According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Social Psychology and Terror Management Theory

Still Life with Skull by Philippe de Champagne (1602-1674). (Wikimedia Commons)

To Feel Meaningful Is to Feel Immortal

by Clay Routledge
November 3, 2014

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Imagine when our ancestors first started to look up at the stars and question their place in the universe. Why are we here? Are we alone? What happens to us when we die? It is difficult to know for sure at what point in time we became a species obsessed with existential questions. We can roughly date when humans first started to paint magical beings on cave walls or carefully and ornamentally bury the dead. But precisely when our ancestors started to truly behave like us is a matter of considerable debate. What we do know, however, is that at some point tens or maybe even a hundred or more thousand years ago, people started to look beyond the basic day-to-day concerns of the body to focus on matters of the soul.

A lot has changed since our species first began to contemplate such heavy issues. We can now send rockets into outer space, map the human genome and transmit information around the globe nearly instantaneously (we still need those flying cars we were promised though). And yet despite how technologically advanced our world has become, we are still burdened by the basic existential queries that early humans grappled with. We want to know our place in the universe. We strive to maintain the belief that we are living meaningful lives. And we cling to the hope that we are more than the sum of our biological parts, that we will make contributions to the world that transcend our mortality. In short, humans have long been and probably always will be existential animals – a species on a quest for enduring meaning.

Our existential lives have always fascinated philosophers and theologians. But now scientists are jumping into the fray, using empirical methods to ask questions that were once considered off limits to them. Specifically, empirical psychologists are exploring questions such as: Why do people seek meaning? What is it that makes life meaningful? And what are the mental and physical health consequences of finding (or not finding) meaning?

Why Does Meaning Matter?

My dog does not appear to be contemplating his purpose in life and he seems relatively well adjusted. Why then do humans desire to perceive their lives as meaningful?

One explanation that has received a significant amount of scientific attention relates to the human awareness of self and death. According to terror management theory, a prominent theory in social psychology, humans are like all other animals in that we strive to survive. Our bodies consist of systems that work to keep us alive. And as conscious beings, we deliberately engage in efforts to avoid death. We are motivated to live. However, unlike other animals, humans are intelligent enough to realize that death is certain. That is, we are uniquely aware of our mortal nature. We understand that despite our best efforts to stay alive, death is inevitable.

Terror management theory asserts that this juxtaposition of a desire to live and an awareness of death has the potential to cause a significant amount of anxiety or terror and that humans need to manage this terror in some way. We would not be a very productive species if we lived our lives in constant fear of death. Thus, according to the theory, people seek out a sense of enduring meaning that makes them feel more than mortal.

In other words, people know their lives are brief and so we endeavor to be part of something that transcends biological existence. This sense of death-transcendence can come from having children, creating works that will leave a lasting legacy, investing in a group or organization that outlasts the lives of any individual member, and so on. Of course, religion is a particularly powerful meaning-making tool as most religious beliefs explicitly afford humans a means of transcending death.

St. Jerome by Caravaggio (1573-1610). (Wikimedia Commons)

Research supports terror management theory. Specifically, studies find that when people are exposed to stimuli that remind them of their mortality, they exhibit increased investment in the social and cultural identities that provide meaning and perceptions of death-transcendence. For example, having people contemplate mortality increases their desire to have children, level of patriotism, religious faith and commitment to romantic partners. In short, heightening the awareness of death heightens efforts to find and preserve transcendent meaning.

Similarly, meaning mitigates the threat of death awareness. For example, studies show that having people think about death increases fear of death. However, this effect is only observed among those who do not perceive their lives as meaningful. People who have meaning are not as terrified about the fact that they are mortal.

There may actually be a number of reasons that people need meaning. However, alarge body of research demonstrates that the realization that life is finite is a potent driving force for people’s efforts to feel that their lives are purposeful and meaningful. People want to be more than mere mortal beings who die and disappear forever. To feel meaningful is to feel like you made a lasting mark, a contribution that will endure beyond your death. To feel meaningful is to feel immortal.

And there are many practical benefits to existential security as studies have identified a number of ways that meaning contributes to mental and physical health. Consider the following examples.

Meaning Helps People Cope with Life Challenges: Becoming ill or having to face a major life challenge such as job loss or the death of a loved one is difficult for everyone. However, research indicates that people who report having a strong sense of meaning in life are better able to cope with these mentally and physically taxing experiences. Meaning can give people the inner strength they need to overcome many of life’s hurdles. Meaning motivates. It makes people want to productively move forward in life.

Meaning Reduces the Risk of Mental Illness: Many studies indicate that people who believe their lives are full of meaning and purpose are less likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders and less inclined to engage in problematic behavior such as excessive drinking. And studies show that when people do struggle from mental illness, finding meaning can improve the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. Meaning not only helps people cope with difficulties in life, it also promotes psychological health.

Meaning Contributes to Successful Aging: A number of studies have established a strong link between meaning in life and quality of life among older adults. Older adults who perceive their lives as meaningful are physically and mentally healthier than those who perceive their lives as having little or no meaning. Meaning in life is also associated with decreased fear of death among older adults.

Meaning Reduces the Risk of Mortality: Emerging research further highlights the importance of meaning by revealing that people who report having a strong sense of purpose in life live longer. In fact, across all adult age groups, purpose is associated with mortality. Even among young adults, the greater your sense of purpose, the less likely you are to die.

A Growing Field

This is just a small sample of the ever-growing scientific literature on the psychology of meaning. Historically, existential psychology was considered a topic that “serious” empirical psychologists should avoid. It was too warm and fuzzy. This view was prominent, in part, because the field of psychology was desperately striving to earn its place as a legitimate science and shed its lay reputation as a discipline more about interpreting dreams and decrypting the hidden meaning of people’s thoughts than systematic scientific research and empirically-derived therapeutic interventions. But as the field continues to evolve and thrive as a science-based enterprise, researchers are beginning to feel more comfortable using the tools of science to explore fundamental questions about our existential nature. Humans are meaning-making animals and scientists are just now beginning to fully understand just how important the meaning motive is for adaptive functioning.

About the Author: Dr. Clay Routledge is a social psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. His research focuses on how the need to perceive life as meaningful impacts mental and physical health, close relationships, and intergroup relations. He is a leading expert in the area of experimental existential psychology. He regularly publishes his work in the top psychology journals, recently co-edited a book on the scientific study of meaning in life, and is currently writing a book on the psychology of nostalgia. His work has been featured by The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, BBC, CNN, CBC, ABC News, Men's Health, Women's Health and Cosmopolitan. He also regularly serves as an expert guest on national and international radio programs.

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