Finding meaning in life

A new study by Assistant Professor of Psychology Lisa Kiang has found that close ties to an ethnic group foster a positive sense of meaning and purpose in adolescents.

“This sense of meaning in life is, in turn, associated with high self-esteem, good academic adjustment, healthy social relationships and other beneficial effects,” said Kiang, who was the lead author of the study, published in November in the online edition of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Kiang’s study is the first that pinpoints meaning and purpose as an explanation for why ethnic identity has such a positive effect on other aspects of adolescents’ wellbeing, she says.

She studied 579 Latin American, Asian and European-American high school seniors and found that adolescents who felt strongly connected to their ethnic group also expressed a clearer sense of meaning in their lives than adolescents without close ethnic ties.

Participants filled out a 30-minute questionnaire about meaning in life and about ethnic identity. They also responded to questions focused on self-esteem, academic success and motivation. The teenagers also filled out daily reports over a two-week period that captured their day-to-day feelings and sense of wellbeing. The study was co-authored by Andrew J. Fuligni, professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA.

“Those who felt more positively about their ethnic group and those who reported greater ethnic exploration reported higher levels of meaning,” says Kiang, who studies cultural identity and social relationships and teaches courses in developmental psychology.

“Our results suggest that one way to enhance adolescents’ meaning in life is to provide cultural support and to encourage adolescents’ connection with their ethnic group. Fostering ethnic identity with an eye towards promoting adolescents’ deeper sense of meaning in life could perhaps provide the most favorable outcomes, both psychologically and academically.”

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