Sense of Meaningfulness in Life Protects Against Mental Distress

A new study explores meaningfulness as a protective factor and crisis of meaning as worsening mental distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A new study published in BMC Psychiatry examines the role of meaning in relation to mental distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that a sense of meaningfulness served as a protective factor against psychological distress, whereas a crisis of meaning, or profound existential insecurity, intensified distress. As a result, they recommend that existential concerns be taken seriously both in therapeutic settings and in public health guidelines.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an increase in mental distress in populations worldwide. Not only can such major crises impact mental health, but they can also shake individuals’ worldviews and existential foundations, resulting in crises of meaning. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals were increasingly faced with their mortality, which can raise existential questions about meaning and purpose.

The researchers, led by Tatjana Schnell of the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society, describe the importance meaningfulness has in our lives and how it shapes our overall views of life itself:

“The question of whether or not we perceive our lives as meaningful has profound implications for how we relate to ourselves and our environment. The evaluation of life as meaningful determines whether we see life as worth living at all and are thus motivated to invest in constructive interaction with the environment—even if this should be challenging.”

The available research on the early effects of the pandemic demonstrates that mental distress occurred primarily at the beginning of the pandemic and tended to decrease most over time. However, for some individuals, levels of distress persisted or increased.

Longitudinal studies of Chinese students have implicated meaningfulness as an important protective factor against distress. Yet, the impact of lack of meaning over time has not been studied. Therefore, this study aimed to examine the effects of meaningfulness and crisis of meaning on overall psychological distress long-term.

Schnell and Krampe conducted online surveys with individuals during the first wave of the pandemic in April/May 2020 and again during a period when cases were relatively lower, in July/August 2020. One thousand five hundred sixty-eight participants completed the first survey, and 431 individuals completed the second survey. Of the individuals that participated twice, the majority were women (66%) and college-educated (66%), with a mean age of 42 years. The majority of participants were residents of Germany (53%) or Austria (41%), and the remainder of participants were from Switzerland or Italy.

Participants completed the Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire to measure meaningfulness and crises of meaning. Participants completed the Patient Health Questionnaire-4 (PHQ-4) to assess general mental distress.

Researchers found that individuals who reported higher levels of meaningfulness at the start of the pandemic tended to experience less mental distress three months into the pandemic, providing further evidence that having a sense of meaning serves as a protective factor. Conversely, participants who reported higher scores related to the crisis of meaning experienced more mental distress three months later.

Participants with high levels of a crisis of meaning also suffered from more severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, low levels of meaningfulness, as opposed to crises of meaning, did not correlate with higher levels of depression and anxiety, which is in line with earlier research that indicates that lack of meaning does not necessarily lead to distress. Instead, the suffering related to having a meaningless life causes stress.

Further, Schnell and Krampe found that meaningfulness was consistent across both surveys, suggesting that a sense of meaning is not easily disrupted, even amid a global pandemic. Moreover, they discovered that crisis of meaning and mental distress decreased slightly over the three-month period – and that the decline in mental distress was significantly related to the decrease in a crisis of meaning.

The researchers’ findings imply that attending to existential concerns is critical, both from a clinical and public health perspective. Others have called attention to the social inequalities driving psychological distress and increasing the negative effects of COVID-19 and have urged for social programs, such as social welfare, free public transportation, and access to food and digital resources to address them. Human connection in the form of empathic phone calls has also been identified as one way to reduce depression and anxiety in older adults during the pandemic.

A significant limitation of this study was its lack of representation – women and those with more education were over-represented in the sample.

The researchers conclude by recommending that existential concerns and questions be taken seriously and addressed through therapeutic and public health measures, especially during periods of widespread crises. While crises of meaning can lead to psychological suffering and, in some cases, suicidality, addressing these crises can lead to a more authentic approach to life grounded in a more realistic and, therefore, more stable worldview.

They write:

“Our data show that enabling citizens to maintain meaning in their lives even under challenging conditions is an effective preventive measure against the emergence of mental health problems. Elevated levels of a crisis of meaning, on the other hand, prospectively increased the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, while coping with them also proved beneficial for the progression of general mental distress.”

 

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Schnell, T., & Krampe, H. (2022). Meaningfulness protects from, and crisis of meaning exacerbates general mental distress longitudinally. BMC Psychiatry, 22(285). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-022-03921-3 (Link)

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Ashley Bobak, MS
Ashley Bobak is a PsyD student in Clinical-Community Psychology at Point Park University and has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. She is interested in the intersections of philosophy, history, and psychology and is using this intersection as a lens to examine substance addiction. She hopes to develop and promote alternative approaches to conceptualizing and treating psychopathology that maintain and revere human dignity.

5 COMMENTS

  1. To me the most meaningful times in my life were precisely the most agonizing, such as when my dear father perished and my wonderful sister and my lovely grandparents. And when I deeply loved and deeply lost a beloved suitor and wore nothing but black for six months and became as thin as a shoelace. It seems my whole life has been one of knowing the value of things in losing them again and again until the very yearning itself almost takes substance and form and to that I cleave my love.

  2. You’re wrong Ashley. People are supposed to accept meaningless jobs just to uphold the work ethic. And people are supposed to listen to their doctors, and to take their meds. And people are supposed to fear their own feelings and they are supposed to always feel happy. And it was wrong when the divorce law was liberalized, people should have stayed in unworkable marriages.

    And if CA Governor Gavin Newsom has his way, they will have a hearing where a judge will decide whether or not they are to be subjected to forced treatments.

    🙂 🙂 🙂

    Joshua

  3. “the suffering related to having a meaningless life causes stress.” Thus we should get the “mental health” workers out of the business of claiming people they do not know – and whose work they have not seen – are “w/o work, content, and talent” or “mentally ill.” Since such claims insinuate the person has a “meaningless life,” despite the fact that the person may not feel that way at all.

    I do agree “that a sense of meaning is not easily disrupted,” however. In my case, my sense of meaning came from my work as a mother raising two young children, my many volunteer activities, and my work on my art portfolio.

    But, apparently, when one is working to properly raise one’s children (an important, but non-paid job), and towards hopeful future profits, instead of functioning as a slave to some corporation in the here and now.

    Many “mental health” workers – some of whom barely even talk to their “patients,” like one of my psychiatrists – and instead get their misinformation about a person by illegally nosing themselves into a person’s private income statement or taxes – then claim the person is “unemployed.” Another insult, which totally ignores the very meaningful and important – albeit unpaid – work of raising one’s children, being an active volunteer, and working on my portfolio.

    “Our data show that enabling citizens to maintain meaning in their lives even under challenging conditions is an effective preventive measure against the emergence of mental health problems.”

    Well then we most definitely need to rethink the right or ability of any so called “professional” or government employee to ever steal a mother’s child. Since I would imagine for many mothers, it is raising their children, itself, that gives their life the most meaning. I love documenting history – even in a less than perfect society – via my art, don’t get me wrong.

    But I will also say, as those of us here know, defaming people with the “invalid” DSM stigmatizations and neurotoxic poisoning people, are appalling attempts to deny and steal meaning from people’s lives. And since both defamation and poisoning people are illegal activities, the “mental health” system should stop committing those crimes.

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