contribute to and be part of a community, and more likely to find a partner. Belonging also makes you feel that your job is more meaningful – which is called psychological ownership, and also gives you more meaning in your life from your job.
All these forms of belonging, with other people, significant others, family, and at work, are closely linked to having a meaningful life. This is because belonging doesn’t just make you feel like you belong in a group – ideally, it can make you feel like you existentially belong in the world. With belonging so closely linked to meaning, an interesting question is whether it is even possible to create a meaningful life alone, and if so, what does it take to do so?
From chapter 7, The social dimension of meaning in life, in The Psychology of Meaning in Life by Tatjana Schnell (2021).
Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Suicide as escape from self. Psychological Review, 97(1), 90-113. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.97.1.90
Schnell, T. (2021). The Psychology of Meaning in Life. Routledge.
Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Social exclusion and the deconstructed state: time perception, meaninglessness, lethargy, lack of emotion, and self-awareness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 409-423. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1999