Finding beauty and meaning in what we often overlook.
Scholars have long sought to answer what gives us meaning in life.
Recent views of a meaningful life focus on three key aspects: a sense of coherence (feeling that life fits together in an understandable way), purpose (feeling that valued goals drive life), and mattering (feeling that you matter and add value to the world).
Put together, these key aspects of meaning in life suggest that we want our lives to make sense and to feel that our experiences are meaningfully connected—to other experiences in the past, to goals for the future, and to other people.
But Jinhyung Kim and colleagues have posited that there is another fundamental aspect of life that gives rise to meaning: appreciating one’s experiences.
According to their research, appreciating one’s experiences and the beauty of life–be it basking in the glow of a warm summer sun, feeling the music as it fills up a concert hall, or laughing whole-heartedly at a young child's joke–anchors people in the value of the present moment and gives people a sense of meaning in life.
Across seven studies, Kim and colleagues found that appreciating one’s experiences predicted greater meaning in life even when accounting for a sense of coherence, purpose, and mattering. They found this was true when looking at appreciation while coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, tracking people in their daily lives, and asking people to recall meaningful events in the recent past.
In multiple studies, people were induced to feel more experiential appreciation through awe-inspiring videos or recalling experiences they appreciated. In these studies, people who reported greater appreciation of experiences subsequently felt greater meaning in life.
How did the authors capture appreciation of one’s experiences? One way was by asking people to rate their agreement with statements such as, “I have a great appreciation for the beauty of life,” “I appreciate the little things in life,” “I take great interest in my daily activities,” and “I tend to find myself deeply engaged in conversations with other people.”
Feeling that our lives are meaningful is deeply satisfying, but we may struggle to always feel that our lives have purpose or that we really matter, especially when forces beyond our control are shaping our lives.
What struck me about this research was that the findings suggest we may have more control over making our lives meaningful than we realize. We might not be able to make major changes to how we spend our time, but we can choose to immerse ourselves in our experiences. We can choose to fully engage with people when we talk with them and enjoy connecting with others. We can choose to lift our heads from our smartphones and take a moment to appreciate the world around us. We can take a breath and feel grateful simply for being alive.
And each of these moments, moments we have control over and can choose to experience each day, may bring us closer to feeling that our lives have meaning. The authors suggest meaning in life can be felt by “simply appreciating the intrinsic beauty of the moment.” I think we should all try it and see if we agree.