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The Magnetic Appeal of a Meaningful Life

• August 23, 2010 • 12:00 PM

A sense one’s life has meaning increases one’s allure in social situations, according to new research.

Why are we drawn to one person and not another? Physical attractiveness is one obvious ingredient, but researchers have identified another, quite different factor that heightens one’s personal appeal.

It seems we enjoy socializing with people who have found meaning in their lives.

“Meaning is a powerful and independent predictor of interpersonal appeal,” reports a study titled “Meaning as Magnetic Force,” just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. “People seek interpersonal connections with those who have found meaning in life.”

The idea that the search for meaning in life is a basic human drive was famously articulated by psychologist Viktor Frankl in 1946, not long after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. According to the team behind this new research, “a natural extension” of this idea “is that people will seek to affiliate with those who have a strong sense of meaning.”

In other words, people searching for a purpose in life — whether or not they are consciously aware of this deep-seated desire — will likely be attracted to others who have arrived at an answer.

The researchers, led by psychologist Tyler Stillman of Southern Utah University and including Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, tested this thesis in two experiments.

In the first of these, 70 undergraduates answered a series of questions to gauge two variables: Their level of self-esteem and the extent to which they perceived their lives were meaningful. They were then videotaped as they interacted with a friend.

Five trained raters subsequently watched the tapes and answered the question, “How much would you like to be friends with this person?”

“A stronger sense of meaning in life was associated with interpersonal appeal,” the researchers report, “whereas self-esteem had no effect.”

For the second study, 72 undergraduates completed a more wide-ranging questionnaire, designed to measure their levels of happiness, extraversion and religiosity, as well as their sense of personal meaning. Each then videotaped a 10-second introduction, presenting themselves as they would to someone they had just met at a social gathering.

Eleven trained raters evaluated the study participants by answering three questions: How likable is this person? How much would you like to be friends with this person? How much would you enjoy a conversation with this person?

Those who reported a greater sense of meaning in their lives were rated higher than their peers on each of those scales.

“One alternative explanation is that people simply want to affiliate with well-adjusted people,” the researchers write. However, their finding that personal appeal was unrelated to happiness or religiosity makes that unlikely. They add that “[m]eaning in life even predicted interpersonal appeal over and above a potent predictor of positive impression formation: extraversion.”

Stillman and his colleagues did find physical attractiveness is a strong source of personal appeal. “Yet for participants who were of average or below-average attractiveness,” they note, “having a strong sense of meaning made them significantly more appealing social interactants.”

So if you’re looking for a mate, or a wider circle of friends, one counterintuitive but effective strategy may be to look within, determine what it is that gives your life meaning and then act on that impulse. Sure, there’s something about Mary — she was, after all, played by Cameron Diaz — but there’s also something about people with a purpose.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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