The causes, consequences, and measurement of meaning

Abstract. The presentation will give an overview of recent research on the role of meaning and purpose in life and in aging. Analyses from the Health and Retirement Study and the Nurses’ Health Study on the determinants and effects of meaning and purpose will be described. These analyses will include assessments of the effects of purpose on health, longevity, alleviating depression, and life satisfaction. Further attention will be given to what factors in a person’s life create a sense of meaning and purpose. Various approaches on how to better track meaning and purpose throughout the life course will be presented, and discussion will be given to how “meaning” and “purpose”, while often used interchangeably, in fact represent distinct constructs and may have different determinants and effects. A new Comprehensive Measure of Meaning is introduced that helps preserve these and other nuances and that may be useful in subsequent empirical research.

Tyler VanderWeele



Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., is the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of the Human Flourishing Program and Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality at Harvard University. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard University in mathematics, philosophy, theology, finance, and biostatistics. His methodological research is focused on theory and methods for distinguishing between association and causation in the biomedical and social sciences and, more recently, on psychosocial measurement theory. His empirical research spans psychiatric and social epidemiology; the science of happiness and flourishing; and the study of religion and health. He is the recipient of the 2017 Presidents’ Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (COPSS). He has published over three hundred papers in peer-reviewed journals; is author of the books Explanation in Causal Inference (2015), Modern Epidemiology (2021), and Measuring Well-Being (2021); and he also writes a monthly blog posting on topics related to human flourishing for Psychology Today. You may also visit his School of Public Health Profile.