Vanhooren et al 2016 interviewed prisoners and found that a feeling of the presence of meaning versus the search for meaning seem to be distinct mindsets. The presence of meaning is associated with well-being, low distress, and better health, but the emotions associated with the search for meaning are mixed – sometimes openness and curiosity, but other times rumination and depression. Part of the breakthrough for some prisoners was being “seen” and “believed in” by others. This capacity for change appears to be partly forged in childhood, creating or depressing a sense of the potential meaningfulness of the world.

Martha, a 57-year old-female prisoner, had been incarcerated for 15 years. Reflecting on her prison experiences, Martha explained how she struggled with feelings of hopelessness. In her daily solitude she fought against the temptation to commit suicide. One of the things that kept her going was her personal knitting project. With the help of a chaplain her knitted bunnies were sold outside prison and the profit went entirely to an orphanage in Eastern Europe. Martha strongly asserted that as long as she could mean something to another person, life was still worth living. […]

In general, presence of meaning has been defined as an individual’s perception of his or her life being significant, purposeful, and valuable (Steger, Frazier, Oisgi, & Kaler, 2006). People experience meaning when they comprehend the world, when they understand their place in it, and can identify what they want to accomplish in life (Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008). […]

Higher levels of presence of meaning have frequently been associated with positive well-being, lower levels of distress, and better health outcomes (for an overview, see Steger, 2012). The links between the search for meaning and well-being have been less clear (Steger, 2013). Some studies found a search for meaning to be related to a lower level of well-being whereas other studies yielded mixed results (Steger, 2013). Steger et al. (2008) discovered that searching for meaning was not only related to rumination and depression, but also to openness and curiosity. […]

Maruna (2001) analyzed the narratives of interviews conducted with 50 ex-prisoners. The main purpose of this research was to study differences between offenders who successfully desisted from crime and offenders who persisted in crime. Remarkably, no differences were found in their socio-demographic background, in their crimes, the amount of committed crimes, or in their personality structure. One of the main differences between desisting and persisting offenders was the fact that they showed distinct profiles vis-à-vis meaning. Interestingly, persistent offenders were not likely to search for meaning. Maruna (2001) described their experience of meaning in life as ‘empty’ and self-centered. Their life purposes reflected this emptiness through the pursuit of hedonic happiness, such as hyper-consumption and sensorial thrills. This group avoided making life choices and taking responsibility for their own lives.

Meaning in the desisting group, however, was marked by a search for meaning, and the desire to accomplish self-transcending purposes, to contribute to larger causes, and to care for others (e.g. volunteer work). This group had also experienced emptiness in the past, but their experience of meaning had changed, primarily caused by the fact that they had an experience in which someone ‘believed’ in them. The experience of being ‘seen’ by another person and being truly valued prompted the onset of a profound process of change. This process involved an internal search for meaning, during which their inner sense of self and their purpose in life were recalibrated. As a result they experienced a higher sense of meaning in life, which was accompanied by higher levels of self-worth and the belief that they could change their destiny.

In the general population, self-worth has been found to be an important source of meaning (Baumeister, 1991). Connectedness with others is also found to be closely linked with feelings of meaningfulness (Stillman et al., 2009). A recent study on sources of meaning discovered that adults in the Western world especially derive meaning from personal growth and family involvement (Delle Fave, Brdar, Wissing, & Vella-Brodrick, 2013). The connection between people’s experience of meaning, their sense of worth, their perception of others and the world has been studied closely by Janoff-Bulman (1992). Janoff-Bulman (1992) and Park (2010) argue that people’s experience of meaning is usually built upon
assumptions about the self, others, and the world, which form their personal meaning system. These assumptions are basic schemes through which individuals understand or give meaning to themselves and to the world. Schemes like these are usually shaped during childhood and most people seem to develop positive assumptions about life. More specifically, people usually have a positive sense of self, and they experience the world as mostly benevolent and meaningful (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). […]

Several studies discovered that a vast majority of the prison population is raised in highly stressful environments, with a high occurrence of child abuse, neglect, and violence (Gibson, 2011; Grella, Lovinger, & Warda, 2013; Harner & Riley, 2013). In a pilot study with young prisoners (N = 38), the World Assumption Scale (WAS) (Janoff-Bulman, 1989) was used to measure three central world assumptions: self-worth, perceived benevolence of others, and the meaningfulness of the world (Maschi, MacMillan, Morgen, Gibson, & Stimmel, 2010). Cumulative trauma prior to imprisonment was significantly correlated with lower scores on the WAS, and most specifically with rather negative assumptions about the meaningfulness of the world (Maschi et al., 2010). This relationship was confirmed in another sample (N = 58) with adult prisoners (Maschi & Gibson, 2012). […]

We discovered that the absence of meaning is clearly connected with the experience of distress. The fact that similar associations were found in the general population (Steger, 2012), makes our finding more robust. It also shows that prisoners are – in this aspect – not that different from the general population. Just as for people in the ‘free world’, it is essential for prisoners to make sense of their lives and to have a purpose in life. […]

Being a cross-sectional study, we were not able to search for causal relationships, or to explore the long-term implications of meaning-profiles on societal re-entry and desistance from crime. […]

Prisoners with profiles that were marked by higher levels of meaning experienced less distress, more positive world assumptions, higher levels of self-worth, and more care for others compared to prisoners with low meaning-profiles. In a way, the experience of meaning seems to buffer the daily experience of distress, as we described in the case of Martha. […]

Older prisoners and those who experienced sexual abuse during childhood were more present in the profile that was marked by lower levels of meaning and lower levels of search for meaning. Their meaning-profile seems to reflect an existential vacuum, which Frankl (1959/2006) described as a state of being marked by meaninglessness, emptiness, and apathy. People who reside in this vacuum are in extreme need of support (Frankl, 1959/2006).

Profiles of meaning and search for meaning among prisoners, Vanhooren et al, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016,


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