How Do Adolescents Develop Meaning in Their Lives?

Topics: Meaning of life, Adolescence, Psychology Pages: 26 (8958 words) Published: November 4, 2010
How do Adolescents Develop Meaning in Their Lives?

Steger, M. F., Bundick, M., & Yeager, D. (in press). Understanding and promoting meaning in life during adolescence. In R. J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence. Washington, DC: APA.

Michael F. Steger Colorado State University

Matthew J. Bundick Pennsylvania State University

David Yeager Stanford University

Contact Information: The corresponding author for this chapter is Michael F. Steger, Department of Psychology, Mail Stop 1876, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1876. Please feel free to contact any of the authors with questions: Michael Steger, Matthew

Bundick (The Pennsylvania State University, 002A Ferguson Building, University Park, PA 16802-4300), or David Yeager (271 Jordan Hall, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA 94305).

How do Adolescents Develop Meaning in Their Lives?

It is an astonishing feat of engineering, learning, or luck for humans to grow into thoughtful, purposeful, aware people leading meaningful lives. People start off as organisms with all the heft of a gallon of milk, unable to exercise sufficient willpower to keep from blowing out their diapers in their car seats while their parents groan and look for the first exit to escape rush hour traffic. Along the way, most become people with an intuitive facility for manipulating the symbolic contents of their aspirations, the future, and the world around them to create massively complex and flexible mental models of everything they have come to regard as important in life. In one sense, people go from a world where the concrete – like going to the bathroom – is an abstraction, to a world almost completely populated by abstractions that feel concrete. Math, language, fables, cartoons, time, aging, relationships, people’ goals, their own death; all of these things attain gravity primarily in our imaginations through the human ability to ride herd on their symbolic meaning. In the end, most adults appear quite capable of drawing together the threads of significance they meet in life and weaving purpose and meaning in life from them. The question is, how do people get from there to here? This entry explores the trends in meaning in life from existing research, and identifies what appear to be the key pillars of developing meaningful lives for adolescents.

What is meant by meaning?

Meaning has been conceptualized in various ways in the literature (see Steger, 2009). Many of these definitions comprise overlapping components, including: a sense of coherence

and order to one’s life (Reker, Peacock & Wong , 1987; Reker & Wong, 1988; see also Antonovsky, 1987); an understanding of relationships among things and people (Baumeister, 1991; Baumeister & Vohs, 2002); the pursuit of worthwhile goals and life purposes (Battista & Almond, 1973; Frankl, 1963; Reker, 2000; Reker et al., 1987; see also Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003; Ryff, 1989); and a general sense that one’s life is significant (Battista & Almond, 1973; Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964; Yalom, 1980). Though these definitions primarily focus on the cognitive domain, some have argued that meaning has an affective component; for example, Reker and Wong (1988; Reker et al., 1987) suggest that meaning, by definition, includes the feeling of fulfillment which may be derived from having a sense of coherence and pursuing one’s most important goals. The jury is still out as to whether the affective component of meaning is core to the construct; instead, it may be more fruitful to look at positive affect as either an outcome of meaning (e.g., Chamberlain & Zika, 1988; Zika & Chamberlain, 1992) or perhaps a precursor to it (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006). Taking these viewpoints together, this entry adopts Steger’s (2009) multifaceted definition of meaning as ―the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in...
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