Coherence and Meaning for Existence

Restoring meaning to existence, through the work on values, is one of ACT’s goals. We seek to help patients come back into contact with that which makes them thrive, which animates them. But there is much we don’t know about where values come from, or more precisely, what characterizes them.

We do know, however, that coherence is a strong reinforcer for humans. We love that which seems logical, because they are then more predictable and this allows us to forsee the consequences of our behaviors before engaging in them. Conversely, the confrontation with an environment which one does not understand is perceived as threatening. Even the existence of our capacity to adapt to our environment through respondent and operant learning proves the importance of regularity in our environment: it is hard to learn in a world that is perpetually changing.

Furthermore, Samantha Hintzelman and colleagues (2013) hypothesized that the apparent coherence of the stimuli around us leads to a higher perception of a meaning to one’s own existence. In this study, the researchers presented to their participants photos of trees in different seasons, placed in a “logical” (the succession of seasons from spring to winter) or in a randomized order. Afterwards, they asked participants to evaluate how meaningful their own lives were. The participants who saw the “ordered” pictures of trees claimed to have a clearer perception of meaning to their existence. The same effect was observed when sequences of 3 words were presented, depending on whether they appeared to be associated with each other or not.

Obviously, regularity isn’t everything. There are some extremely predictable environments (the prison environment for example) that are not necessarily connected to a sentiment of living an enriched life filled with meaning. What this research shows is certainly that a sense of meaning in our existence can be derived from our interactions with a relatively stable environment, the understanding that we have of it, or the interpretations we make of it. This does not mean that we have to find an explanation for everything we are going through, but perhaps that the fact of understanding our emotions as logical and normal reactions leads to peaceful relationship with them, restoring meaning and coherence to what we live.

Translated by Chelsea Davis-Laurin

Heintzelman, S. J., Trent, J., & King, L. A. (2013). Encounters with objective coherence and the experience of meaning in life. Psychological science, 24(6), 991-998.

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