Moral Identity Contributes to the Development of Life Meaning among Young Adults

Hyemin Han, Heather Malin, and Indrawati Liauw
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Life meaning, which refers to coherence in one’s life, goal directedness, purposefulness or the ontological significance of life (Steger et al., 2006), is regarded as a core source for authentic happiness by positive psychologists. Moral philosophers and psychologists (Kristjánsson, 2013; Han, 2015; Hardy et al., 2014) suggest that strong moral identity can significantly promote the development of life meaning. However, previous studies examining the relationship between life meaning and morality used only cross-sectional data. Thus, we aim to build on existing research and clarify the relationship between life meaning and morality with the use of longitudinal data to examine how these two variables impact each other over time. This study is a longitudinal investigation focusing on the transitional period between adolescence and adulthood, which is a critical period for moral identity and life meaning development.

H1: Moral identity at Time 1 (T1) is positively associated with the development of life meaning over time.
H2: Life meaning at T1 is positively associated with the development of moral identity over time.
Study population
A total of 465 high school seniors in California completed our survey at T1, and again two years later (T2).

Moral identity was measured by a subscale adapted from the Civic Identity Scale (Beaumont et al., 2006). Life meaning was measured using the presence of meaning subscale from the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006). We also asked participants to indicate their gender, ethnicity and SES. We used t-tests and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) for the longitudinal analyses. First, we compared moral identity and life meaning scores between T1 and T2 to determine the overall longitudinal change. Second, we created HLMs for two dependent variables: moral identity and life meaning. For each model, we entered the two main variables as main effects, and then entered demographics, interaction effects between these variables, and Time to the model in stages. We calculated both the Akaike Information (AIC) and Bayesian Information Criteria (BIC) to determine the best model fit.

The t-tests found that life meaning significantly declined over time while moral identity was sustained. The HLM analyses for both dependent variables (life meaning and moral identity) determined that the models with all main effects and interaction effects (time x T1 score) on the variable of interest (life meaning or moral identity) were the best fit (according to both AIC and BIC). First, the change in life meaning was influenced by moral identity at T1 given the significant interaction between moral identity and time after controlling for initial life meaning (H1 supported, see Fig. 1). Second, moral identity at T1 was positively associated with life meaning at T1, but the impact of the interaction between life meaning and time on moral identity was not significant (H2 rejected, see Fig. 2). We conclude that moral identity in high school significantly contributes to the formation of life meaning and buffers the decline in life meaning during the transition out of high school.