Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life – An interview with Tatjana Schnell

Psychiatrist and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning (2006), placed an emphasis on the search for and construction of meaning, as a prima facie component of the human condition. Moreover, Frankl proposed that meaning could be found in even the most malignant and desolate of places – even in “the midst of Nazi death camp hell” (p.51). According to this view humans are not only creatures of meaning, but willed to find meaning.

Recently, scholars have placed the concept of ‘meaning making’ as an important area of focus within psychology of religion (Paloutzian & Park, 2005; 2013). Some people find meaning in religious or spiritual experience and beliefs while others find meaning on more secular mediums in life. One way comparisons among religious or secular individuals and worldviews can be made is at the level of ultimate meanings. However, if humans are truly on a “search for meaning”, as Frankl has argued, what might be some of the sources of such meaning?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman recorded at the 2013 International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Conference, Dr. Tatjana Schnell discusses on-going research conceptualizing and measuring sources of meaning and meaning in life. Her work has been examined internationally with promise of cross-cultural application (Silver, Bernaud, Pedersen, Birkeland, la Cour & Schnell, 2013). What makes her work particularly interesting is that meaning making is not dependent on any particular modal identity or value system but rather the profound experience one has in their life.

Schnell begins the interview by explaining the methodology behind the construction of her Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe). She goes on to emphasize the role that meaning plays in not only religious individuals but also the growing secular population around the world. Dr. Schnell discusses ultimate sources of meaning, making space for both secular and religious experiences of transcendence termed horizontal and vertical transcendence. Throughout the podcast Dr. Tatjana Schnell’s message is clear, ultimate sources of meaning in life come from many areas and are meaningful to different people and for different reasons. Some find meaning in religion, others find meaning in more secular ways. Regardless of the label used, meaning is central to the human condition. Towards the end of the interview Schnell builds on an old quote by John Stuart Mill. Schnell asks is it better “to be a satisfied cow, or an unsatisfied Socrates”?

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  • Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2013). Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Second Edition. Guilford Publications, Incorporated.
  • Silver, C. F., Bernaud, J. L., Pedersen, H. F, Birkeland, M. H., la Cour, P. & Schnell, T. (2013) Three cultural comparisons and inferences using the Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Presented at the biannual meeting of the International Society for Psychology of Religion in Lausanne Switzerland.


5 replies
  1. Avatar
    Richard Saville-Smith says:

    Seems to me that (amongst other things) the research subject is being treated as an individual who is capable of “knowing” (and articulating) their own meaning. It is all a bit worryingly rational.

    Also, not clear to me how change is factored in. You have a car crash and can never walk again do you a.) get prosthetics and start training for the paralympics in Brazil or b.) give up and watch day time TV? And – are these outcomes a consequence of your meaning prior to the crash or a consequence of your capacity to reconstruct meaning after?

    Finally concerned this is a research exercise in the construction of taxonomies of meaning – a bit like psychological personality types – which quickly escapes the culturally located person (not individual).

  2. Avatar
    David Robertson says:

    Yes, I worry about that too, Richard. While psychology seems particularly prone to this kind of taxonimisation, it is certainly not the only discipline to do so (the World Religion Paradigm or Secularisation thesis being obvious examples). Forcing data to fit theories.

    • Avatar
      Tommy says:

      Good comments, they are spot on, however this shouldn’t give cause for too much concern. Thankfully the questions Richard raised above are largely empirical ones. But nonetheless, it is a sound methodological decision to force the data to fit the theory. However, only in the same sense that it is also sound to force the theory to fit the data. Every decision has its limitations and these should always be made salient (although they far too often aren’t).

  3. Avatar
    Ivan Beggs says:

    Perhaps there is no “meaning” except what one arbitrarily chooses. That can be religion, family, country, work, something else or nothing. But then there is love. Love provides meaning by … I am at a loss for words. A life without love, and I think work, is meaningless.


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  1. […] Coleman, T. J. III, (interviewer), Tatjana Schnell (interviewee) (2014, April) Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life – An interview with Tatjana Schnell, The Religious Studies Project Podcast Series,… […]

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