Many psychotherapists speak with clients about meaning in life. Meaning is an neutral evidence-based term for a subjective sense of purpose, values, understanding, self-worth, action-directed goals, and self-regulation. Since little is known about its effectiveness, our study aimed to determine the effects of meaning-centered therapies (MCTs) on improving quality of life and reducing psychological stress.
Independent researchers selected and scored articles in multiple languages in multiple search engines. Weighted pooled mean effects were calculated following a random-effects model. Sensitivity analyses included moderators, study and sample characteristics, risk of bias, randomization, types of MCT, control condition, and outcome instruments.
Some 52,220 citations included 60 trials (total sample N = 3,713), of which 26 were randomized controlled trials (N = 1,975), 15 nonrandomized controlled trials (N = 709), and 19 nonrandomized noncontrolled trials with pre/post measurements (N = 1,029). Overall analyses showed large improvements from baseline to immediate posttreatment and follow-up on quality of life (Hedges' g = 1.13, SE = 0.12; g = 0.99, SE = 0.20) and psychological stress (g = 1.21, SE = 0.10; g = 0.67, SE = 0.20). As effects varied between studies, further analyses focused only on controlled trials: MCT had large effect sizes compared to control groups, both immediate and at follow-up, on quality of life (g = 1.02, SE = 0.06; g = 1.06, SE = 0.12) and psychological stress (g = 0.94, SE = 0.07, p < 0.01; g = 0.84, SE = 0.10). Immediate effects were larger for general quality of life (g = 1.37, SE = 0.12) than for meaning in life (g = 1.18, SE = 0.08), hope and optimism (g = 0.80, SE = 0.13), self-efficacy (g = 0.89, SE = 0.14), and social well-being (g = 0.81, SE = 13). The homogeneity of these results was validated by the lack of significance of moderators and alternative ways of selecting studies. Metaregression analyses showed that increases in meaning in life predicted decreases in psychological stress (β = –0.56, p < 0.001).
Significance of results:
MCT strongly improves quality of life and reduces psychological stress. MCT should be made more widely available, particularly to individuals in transitional moments in life or with a chronic or life-threatening physical illness as they explicitly report meaning-centered concerns.