Establishing a sense of purpose and meaning in life is an important developmental task, as these constructs have been described as indicators of eudaimonic well-being with significant implications for individuals’ adjustment (Deci and Ryan 2000
; Ryff and Singer 1998
). The goal of the current research was to provide an in-depth examination of life meaning, building on existing work by specifically focusing on adolescents from ethnically diverse backgrounds. We examined group differences in meaning, how meaning relates to adolescents’ general, academic, and daily well-being, whether meaning can be linked to adolescents’ ethnic identification, and whether the construct serves as a key mediator to help explain positive associations between ethnic identity and adjustment.
Although demographic differences were not as robust as expected, ethnic variation in meaning in life supports the utility of further examining this construct across diverse groups. Marginally significant group differences in presence of meaning suggested that youth from Latin and Asian American backgrounds generally report higher levels of presence than those from European American backgrounds. With respect to search for meaning, adolescents from Asian American backgrounds reported significantly higher exploration compared to both Latin and European American adolescents.
Several explanations can be put forth as to why such ethnic variation was found. One is that having an ethnic minority background presents unique experiences and social challenges that adolescents must face and ultimately derive meaning from. For instance, those who are in the ethnic minority must often cope with prejudice or discrimination (Phinney 1996
; Kessler et al. 1999
), and may develop a sense of meaning as an adaptive result of trying to understand such experiences. This process could parallel the phenomenon of meaning-making in the face of adverse situations (Schaefer and Moos 1992
). However, although our interpretations allude to the idea that acculturation and stress (e.g., discrimination) may create experiences from which meaning-making can occur, future work should explicitly examine these topics in greater detail.
Adolescents’ cultural histories could serve as an additional explanation for ethnic group differences in meaning. Adolescents from Asian and Latin American families may be working to help their families attain success in America, and thus value the importance of making and achieving personal and familial goals. Perhaps such aspirations have prompted these youth to think deeply about and actively ascribe a sense of meaning to their lives. Interestingly, although no generational differences were significant, trends were in expected directions such that meaning in life was higher in adolescents from families with more recent immigrant histories.
In terms of gender, similar to prior research on mostly European American samples (Steger et al. 2006
), gender differences were not found for either dimension of purpose and meaning. However, one gender by ethnicity interaction was found whereby Latin American females reported lower levels of search for meaning than Latin American males, while Asian and European American females reported higher search for meaning than their male counterparts. Cultural considerations and socialization differences in terms of gender role expectations could be implicated in this finding, but additional research is needed to better disentangle these effects.
The importance of understanding adolescent meaning in life rests in this construct having wide-reaching associations with adjustment, extending the existing literature that supports the importance of meaning in predominantly European American and adult samples (Steger et al. 2006
). Presence of meaning, in particular, was linked to positive indicators of development such that adolescents who perceived that their lives were more meaningful reported higher self-esteem, more positive academic attitudes, and greater intrinsic motivation. These positive effects also were infused into adolescents’ daily lives such that greater meaning was associated with higher levels of average daily happiness and lower daily distress, as well as with greater emotional stability. It thus appears that a variety of positive outcomes can stem from having a clear sense of the meaning that underlies one’s life, supporting the idea that meaning in life constitutes one dimension of eudaimonic well-being that pervades multiple aspects of development (Ryff and Singer 1998
In contrast, adolescents who are actively engaged in a search for meaning report less ideal outcomes. Rather, an active search or exploration for meaning appears to resemble an Eriksonian “crisis” (Erikson 1968
; Marcia 1966
). Aside from a relatively small, positive association with the valuing of academic success, adolescents who reported that they are currently searching for their life purpose also reported lower self-esteem, lower daily happiness, greater daily distress, and greater emotional lability at the daily level. Associations with daily variation in emotions are particularly noteworthy given that prior work has linked emotional instability with a number of problematic outcomes such as depression (Silk et al. 2003
). Taken together, our findings suggest that search for meaning constitutes a perturbation that may be essentially normative and perhaps even necessary in order to achieve an ultimate sense of meaning. Once achieved, presence of meaning can then have a positive and extensive effect on diverse developmental outcomes.
In terms of one way in which meaning in life may be conceived, Erikson’s (1968
) theory of identity development has long advocated that purpose and meaning emerge from the successful resolution of the identity crisis that occurs during adolescence. Social identity theorists (e.g., Tajfel 1981
) also contend that group identity is deeply linked with life purpose via the opportunity to have a meaningful role in maintaining and promoting the well-being of one’s social relationships and social group. Significant correlations between ethnic identity and presence of meaning empirically support these theoretical notions. As theory would suggest, a sense of ethnic identity or group connectedness appears to be one mechanism by which adolescents come to derive a deeper understanding of their life meaning.
In turn, a sense of meaning was found to mediate the positive effect of ethnic identity, specifically, ethnic belonging on psychological, academic, and daily outcomes. Although prior work has consistently documented positive links between ethnic identity and adjustment (e.g., Fuligni et al. 2005
; Umaña-Taylor 2004
), it has yet to be entirely clear why ethnic identity has such a beneficial effect. Indeed, an important task for contemporary research is to identify the precise mechanisms by which ethnic identity has such a positive impact on development (Kiang et al. 2006
). Our data pinpoint meaning in life as one explanatory variable. That is, our results suggest that a strong sense of ethnic identification conveys a sense meaning, which then contributes to greater self-esteem, more positive academic attitudes and motivation, and more adaptive daily well-being. Even after controlling for important demographic variables, presence of meaning explained between 25 and 64% of the initial effect of ethnic belonging on outcomes, supporting the idea that adolescents’ sense of meaning in life represents one reason why positive associations may be found between ethnic identity and adjustment. Notably, meaning only accounted for a portion of the robust effect of ethnic belonging. To be sure, additional mediational variables are likely to exist.
One limitation to this study was that our analyses were correlational in nature. Although significant and expected effects were found, it would be fruitful for future research to utilize longitudinal data to more definitely predict associations between meaning, social identity, and adjustment. Results from alternative meditational models, which were not as robust, provide further support for the theoretical directionality of the primary models examined, but multiple points of data are necessary to establish true mediational effects and to more confidently assert that ethnic identity contributes to meaning which, in turn, contributes to positive outcomes over time. Continuing to examine processes of meaning in longitudinal samples could also speak to some of our findings that were rather unexpected. For instance, search for meaning appeared to be orthogonal to the search for a greater understanding of one’s ethnic background, as search for meaning was not strongly associated with either ethnic belonging or ethnic exploration. One explanation is that search for meaning may reflect a rather broad phenomenon and, as such, may be associated with a variety of factors above and beyond ethnic identity (e.g., religious identity, social relationships). Developmentally, it also is possible that constructs of ethnic identity and search for meaning are indeed related, but their association does not emerge until later in development or over a longer period of time. Additional research would be needed to determine whether these constructs continue to operate independently or whether, over time or during different developmental periods, they are more intricately tied.
Another caveat to the current study was that we focused on students in the twelfth grade since constructs of meaning may be particularly salient to these adolescents who are likely faced with the issue of where their life is headed after their last year of high school. It would be important to replicate our findings in younger samples to determine how early in development meaning evolves and in older samples to determine whether these processes are similar later in life. Furthermore, because we focused on seniors in high school, it is possible that our sample was not representative of all adolescents but rather those who choose to remain in school. Future research utilizing more diverse samples (e.g., adolescents who are not enrolled in school) would be needed to increase the generalizability of our findings. In addition, although our Latin American and Asian samples were largely Mexican and Chinese, respectively, over 20% of adolescents from ethnic minority backgrounds were diverse in their subethnic heritage. Hence, future work should continue utilizing ethnically-rich samples to enhance generalizability to diverse youth.
Another suggestion for future research is to examine associations between meaning and additional domains of social identification. Although ethnic identity is applicable to all individuals (Phinney 1996
), it is possible that ethnic group membership is more salient for those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hence, for European Americans in particular, perhaps ethnic identity is not as central as other social domains in which individuals can identify. Indeed, prior research suggests that, even for those from ethnic minority backgrounds, ethnic identity is only one of many group identities that have the potential to influence development (Cross and Fhagen-Smith 2001
). Other identity domains, such as religious identity or even family identity, may provide an equal or even greater sense of meaning in adolescents’ lives. Further exploration into the joint resources that social identification and meaning provide to adolescents may be helpful in optimizing their development, especially in light of youth from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Yet, our results suggest that, despite ethnic group differences in average levels of meaning in life, adolescents’ life meaning played a critical role in their development regardless of ethnic background. An adolescent thus may appear to exhibit the following pattern. He or she feels a strong sense of belonging and connectedness with his or her ethnic group. Accomplishing this developmental goal of social or group identification then leads the individual to better understand where he or she fits in society and in terms of his or her social roles, perhaps providing a broad sense of what the deeper meaning in his or her life might be. Having a strong sense of group membership also may motivate the individual to actively participate in the betterment of his or her social group, and provide opportunities to have a purposeful role in his or her group relationships. These feelings of purpose and meaning may then permeate into other arenas in life and provide a general sense of positivity and well-being that translates into better psychological adjustment, daily adjustment, and a greater motivation to do well in areas where purpose and goals are important (e.g., career or educational advancement).
By illuminating an additional step in the link between ethnic identity and well-being, we can broaden opportunities to potentially intervene and promote adolescent health. For instance, our results suggest that one way to enhance adolescents’ meaning in life, and ultimately their adjustment, is to provide cultural support and to encourage adolescents’ connection with their ethnic group. Indeed, fostering ethnic identity with an eye towards promoting adolescents’ deeper sense of meaning in life could perhaps provide the most favorable outcomes, both psychologically and academically. As a natural consequence of the developmental period of adolescence, many youth struggle with figuring out who they are and what their life has in store for them. Although adolescence is a period that is potentially ridden with angst, discovering ways to help adolescents successfully navigate through this delicate transition and in due course establish a sense of meaning can help pave the way towards healthy developmental outcomes.