International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology

Adaptation to Adversity: Does Money or Meaning Matter More?

H’Sien Hayward, Ph.D

Harvard University

Abstract

When it comes to subjective well-being following challenging life circumstances, what matters more: Material affluence or a sense of meaning in life? Two studies examined this question, using both longitudinal and cross-sectional data. Participants in Study 1, an eight-year longitudinal study, were 39 wheelchair-using adults with spinal cord injuries. At Time 1, participants were administered a survey battery in which they were asked to indicate their annual household income, as well as to complete measures of general well-being, depressive symptomatology, and positive and negative affect. Eight years later, participants completed an online survey that included these same measures. As hypothesized, multiple regression analyses, controlling for Time 1 levels of each well-being variable, as well as gender, age, education, health, religiosity, marital status, level of injury (tetraplegia or paraplegia), and time since injury, revealed that Time 1 income did not predict future subjective well-being on any measure. Study 2 used a cross-sectional sample of 75 individuals with spinal cord injuries to test whether the absence of an income-happiness relationship replicated, and to evaluate the prediction that meaning would have a strong relation with subjective well-being. Participants completed an online battery of questionnaires that included a measure of meaning in life, general well-being, depressive symptomatology, and positive and negative affect. Multiple regression analyses again revealed that income did not predict any of the measures that were administered. Meaning, however, had a strong relationship; indeed, all subjective well-being variables were predicted by greater presence of meaning in life.

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