Park & George 2013 find that research on meaning appears to be in its infancy:
Many studies have found that searching for meaning is related to less distress (e.g. Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson, 1998; Sears, Stanton, & Danoff-Burg, 2003), while others have found it to be related to higher levels of distress and dysfunction (e.g. Bonanno, Papa, Lalande, Zhang, & Noll, 2005; see Park, 2010, for a review; Roberts, Lepore, & Helgeson, 2006). In addition, there is little evidence that meaning making results in meanings made (e.g. Kernan & Lepore, 2009; McIntosh, Silver, & Wortman, 1993; Thompson, 1991).
Inconsistent findings regarding the meaning-making framework are not surprising given the tremendous variations in design and measurement across studies. […] [I]nadequate measurement greatly constrains current knowledge of meaning making. […]
A recent review of measures of meaning in life identified nearly 60 measures (Brandstätter, Baumann, Borasio, & Fegg, 2012). This abundance reflects the complexities involved in defining and measuring individuals’ subjective sense of meaning. […]
In the past, popular meaning measures such as the Purpose in Life Test (Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964) have been criticized for having items that are confounded with positive affect and life satisfaction (Dyck, 1987; Yalom, 1980). Many of these problems persist in currently used measures. […]
Because there is as yet little consensus on exactly how meaning making occurs or of what it consists, approaches to assessing meaning making remain somewhat diffuse. […]
Many studies have assessed meaning making by simply asking participants if they have been searching for meaning or trying to make sense of the stressful situation (e.g. Holland, Currier, & Neimeyer, 2006). As noted in Table 2, these measures are problematic in that they lack established validity beyond face validity, and research suggests that people interpret these items in extremely different ways (e.g. Wright, Crawford, & Sebastian, 2007). […]
Similar to meaning making, many researchers have adopted a fairly simple approach to determining whether meaning has been made, essentially asking the respondent whether he or she has ‘made meaning’ from the event. This question, like its meaning-making counterpart described above, appears to lack any validity beyond simple face validity. […]
The meaning-making literature is replete with examples of the same construct being defined in different ways, and distinct constructs being used interchangeably (see Park, 2010 for a review). This has resulted in confusion and mischaracterizations of findings. […]
Often, meaning making is operationalized via questions that ask participants if they have been searching for meaning […] The wording of such items may make a large difference. For example, in one study, responses of mothers with children undergoing bone marrow transplantation to items such as ‘searching for meaning’ and ‘searching for positive meaning’ were not correlated (Wu et al., 2008). Therefore, researchers need to carefully choose measures that have demonstrated validity and ensure that the measures adequately tap the constructs that they are intended to assess. […]
The majority of existing studies on meaning making have used cross-sectional designs. Cross-sectional designs are limited as they do not capture changes in meaning over time and provide little information regarding the interplay among stressors and components of the meaning making framework. Prospective, longitudinal research designs are crucial in this regard as they capture the dynamic processes underlying meaning making. Although longitudinal and prospective studies can be challenging, they are feasible (e.g. studying high risk populations; Bonanno, Wortman, & Nesse, 2004). […] Although this approach has seldom been employed as a way of examining shifts in these important aspects of meaning over time, results of studies that have employed this approach suggest that it is a very fruitful way to study meanings made over time (e.g. Park et al., 2008). For example, one study of diabetes, heart failure, and asthma patients found that reductions over time in the extent to which their illness was appraised as hindering their goals predicted later improved quality of life (Kuijer & De Ridder, 2003). […]
Most existing studies have focused on small parts of the meaning-making model, precluding a full test (see Park, 2010, for a review). These approaches render the drawing of conclusions difficult. For example, researchers looking to study the relationship between meaning making and adjustment often assess meaning-making efforts without assessing meanings made (e.g. DuHamel et al., 2004). Without assessing meanings made, it is impossible to differentiate between successful meaning making and maladaptive ruminations, and the question of whether meaning making is related to positive adjustment remains unanswered. Similarly, some researchers assess current beliefs without assessing what beliefs were like pre-trauma (e.g. Foaet al., 1999). This approach provides little information regarding changes in beliefs, which is a crucial part of the meaning-making process. […]
Although meaning and meaning making are widely considered to be crucial to individuals’ adjustment to stressors (Davis et al., 2000; Gillies & Neimeyer, 2006; Janoff-Bulman, 1989, 1992), empirical research to date has not been able to confirm these theoretical propositions and provide a thorough understanding of meaning making (Park, 2010). Methodological limitations, inadequate measurement, and the lack of a standard model of meaning making are largely responsible for this lack of definitive research.
Assessing meaning and meaning making in the context of stressful life events: Measurement tools and approaches, Crystal L. Park and Login S. George, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013, https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2013.830762