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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
What Does Your Life Mean? With Clara Hill, PhD
Ashley Garcia, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Are you happy with the way your life is going? Do you feel as though what you are doing is meaningful? Are you nervous about death, aging, or your career? These are all questions that deal with the concept called meaning in life (MIL), which Dr. Clara Hill and her colleagues have defined in four-parts: (a) a felt sense of meaning, (b) a feeling that one matters and is significant, (c) a sense that one has purpose and goals, and (d) a conviction that one’s life is coherent or makes sense.
The global, intuitive sense of meaning of MIL is an abstract construct, Dr. Hill says. It required her to read all the literature she could on the subject, talk to lots of people, and think about the definition and how MIL differs from other constructs. When the American Psychological Association asked her to write a book on MIL, she dug deeper into it, but she felt as though there was something missing. She came up with the four-part definition to encompass all areas of MIL to make sure the definition was specific but also over-arching.
Dr. Hill says, “Trying to get a handle on what MIL is and how it is different than meaning of life, and how it’s different from happiness, pleasure, identity, and all those things, was difficult. The construct itself has been muddy in the literature, but we really need to grapple with that subject. It’s not a discovery but more of trying to understand what the construct of MIL is.”
The MIL Study
Dr. Hill states that researching this area of psychology has made her more aware. “I realized that I’m getting close to 70, so there’s a lot of thinking about what has my career meant to me. What legacy will I leave? What does it all mean? I really think that this is a large part of why I am interested in this topic. It makes me think ‘What is my meaning? Do I want to retire? Do I not want to retire?’ Those are all crucial issues that point to a transition to think about.”
Dr. Hill and her colleagues conducted a study in which they asked experienced therapists who were really interested in MIL to tell them about one case with a client who explicitly focused on MIL and another case in which MIL was more implicit. Dr. Hill explains that, in some cases, clients come right into the office and say they want to talk about MIL, but more often, MIL is implicit or embedded in other problems. Therapists used more exploration interventions with clients for whom MIL was implicit than for clients for whom MIL was explicit, perhaps because these clients needed encouragement to talk about MIL and identify it as a problem.
In a follow-up survey, therapists reported that only 12% of clients brought MIL into the therapy session directly. Dr. Hill says that it is more common for MIL concerns to be embedded in other issues such as depression, anxiety over psychical health or ageing, or transitions in their lives. She states that perhaps the reason that only 12% of people initially wanted to talk about MIL is because of the culture that surrounds therapy. “In our culture, we are used to clients coming in and talking about symptoms; that’s what they think therapy is all about.”
When it comes to the evidence about the effectiveness of therapists working with MIL, there is not very much. Dr. Hill says that this is an area that needs more research. Some evidence, she says, has emerged for the effectiveness of structured programs involving four to eight sessions working directly with MIL for people with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. With new measures for assessing MIL, she hopes that it will be easier to study the effects of working with MIL psychotherapy, and she hopes that more people will conduct research in this area.
How to Assess MIL: the New and the Old
Meaning in Life Measure (MILM). This measure was developed by Dr. Hill and her colleagues and follows the exact definition that they use. Confirmatory factor analyses have shown that there is an over-arching construct with four subscales: Felt Sense, Mattering, Goals, and Coherence. “These subscales match my definition of the presence of meaning as involving a felt sense (‘I just intuitively think I have meaning but I don’t think a lot about what that means’), mattering (‘I feel that I matter or have significance’), goals (‘I have a purpose or things I’m striving for or passionate about’), and coherence (‘my life makes sense, I can connect the past present and future’),” explains Dr. Hill.
Meaning in Life Reflectivity (MILR). The second measure developed by Dr. Hill and her colleagues involves thinking about, pondering, and questioning meaning. This is a component that is missing from other measures of meaning. People  may enjoy thinking about meaning, even if they are not searching for it specifically.
Psychometric properties of the MILM and MILR. Both the MILM and MILR have excellent psychometric properties: factor analyses confirmed the factor structures, high internal consistency has been demonstrated for all subscales, and high test-retest reliability has been demonstrated for all subscales. The scale correlate in expected ways with other measures of MIL, subjective well-being, personality, and social desirability.
Major MIL Theories
Dr. Hill states there were two major influences on her thinking about MIL: Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist from Austria who survived the Holocaust, and Irvin Yalom, an American psychiatrist who researched existentialism. “These two books have major theories that have helped me try to develop my own theory,” she says.
Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the top best-sellers in psychology. “It’s so compelling because he talks about how he survived when he was in concentration camps during WWII. He thought that the reason some people survived while others did not is because they had purpose or passion to accomplish something. That certainly wasn’t the only reason they survived, but given all other odds, people were more likely to survive if they had meaning, otherwise they gave up.”
Yalom’s book, Existential Psychotherapy looks at the existential way of life and how it can be applied in a clinical setting. “There are certain existential things we all grapple with: death, anxiety, isolation, freedom, and MIL. Those are things we all have to struggle to understand,” Dr. Hill says. “Existential Psychotherapy is really important to help explain all of that.”
Implications for Therapy
Because only 12% of patients go into a therapist’s office specifically wanting to talk about MIL, Dr. Hill believes that therapists need to listen for MIL as an underlying component of other problems and think about how meaning is involved in all the different things that clients talk about. For example, if clients are talking about depression, therapists; could consider if part of that depression is related to not having a sense of meaning.
If the clients are talking about work, aging, or getting or losing a career, therapists can try and help them figure out what part of that is related to having or lacking purpose, she says. “There are a lot of implications in terms of thinking about those meanings and issues. In therapy, many times we focus on the symptoms, so we need these other very crucial outcomes. We need to think about therapy within the frame of MIL and purpose,” Dr. Hill suggests.
Studying MIL gives a deeper understanding, personally and for the field, she explains. Studying MIL, having a clear definition, and figuring out how to help people get more MIL is what is important about this research, Dr. Hill expounds. “Enriching our thinking about therapy so we aren’t just talking about symptoms, but we are talking about these broader existential issues and bringing them into play.”
She noted that Yalom specifies that people dealing with existential issues may not necessarily feel better after therapy. If they are more aware that they are going to die or that they are isolated, then they have to struggle to construct their MIL. “A lot of people would like to deny all that, so when you become aware of it, I think you actually become a little more anxious. Learning how to cope with it and learning how to lead a fuller life is incredibly important. It’s beneficial for humans to lead a better life If people could get much more meaning and the positive aspects of meaning, they wouldn’t fight so much,” Dr. Hill says.
Finding Your Own MIL
Exploration, insight, and action is the model that Dr. Hill suggests to therapists for assessing and finding MIL. People can also work on MIL on their own. Those who are interested in MIL can explore the question in depth, think about it deeply, and challenge themselves to question all the assumptions they were brought up with. That exploration is really key, Dr. Hill asserts. “Thinking about what it all means and put that together and make some coherent story or narrative. Then actually try and choose what you want to do differently in your life based on creating the narrative.”
The main problem with trying to discover MIL alone, according to Dr. Hill, is that it’s easy to get stuck thinking about it. “A lot of times, it helps to talk about it with other people. Talking with a therapist is fantastic, but sometimes not everyone has that opportunity. Talking with friends, or anyone who wants to have the conversation, and exploring the idea is the key.”
Many Sources of Meaning
MIL varies from person to person, Dr. Hill states, because everyone has to think about themselves and what their specific meaning is. “We then have to come to terms with that. We each might get our sources from different places,” she says. There are, however, certain meanings that are frequent in the lives of many people. The primary source is relationships. According to the research, many people proclaim that relationships provide them with meaning in many ways. They offer a sense of mattering, caretaking, goals, and they help make sense of life. In this aspect, Dr. Hill says, relationships are huge.
Work is also an important source of meaning in the lives of many people. Work that provides people with a passion that gives them meaning because they are contributing to society is important to MIL. Helping others and religion, for some people, also provide MIL. It could be a structured religion, but it could also be a worldview, perspective, or even a framework that helps someone understand life.
The last major source in MIL is creativity: Coming up with something new in terms of art, athletics, or science. Creativity can give people a feeling as though their lives have meaning, Dr. Hill explains.
Learn More About MIL
Dr. Hill says that, unfortunately, concepts like MIL don’t often get covered in typical undergraduate psychology courses. Many students have to research it on their own. Reading books by Victor Frankl, Irving Yalom, and Carl Rogers is an excellent start.
To help you start a career in MIL, Dr. Hill suggests going into graduate programs in counseling psychology or clinical psychology. “A lot of times, you have to do things on your own. You need a good background in psychology, a basic education, and the realization that you’re not going to get everything you’re interested in taught to you in a graduate program. You have to go out and find it on your own,” she says.
Dr. Hill stresses the influence of working and talking with her colleagues. She is a member of The Society of Psychotherapy Research, which is “a fabulous group of people who get together to talk about ideas all the time. We love to talk about ideas, research, therapy, and bringing the theory and research and practice all together.”
Dr. Hill and Psychology
“I see psychology as a fascinating field where researchers get to explore things that are meaningful to them,” Dr. Hill says. She has been lucky in her career, she explains, because she has been able to pursue whatever she wanted to. She has been able to pursue her interests, although it has led to discrepancies due to little funding for this type of research, yet she still gets to study what she finds valuable and meaningful. Dr. Hill says, “That has been very rewarding.”

Clara E. Hill earned her PhD at Southern Illinois University in 1974. She started her career in 1974 as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Maryland and is currently still there as a professor. She has been president of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, editor of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, and coeditor of Psychotherapy Research. Awards include the Leona Tyler Award (Society of Counseling Psychology), the Distinguished Psychologist Award (Division 29 of the American Psychological Association), the Distinguished Research Career Award (Society for Psychotherapy Research), and the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award (Section on Counseling and Psychotherapy Process and Outcome Research, Society for Counseling Psychology). Her major research interests are helping skills, psychotherapy process and outcome, training and supervising therapists, dream work, meaning in life, and qualitative research. She has published more than 200 journal articles, 70 chapters in books, and 12 books (including Helping Skills, Dream Work in Therapy, and Consensual Qualitative Research). She is married, with two children and two grandchildren.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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