Jan 302012
Authors: Jordan Kurtz

Life is something that we all experience, but it is not something that we all perceive in the same fashion. CSU’s Dr. Michael Steger, associate professor of Counseling Psychology/Applied Social Psychology, has plunged head-first into the search to find the meaning in life.

Now, Dr. Steger’s work is not to be confused with the popular Siri question, “what is the meaning of life?” a question that Dr. Steger tries to avoid and said he would rather leave to philosophers.

“This is not some huge, challenging question that is the meaning of life, but the meaning in life,” Steger said. “It’s just what things can people do to find meaning in their lives day in and day out.”

Steger started working with the subject back in 2001 prior to 9/11, and his work has reached all around the world with more than a quarter of a million people participating in studies using the scale that he developed for the “Meaning in Life Questionnaire.”

In 2005, Steger received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and Personality Psychology from the University of Minnesota — the same year he won the “Best Dissertation” award from the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies.

“I wanted a career to help people,” Steger said. “I originally wanted to do therapy, but it wasn’t a good fit because I couldn’t do it everyday, all day.” He also added that he found the research process fascinating and became obsessed with researching meaning, noting that people’s tendency to try to find and make new meaning in life.

Steger’s research methodology has unique blend of traditional psychotherapy rigor and existential practices that dig into a vast array of different areas of life such as health, relationships and work.

“One of the compelling aspects of the work is that there is sound science that can be applied to people’s lives,” Psychology Department Chair Kurt Kraiger said. “If we know what meaning is and why it’s important, we can improve meaning to develop positive consequences.”

“Not only do we focus on the benefits of having the sense that your life is meaningful, but also how people search for meaning when they feel their lives aren’t so meaningful,” said Jennifer Barenz, a member of Steger’s team and a psychology graduate student. “We also come up with interventions in how we might actually be able to help people increase the sense that their lives are meaningful.”

Like Steger, Barenz shares the same passion to help people.

“I think it’s exciting to first try to understand an esoteric concept like meaning in life in a basic way, and then apply that research and understanding in ways that can better people’s lives on a more practical level,” Barenz said.

It should also be noted that the presence of meaning in one’s life doesn’t necessarily mean the conditions of life are ideal. Barenz explained that individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi lived extremely meaningful lives, but their lives were anything but carefree.

“The ‘Meaning in Life Questionnaire’ takes perspective of the most important information about an individual’s life,” Steger said, adding that everyone perceives things differently. “If you walk through campus, everyone is going to have a different experience.”

Steger’s team also uses digital photography to try and understand perception by taking a photo and having people describe what they see. In some cases, research subjects are asked to complete daily logs that include the rhythm of daily life, hoping to cure bad habits such as texting and driving.

We get more out of good things in our lives that have meaning versus those that do not. For example, most people agree that sex is a good thing, but research shows that people feel better after having sex with their significant other versus random sex.

“As humans, it’s sometimes easier to search for happiness or ‘feeling good’ over and above dedicating our lives to a larger purpose,” Barenz said. “However, Dr. Steger’s research has demonstrated that, if one feels that their own life has meaning, purpose and direction, they are also happier and have lower levels of depression and anxiety.”

Steger said the result of his research puts people into four categories: people who have found meaning and are not searching, people who have found meaning and are still searching, people who have not found meaning and are searching and people who have not found meaning and are not searching.

Typically, people searching for meaning are the most likely to volunteer for the studies, but all views are needed to have a broad and accurate spectrum Steger said. Most people fit into the category of having meaning and still searching –– the category Steger included himself in.

People who have found meaning and are not searching tend to favor a strong power structure and are usually religiously committed or military. He said those that have not found meaning and are still searching for it could be “looking for a way out” and could be more susceptible to substance abuse problems.

“People who find meaning are more resilient in times of trauma,” Steger said.

The Center for Disease Control has used Steger’s work to help explore health issues, discussing binge drinking as one of the most prevalent topics in the college realm. It can also help to determine if an intervention is needed.

Steger’s work is also utilized to help inform public policy. Researchers from Oxford University are using his scale to determine the impact of poverty. Contrary to the popular American perception of poverty as strictly monetary, the research digs into housing, healthcare, schooling, psychological health, resources and government representation. The research indicates that people not feeling represented by their government makes people feel less meaningful, which impacts all aspects of life.

As to his own individual meaning in life, Steger has a very humble and appreciative take. “Trying to have a positive benefit in the world is important to me,” Steger said adding that he also values being a good family member and father. Steger makes sure that he takes time to step back from the rat race and enjoy the small things, such as listening to good music everyday, looking at the mountains and being out in nature hiking and skiing.

“You have to let down your guard and be vulnerable to it,” Steger said.

He was also recently appointed to a university in South Africa. Steger took a trip there last spring and found ways that he thought he could be useful and he will be returning to South Africa in July.

“Sometimes it’s awards, sometimes it’s opportunities,” Steger said.

Steger has been selected to participate in TILT’s “My Favorite Lecture” series and he will be lecturing about Somatoform disorders on February 15 at 4:15 p.m. in TILT room 221.

His “Meaning in Life Questionnaire” is also available on his website www.michaelfsteger.com.

Collegian writer Jordan Kurtz can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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