Charting the Course of Research on Meaning Seeking

 Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D.
Director, Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology
Trinity Western University
Presented at the Roundtable on Meaning Research in the World Congress of Logotherapy in Dallas, June, 1997

The time for meaning seeking may have finally arrived. After hundreds of years of wandering in the wilderness of philosophical and religious discourse, personal meaning has emerged as a serious candidate for scientific research and clinical practice" (Wong & Fry, in press).

The above is the opening statement in an edited book The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications, which includes contributions from leading figures in logotherapy (i.e., J. Fabry & E. Lukas) and psychology (i.e., S. Maddi & E. Klinger). It may be considered a sequel to Frankl’s (1963) Man’s search for meaning, because it covers current developments, which can be traced to Dr. Frankl’s groundbreaking work.

Given the pivotal role of personal meaning in adaptation and health (Wong, 1992; Wong & Fry, in press), Frankl’s concepts should have dominated the research literature of mainstream psychology. But this has not happened. This paper examines some of the reasons for this failure and proposes some solutions.


Logotherapy emphasizes the noetic dimension and advocates a holistic approach of treating each individual as more than the sum of his/her parts. This basic tenet is seen by many within the logotherapy circle as inherently and diametrically opposed to the reductionism of scientific research. This anti-science attitude is at least partially responsible for the lack of research on logotherapy. According to Hutzell and Hutzell (1997), co-editor of the International Forum for Logotherapy, only about 10% of the publications in the Forum have been empirical papers.

Dr. Crumbaugh’s research (Crumbaugh, 1977; Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1969) has laid the foundation for empirical studies on meaning and purpose in life. At the recent Eleventh World Congress on Logotherapy (1997), he again argued for an integration between reductionism and the noetic dimension. Hutzell and Hutzell (1997) echoed a similar sentiment and made it very clear that when logotherapists work with clients, they say "no" to reductionism, but when they do scientific research, they say "yes" to reductionism.

The recent emergence of the phenomenological approach to research has expanded the scientific method and made it unnecessary to maintain an anti-reductionistic stance. In other words, psychological research no longer needs to model after the physical sciences and there is increasing acceptance by the psychology community of the holistic, phenomenological approach to studying individuals.


Authoritarianism constitutes yet another hindrance to scientific research. The annals of history have made it abundantly clear that deference to human authority or ideology is a kiss of death for scientists. By its very nature, science recognizes only one authority — empirical facts obtained according to a set of rules and verified by other scientists. Any scientific theory is only as good as the last empirical test of its validity.

History has also made it clear that any school of thoughts built solely on the authority and personality of its founder can not survive for long, no matter how hard the followers try to immortalize its founder and pledge allegiance to his/her teachings. The only schools that survive are those which have the built-in capacity to incorporate new empirical findings and creative ideas.

The best way to remember and honor the life and work of Dr. Frankl is not to cast his ideas in stone, but to move forward in same creative and courageous spirit that has made Dr. Frankl a towering figure of the 20th century. For logotherapy to become a dominant player in the next century, it needs to encourage bold innovations and embrace all individuals interested in meaning-oriented research and applications. There are encouraging signs that logotherapy is experiencing both renewal and expansion. The Eleventh World Congress on Logotherapy in Dallas (1997) attests to the vitality and diversity of new ideas.

Need for Multidisciplinary Research

One new feature of the Eleventh World Congress on Logotherapy is the inclusion of the first Roundtable on Personal meaning (RMR). A number of researchers and clinicians participated in this Roundtable discussion. The main purpose of organizing the RMR is to gather together researchers from different disciplines and with different theoretical stripes in order to promote systematic multidisciplinary and multi-national research on personal meaning.

At this junction in time, the need is greater than ever to study meaning as a pathway to personal and social well-being. Rapid social changes, the loss of shared values, fear of an uncertain future and the increasing incidents of social and mental disorders, all cry out for touchstones to live by. It is hoped that the RMR can serve as an impetus to the movement towards meaningful and healthy living.

One of the challenges to promote such a research effort is to develop a common frame of reference and a set of constructs acceptable to researchers from different disciplines. The following represents my attempt to take up this challenge.

Meaning Seeking as an Integrative Construct

Meaning research has been hampered by the lack of clearly defined and widely accepted constructs. Several related constructs have been employed in meaning research, such as meaning of life, meaning in life, purpose in life, meaningfulness, personal meaning, values, life tasks, life goals, etc. Vernacular terms, such as meaning of life, carry the baggage of past philosophical debates regarding its very existence. What we need is an operationally defined psychological construct with a minimum of surplus meanings. I propose that meaning seeking may serve as an integrative construct for the following reasons:

  1. Meaning seeking is a psychological construct, because it involves motivational, cognitive and behavioral processes.
  2. Meaning seeking implies motivational needs for both provisional and ultimate meaning; it also implicates purposeful, goal-directed actions, which can be directly observed.
  3. Meaning seeking involves specific tasks, projects and goals, which are highly valued.
  4. Meaning seeking includes the cognitive process of construing meanings.
  5. Meaning seeking can be measured behaviorally and psychometrically.

In short, the construct of meaning seeking not only incorporates related constructs, but also lends itself readily to scientific analysis. As an action-oriented psychological construct, meaning seeking may be more helpful to researchers than the more philosophical construct of meaning of life. Furthermore, the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP) (Wong, in press, a) indicates both the level of meaningfulness in one’s life, as well as the different domains of meaning seeking.

Is there a Roadmap for Meaning Seeking?

Dr. Frankl has always emphasized individual uniqueness in the quest for meaning. He believes that for each individual in each situation, there is only one special meaning of the moment. However, it should also be pointed out the uniqueness of individuals does not mean that there are no general principles of meaning seeking. In fact, Frankl (1963) proposed three general avenues of meaning: creative, experiential and attitudinal values.

Throughout his writings, Dr. Frankl also emphasized the cardinal importance of self-transcendence as the foundation for meaningful living. In her keynote speech at this conference, Lukas (1997) highlighted the attitude of acceptance as one of the key ingredients of meaningful living. Khatami (1997) emphasized the attributes of the authentic self, which include being part of a community and commitment to relationship. Dr. Fabry (1988) also wrote about the guideposts to meaningful living. These leaders of logotherapy have suggested that in spite of individuals’ idiosyncratic ways of seeking and finding meaning, there are indeed time-proven pathways to meaning.

There is no disagreement that individuals may have very different views of what makes life meaningful because of their unique personal histories and cultural experiences. In a post-modern society, everything is relative and "self" has become the measure of all things; therefore, any reference to general principles or universal values is suspect. However, in scientific research, it is necessary to work with empirical laws and generalized structures. After all, scientific knowledge is built on objective, empirical research and it is organized according to general principles.

My own research on lay people’s implicit theories of ideally meaningful life (Wong, in press, a) has demonstrated that a general structure of meaning can be extracted from subjective, idiosyncratic responses. This line of research has revealed a prototypical structure of meaning seeking, which consists of eight factors: Religion, Achievement, Relationship, Intimacy, Self-transcendence, Self-acceptance, Fair-treatment and Fulfillment.

Except for Fair-treatment, all other factors have been shown to be components of meaningful existence (e.g., Wong & Fry, in press). It is worth noting that this research has provided empirical evidence for the importance of Self-transcendence and Self-acceptance. Both factors are considered as essential to meaningful living.

Fair-treatment refers to social justice and equal opportunity. When individuals feel that they are discriminated against or oppressed by society, their sense of self-esteem and personal meaning is likely to be undermined. This dimension suggests that society has a responsibility to provide a level playing field for individuals in their quest for meaning and fulfillment.

The Fulfillment factor has been excluded from the PMP so that the PMP can be used to predict well-being without the confound of feelings of fulfillment. The PMP measures individual ratings on the remaining seven dimensions of prototypical meaning. The higher these ratings, the more individuals approximate the ideally meaningful life.

Research on the PMP has shown that ratings on these factors are significantly correlated with criteria meaning measures, as shown in Table 1. In other words, the more individuals approximate the prototypical structure; the more they experience meaning and purpose in their lives. Results also show that PMP scores are positively related to well-being measures.

Table 1. Correlations between the PMP and criterion measures   

Religion .3497 .3571 .3962 .5050 .4785
Achievement .4856 .5326 .6488 .5003 .6443
Relationship .4228 .4228 .4159 .3467 .4813
Intimacy .5117 .2710 .4304 .4013 .4891
Transcendence .5364 .5245 .6281 .6045 .6838
Acceptance .4933 .2593 .4611 .3892 .4848
Fairness .4313 .2829 .4804 .3922 .4766
Fulfillment .5240 .4874 .6812 .5206 .6598
Total PMP .5914 .5557 .6886 .6204 .7330
Total Source .5854 .5510 .6701 .6191 .7240

(n = 326)  All ps < .001

In addition, Wong (in press, a) has reported that meaning seeking, as measured by the PMP, is a more effective inner resource against depression than optimism and other cognitive moderators. More recent research has also shown that meaning seeking is a very effective buffer against work stress (Giesbrecht, 1997). Existing evidence suggests that people are more likely to find meaning if they are engaged in cognitive and behavioral activities in the seven domains specified by the prototypical meaning structure. Together, these findings lend credence to the notion of a blueprint for meaningful living.

Practical Implications for Having a Roadmap for Meaning Seeking

The concept of having a roadmap for meaning seeking has important implications for research and intervention. Firstly, although individuals are free to decide what is meaningful for them, misguided ambitions and faulty values may influence their choices. For example, if people make pleasure seeking and money-making the overriding reasons for their existence, they are likely to experience disillusion and meaninglessness and no amount of "chicken soup for the soul" is going to help.

The PMP tells us where we are more likely to find meaning and fulfillment. One of the most common questions asked is "How can I find meaning in my life?" or "How can I make my life meaningful?" As therapists, we do not tell people what to do, but we can expose them to the opportunities for meaning and facilitate their quest for meaning. The roadmap, according to the PMP, can be a useful tool for dialogue and exploration with our clients.

At the Tenth World Congress on Logotherapy, I (Wong, 1995) proposed that Dr. Frankl’s three avenues of meaning could be combined with the seven domains to generate 21 pathways of seeking and finding meaning. Thus, the roadmap provided by the PMP helps broaden the opportunities for meaning.

Secondly, the roadmap also enables us to predict whether a particular culture or society suffers from existential crisis. If society as a whole is preoccupied with materialism and hedonism, we can predict that the incident rates of existential neurosis, alienation and despair for that society would be significantly higher than societies which value prototypical meanings. Such findings would justify the need to promote the seven sources of meaning.

Thirdly, if cross-cultural research demonstrates a universal meaning structure, it would suggest that the seven prototypical factors of meaning may stem from the noetical dimension shared by all humanity. It would also suggest that the prototypical meaning structure is an essential component of mental life.

What are the Categories of Meaning Research?

To facilitate multidisciplinary meaning research, we need to take stock of what has been done. Studies on meaning seeking can be grouped into the following categories:

  1. Psychometric studies — these are concerned with the development of reliable and valid instruments that measure different aspects of meaning seeking.
  2. Demonstrative studies — these are correctional studies, which demonstrate the association between meaning seeking with outcome measures.
  3. Clinical studies — these studies are designed to document the beneficial effects of logotherapy and meaning-centered interventions.
  4. Experimental studies — these studies involve experimental manipulation of some aspects of meaning seeking and compare its effects with control groups.
  5. Developmental studies — these are longitudinal studies looking at the formation and development of meaning seeking as a function of life span development.
  6. Psychobiological studies — these studies investigate the impact of meaning seeking on biological systems, such as the immunological and endocrine responses to stress.
  7. Cross-cultural studies — these studies focus on cultural differences in the preconditions, functions and outcomes of meaning seeking.

Most of the published research belongs to the first three categories. The last four categories can benefit most from multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural studies. It is hoped that the RMR can contribute to long-range systematic research in all the above areas.

What are the Major Research Questions for Meaning Seeking?

There are so many missing pieces in the puzzle that many years of concerted research effort is needed in order to gain a basic understanding of the nature and impact of meaning seeking. Here is just a sample of the research questions that are worth pursuing:

  1. Are there cultural differences in meaning seeking?
  2. To what extent do different types of meaning seeking contribute to mental and physical health?
  3. To what extent do the different processes (i.e., cognitive, motivational, etc.) of meaning seeking contribute to well being.
  4. What are the underlying mechanisms whereby meaning seeking impacts the psychobiological systems of resistance to stress and disease?
  5. Does meaning seeking contribute to recovery from addiction, trauma and other diseases?
  6. What kinds of intervention are effective in promoting meaning seeking?
  7. How effective is meaning-centered counseling in helping people deal with end of life issue and bereavement?
  8. Does meaning-centered intervention free adolescent girls from their preoccupation with body image and popularity and help them develop a healthier lifestyle?
  9. Does meaning-centered intervention free adolescent boys from their preoccupation with sex and sensation seeking and help them develop a healthier lifestyle?
  10. Does meaning-centered intervention promote successful aging?
  11. Is meaning-centered intervention effective in dealing with depression and anxiety?
  12. Is meaning-centered intervention effective in preventing crimes and other social ills?
  13. Does meaning-centered research improve international understanding?
  14. Does meaning-centered intervention enhance social harmony and world peace?

The main theme that runs through the above research problems is that meaning seeking is a major pathway to personal health and social well-being. We need to put together a strong international, multidisciplinary research team to investigate the processes of meaning seeking and the mechanisms whereby meaning impacts health and well-being.

The Link between Research and Application

Recently, I (Wong, in press, b) described my cognitive-behavioral approach to logotherapy. This particular approach is based on my research on implicit theories and meaning seeking.

Most clients seek therapy because they feel overwhelmed by life’s problems, they feel trapped by their current situations and they are worried about their future. Meaning seeking provides the inner resources they need to cope with the demands of daily living as well as the hope and roadmap they need for their future. To put it briefly, meaning-centered counseling facilitates the following developments in clients:

  • a deeper and more positive understanding of themselves and their life situations.
  • meaningful activities which serve as inner resources for daily living and a buffer against stress and depression.
  • realistic and meaningful life goals resulting in a purpose for their lives and hope for the future.

In short, my own research on meaning seeking and my practice of meaning-centered counseling have demonstrated the value of the scientist-practitioner model for therapy. A cognitive-behavioral emphasis based on the construct of meaning seeking will facilitate research and application. I believe that a rigorously established scientific base can greatly strengthen both the appeal and impact of logotherapy. I also believe that other paradigms of meaning-centered research and intervention can equally contribute to our understanding of the beneficial roles of personal meaning.

It is my hope that we can indeed invite researchers and practitioners from various disciplines and different countries to develop a long-term research agenda and strategy. Our shared vision and common goal is to study the wide-ranging effects of meaning seeking and apply these findings to promote individual well-being, community health and world peace.


Crumbaugh, J. C. (1977). The Seeking of Noetic Goals Test (SONG): A complementary scale to the Purpose-in-Life Test (PIL). Journal of Clinical Psychology, 33, 900-907.

Crumbaugh, J. C., & Maholick, L. T. (1969). Manual of instruction for the Purpose-in-Life Test. Psychometric Affiliates, Munster, IN.

Fabry, J. (1988). Guideposts to meaning. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Pocket Books.

Frankl, V. E. (1990). Facing the transitoriness of human existence. Generations, 15, 7-10.

Giesbrecht, H. A. (1997). Meaning as a predictor of job satisfaction, work stress and coping. Unpublished master’s thesis, Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia, Canada.

Hutzell, R. R. & Hutzell, V. L. (1997). Publishing in The International Forum for Logotherapy. Presentation in the Roundtable on Meaning Research at the Eleventh World Congress on Logotherapy, Dallas, TX.

Khamati, M. (1997). Altered state of consciousness: Royal road to authentic self. Paper presented at the Eleventh World Congress on Logotherapy, Dallas, TX.

Lukas, E. (1997). Key words as a guarantee against the imposition of values in logotherapy. Keynote Address given at the Eleventh World Congress on Logotherapy, Dallas, TX.

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, a). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, b). Meaning-centred counselling. In Wong & Fry

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, c). A cognitive-behavioural approach to logotherapy.

International Forum for Logotherapy

Wong, P. T. P., & Fry, P. S. (Eds.) The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

©1998-2007, International Network on Personal Meaning, Unless otherwise noted
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