Meaning in Life

Much of my work examines questions regarding the experience of meaning in life, such as “What makes life meaningful?” “Why is meaning in life a central human motivation?” and “What is the purpose of this feeling?” Meaning in life is defined by (1) purpose, or goal-orientation, (2) significance, or connection to others and one’s legacy, and (3) coherence, or environmental connections and the degree to which stimuli and events make sense (Heintzelman & King, 2013, JOPP). I have focused on coherence as a fundamental element of meaning in life (Heintzelman & King, 2013, JOPP). I’ve found that life feels more meaningful when experiences make sense (Heintzelman, Trent, & King, 2013, Psychological Science), even if these experiences are negatively valenced (Heintzelman, Ward, & King, in prep). I’ve also developed theoretical work taking a functional approach to explain why meaning in life is a central human motive linked with broad benefits, arguing that feelings of meaning provide environmental information to facilitate situationally suitable action (Heintzelman & King, 2014, PSPR). Furthermore, I’ve found meaning in life to be a common experience (Heintzelman & King, 2014, American Psychologist) linked to intuitive cognitive processes (Heintzelman & King 2016, JPSP) and related to behavioral routines (Heintzelman & King, under review).

Subjective Well-Being

I am also interested in another aspect of healthy psychological functioning: subjective well-being, or colloquially, happiness (Diener, Heintzelman et al., 2017, Canadian Psychology). Subjective well-being is indicated by high positive affect, low negative affect, and satisfaction with one’s life. I am conducting both basic and applied research to address questions including: Can intervention sustainably increase happiness? Do long-term happiness changes have downstream positive effects across life domains? Do different people function best at different levels of happiness? How do personality characteristics affect subjective well-being in different situations? And how might happiness color the way we see the social world? For instance, I have developed a comprehensive happiness intervention program–ENHANCE–consisting of personal and social skills training (Kushlev, Heintzelman et al., 2017, Contemporary Clinical Trials). I’ve completed a large-scale randomized controlled trial that supports the efficacy of this program in promoting changes in subjective well-being, accounted for by improvements in the program’s targeted skills, and producing downstream physical and mental health benefits in a general community sample with follow-ups across 9 months (Heintzelman et al., in prep).