2013. Vol.4, No.12, 1039-1045
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access 1039
The Contributions of Attachment and Caregiving
Orientations to Living a Meaningful Life
Abira Reizer1*, Dana Dahan2, Phillip R. Shaver3
1 Department of Behavioral Sciences, Ariel University, Ariel, Israel
2Ruppin College, Emek Hefer, Israel
3University of California, Davis, USA
Email: *
Received October 22nd, 2013; revised November 23rd, 2013; accepted December 19th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Abira Reizer et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
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This study adopted Bowlby’s (1982) behavioral systems perspective on meaning in life by focusing on
two behavioural systems discussed by Bowlby: attachment and caregiving. Three hypotheses were for-
mulated: 1) attachment orientations will predict meaning in life; 2) caregiving orientations will predict
meaning in life; 3) attachment will moderate the associations between caregiving and sense of meaning in
life. Three hundred thirteen adults completed self-report scales measuring attachment, caregiving, and two
aspects of meaning in life (presence of meaning and searching for meaning). Results indicated that at-
tachment insecurities (anxiety and avoidance), caregiving deactivation, and the interaction between at-
tachment anxiety and caregiving deactivation contributed uniquely to the prediction of meaning in life. In
addition, religiosity contributed significantly to the presence of meaning. Finally, attachment anxiety and
caregiving deactivation predicted searching for meaning. The study shows that a behavioral systems per-
spective can contribute to the literature on meaning in life.
Keywords: Attachment; Caregiving; Meaning in Life
The Contributions of Attachment and
Caregiving Orientations to Living a
Meaningful Life
“Meaning in life” refers to the web of connections, under-
standings, and interpretations that help people comprehend their
experiences and formulate plans that direct their energies to-
ward the achievement of a desired future (Steger, 2009). The
significance of meaning in life for positive psychological states
and effective functioning has been repeatedly demonstrated
(e.g., Reker, 2005; Steger, 2012).The present article explores
conceptual and empirical links between research on meaning in
life and the behavioral systems perspective presented in Bow-
lby’s (1982) work on attachment and loss.
Bowlby based his theory on a premise, derived from ethol-
ogy, that human beings are born with a number of innate be-
havioral systems (such as attachment, caregiving, exploration,
and sex). A behavioral system is a collection of goal-oriented
behaviors that serve a particular function, such as protection
from threats or successfully rearing offspring. In the case of
human beings, who survive in the context of groups of intelli-
gent and verbally communicating family and community mem-
bers, the behavioral systems contribute to the meaningful or-
ganization of life, allowing goals to be pursued and approached
in a coherent way. Specifically, maximizing the efficiency of
one’s daily efforts to survive, acquiing skills and resources, and
achieving important evolutionary goals can contribute signifi-
cantly to a person’s sense of meaning in life.
This study focuses on two social-relational behavioral sys-
tems: attachment and caregiving. The attachment system con-
tributes to survival by motivating children and adults to seek
protection and comfort in times of threat or distress. This is
especially important during early childhood, because human
infants are born without the capacity to protect themselves, feed
themselves, or learn important survival skills. But attachment
processes are also important throughout life, because humans
continue to be interdependent and to rely on each other at all
ages. According to Bowlby (1982), the same way that the at-
tachment system evolved as a care-seeking system, a caregiving
behavioral system evolved as a complement to others’ attach-
ment systems. The caregiving system contributes, primarily, to
the survival of kin and biologically related community mem-
bers, but it can be applied more broadly to other forms of com-
passion and caring. Bowlby conceptualized the caregiving sys-
tem as an inborn, generally functional response to a needy
other’s wish for protection or assistance (Mikulincer & Shaver,
2007). Recently, preliminary attempts have been made to ex-
amine the possible contribution of the attachment system to
attaining a sense of meaning in life (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005;
Shaver & Mikulincer, 2012). The present study expands this
line of research by examining the unique contributions of the
caregiving system to establishing a meaningful life as well as
examining the interplay between the attachment and caregiving
*Corresponding author.
Individual Differences in Functioning of the
Attachmen t a n d Caregiving Behavioral Systems
Although all human beings are assumed to possess attach-
ment and caregiving behavioral systems, there are differen-
ces—probably genetically and experientially based—between
individuals in the ways the systems operate (Mikulincer &
Shaver, 2007). Based on Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall’s
(1978) pioneering research, self-report measures have been de-
veloped to assess two forms of attachment insecurity in adult-
hood: anxiety and avoidance (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998).
Scores on measures of these two dimensions are related to a
wide variety of measures of relationship quality and mental
health, as indicated in hundreds of published studies (see Miku-
lincer & Shaver, 2007, for an extensive review).
In particular, previous studies provide strong evidence for the
contribution of attachment security (indicated by low scores on
measures of attachment anxiety and avoidance) to generally
positive and constructive cognitions, emotions, and behaviors.
For example, secure individuals hold more optimistic expecta-
tions about their ability to handle stress (e.g., Berant, Mikulin-
cer, & Florian, 2001), attachment security is associated with
self-report measures of joy and happiness (e.g., Magai, Hun-
ziker, Mesias, & Culver, 2000) and with having a sense of
meaning and coherence in life (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).
Individual differences in the operation of the caregiving be-
havioral system have been less thoroughly studied (although
see Kunce & Shaver, 1994, for early efforts, and Collins &
Ford, 2010, for recent studies). Shaver, Mikulincer, and She-
mesh-Iron (2009) have conceptualized individual differences in
caregiving orientations in terms of a two-dimensional space
similar to the one defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.
The first dimension of the space is labelled “deactivation” of
the caregiving system, It refers to the extent that people are
relatively less sensitive and responsive to others’ needs and
more likely to dismiss or downplay their distress. People who
are deactivating caregivers tend not to be empathic and tend to
distance themselves from others when care and support are
needed or requested. In contrast, “hyperactivation” of the care-
giving system includes tendencies to exaggerate others’ needs
and wishes for help, exaggerate empathy and willingness to
help, or insist on helping, even intrusively, whether involve-
ment is desired or not. Caregiving deactivation and hyperacti-
vation are negatively associated with self-reports of empathy,
compassion, and altruism, and with observational measures of
caregiving behavior (Shaver et al., 2009).
Recent research suggests that genuine, non-deactivating and
non-hyperactivating care benefits the caregiver in addition to
benefitting the care recipient (Kim, Carver, Deci, & Kasser,
2008; Kogan et al., 2010). Caregiving can enhance feelings of
accomplishment, kindness, and moral goodness on behalf of the
care provider (something that Erikson, 1993, labeled “generate-
vity”) and enhance his or her sense of meaning in life (Farran,
et al., 1999). Research (Impett, Gable, & Peplau, 2005) has
shown that members of couples who show genuine concern for
his or her partner’s wellbeing on a daily basis receive both per-
sonal benefits (e.g., personal fulfilment) and interpersonal ben-
efits (e.g., a strengthened relationship), whereas egoistic mo-
tives interfere with these benefits.
Dimensions of Meaning in Life
Meaning in life refers to “the extent to which people com-
prehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives, ac-
companied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to
have a purpose, mission, or over-arching aim in life” (Steger,
2012). It has been suggested that the creation of a worldview
and the ascription of meaning to events is not rationally based
on external events or conditions but, instead, derives from one’s
mental representation of experiences (Marris, 1996). Although
the presence or absence of meaning in life has received consid-
erable research attention, the degree to which people search for
meaning has not received the same amount of empirical scru-
tiny. The search for meaning includes establishing or augment-
ing the perceived meaning, significance, and purpose of one’s
life (Steger, 2012; Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz,
2007).The presence of meaning and the search for meaning are
quite different. Whereas the presence of meaning in life corre-
lates positively with other positive psychological characteristics
(e.g., love, joy, extraversion, agreeableness, efficacy, self-worth;
see Kashdan & Steger, 2007; Stillman et al., 2009), the search
for meaning tends to correlate with measures of neuroticism
and negative emotional states or traits, such as anxiety and de-
pression. Furthermore, people who report searching for mean-
ing tend to have less reported meaning in their lives (Steger et
al., 2006).
Previous studies have indicated the importance of close rela-
tionships as one of the life goals that enhance personal meaning
(Doyson et al., 1997; Emmons, 2003), and social exclusion and
ostracism have been associated with reduced feelings of mean-
ing and purpose in life (Stillman et al., 2009). These research
findings are in line with Martin Buber’s writings (see Stewart,
2011) about the importance of “I-thou” relationships for mean-
ing and life satisfaction.
The Present Study
From an attachment perspective, the ability to seek and ob-
tain emotional support from others (attachment security) would
be expected to relate to having a solid sense of life’s value and
meaning, because a secure individual should be able to make
the most of close relationships and develop positive views of
self. In contrast, attachment insecurity (avoidance or anxiety)
may render a person susceptible to threats of meaninglessness
and cause him or her to engage in a search for meaning (Bod-
ner , Bergman & Cohen-Fridel, 2013; Mikulincer & Shaver,
2005). Therefore it can be hypothesized that lower levels of
attachment anxiety and avoidance (indicating greater attach-
ment security) would be associated with higher levels of mean-
ing in life and lower levels of searching for meaning.
With regard to the other behavioral system under investiga-
tion here, it has often been claimed that meaning in life is most
fully achieved when people engage in pursuits that transcend
their own immediate self-interests (Steger, 2009), dedicate their
talents to something beyond themselves (Seligman, 2002), and
experience greater degrees of self-transcendence or genera-
tively (Emmons, 2003). On the other hand, when people lack
empathy and perceive others as a burden (characteristics of
caregiving deactivation), or get so involved in trying to help
others who may not want their support (as happens in cases of
caregiving hyperactivation), they may be less likely to feel that
life is meaningful. Therefore it can be hypothesized that lower
levels of caregiving hyperactivation and deactivation would be
Open Access
associated with higher levels of meaning in life and lower lev-
els of searching for meaning.
In light of Bowlby’s (1982) theoretical writings, Shaver and
Mikulincer (2002) suggested that when attachment needs have
been largely met, people are able to turn their attention to other
behavioral systems, such as caregiving. Caregiving, in particu-
lar, may not be activated when caregivers’ own feelings of
security are threatened. Hence, attachment security (whether
chronic or temporary) should facilitate responsive caregiving,
whereas insecurity should impede it. Based on this theoretical
argument it can be hypothesized that the attachment insecurity
scores would moderate the association between the caregiving
and meaning in life scores. Specifically, the caregiving orienta-
tions would contribute to meaning in life mainly for those who
scored relatively low on attachment anxiety and avoidance.
Furthermore, one of the purposes of this study was to inves-
tigate whether the associations between attachment, caregiving,
and meaning in life appear when demographic characteristics
are statistically controlled. Religion is a common demographic
predictor of meaning in life. Religion offers an answer to one of
life’s mysteries: “Why am I here?” Religious people tend to
feel that their lives matter, are understandable, and have a pur-
pose or mission (Steger, 2012; Stroope, Draper, & Whitehead,
2012). Previous research has also shown that couple and family
relationships can protect a person’s sense of meaning, and this
may be the motivation for marriage and having children, par-
ticularly (Scannell, 2009), though not all studies support this
idea (e.g., Hansen, 2012; Peterson, Park & Seligman, 2005).
Age and gender were also included as control variables, al-
though they have yielded contradictory results in previous re-
search (e.g., Crumbaugh, 1968; Debats, 1998; Reker, Peacock,
& Wong, 1987; Scannell, 2009; Steger et al., 2006).
The sample consisted of 313 Israeli adults (42% men and
58% women), whose ages ranged from 18 to 69 (M = 36.4, SD
= 11.6); 70% viewed themselves as nonreligious; and 58.5%
were married or were living with a significant other. The mar-
ried participants had an average of 2.67 children (SD = 1.30).
Their average years of education was Mean = 14.56, SD = 2.54,
Median = 15.
Attachment insecurity measurements. Attachment anxiety
and avoidance were assessed with a Hebrew version of the
Experiences in Close Relationships scales (ECR; Brennan et al.,
1998). Participants rated the extent to which each item was
descriptive of their experiences in close relationships on a
7-point scale ranging from not at all (1) to very much (7). The
reliability and validity of the scale have been repeatedly dem-
onstrated (beginning with Brennan et al., 1998; see Mikulincer
& Shaver, 2007, for a more recent review). In the current study,
attachment dimensions were assessed with a short 18-item
version of the ECR, previously used by Ronen and Mikulincer
(2009). Cronbach’s α was .85 for the attachment anxiety items
and .78 for the avoidance items. As expected based on previous
research, the two scores were not highly correlated, r(312) =
0.19, p < 0.01, indicating that they are different constructs. On
this basis, attachment anxiety and avoidance scores were com-
puted for each participant by averaging the relevant items.
Caregiving orientations. Caregiving orientations were meas-
ured with a 20-item self-report instrument designed by Shaver
et al. (2009) to measure caregiving-related deactivation and
hyperactivation. Participants were asked to read each item and
rate the extent to which it described their attitudes, feelings,
beliefs, and motives in social interactions. Ratings were made
on a 7-point scale ranging from not at all (1) to very much (7);
10 items tapped caregiving hyperactivation (e.g., “When I don’t
succeed in helping another person, I feel useless” or “Some-
times I feel I force help on another person”), and 10 items
tapped caregiving deactivation (e.g.,“Sometimes I feel that
helping others is a waste of time”). Cronbach alphas were .87
for caregiving hyperactivation and .91 for caregiving deactiva-
tion. Shaver et al. (2009) provided extensive evidence on the
reliability, two-factor structure, convergent, discriminate, and
predictive validity for the scale.
Meaning in life dimensions. The Meaning in Life Question-
naire (MLQ; Steger et al., 2006) assesses the extent to which
respondents feel that their lives are meaningful (measured by
the MLQ-presence subscale) and the extent to which they are
actively seeking meaning in their lives (measured by the
MLQ-search subscale). Each subscale contains five items rated
on a scale ranging from absolutely untrue (1) to absolutely true
(7). Both subscales have been shown to have good internal
consistency, test-retest stability, and validity (e.g., Steger et al.,
2006). In the present study, Cronbach’s α was .91 for the
MLQ-P and .88 for the MLQ-S.
The participants were recruited informally and agreed to par-
ticipate in the study without monetary reward. They completed
the measures online.
Preliminary Analyses
Descriptive statistics for each of the measures are shown in
Table 1. Avoidant attachment was positively associated with
caregiving deactivation, and anxious attachment was positively
associated with caregiving hyperactivation, indicating that the
two systems are related, as was also found by Kunce and Shav-
er (1994). (This association is expected, because both systems
are expected to be influenced by previous interactions with
attachment figures). As predicted, the caregiving and attach-
ment scales were negatively correlated with the presence of
meaning in life. In contrast, attachment anxiety and caregiving
hyperactivation were positively associated with higher levels of
searching for meaning. Although the correlations supported
research hypotheses H1 and H2, they are modest in size.
Unique Contri buti on of C ar e gi vi n g and Att achme nt
to Meaning of Life
To determine the unique contributions of the caregiving and
attachment variables to meaning in life, two hierarchical re-
gression analyses were conducted using SPSS version 21 for
windows. The dependent variables were meaning in life (MLQ-
P and the MLQ-S). In the first step of each regression, the con-
trol variables: age, gender (0 = male, 1 = female), having chil-
dren (0 = childless, 1 = having children), marital status (0 = not
Open Access 1041
Open Access
Table 1.
Means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations.
MeanSD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1) Attachment avoidance 3.121.11 1
2. Attachment anxiety 3.451.34 0.19** 1
3) Caregivng deactivation 2.621.17 0.32*** 0.33*** 1
4) Caregiving hyperactivation 3.261.19 0.19** 0.56*** 0.36*** 1
5) MLQ-P 25.677.14 0.24*** 0.35*** 0.47*** 0.25*** 1
6) MLQ-S 21.238.26 0.06 0.35*** 0.01 0.19** 0.01 1
7) Age 36.4211.64 0.02 0.28*** 0.12* 0.17**0.16** 0.061
8) Having children - - 0.00 0.27*** 0.12* 0.11 0.30*** 0.070.63*** 1
9) Marital status - - 0.03 0.17** 0.07 0.01 0.19** 0.090.32*** 0.47*** 1
10) Gender - - 0.19** 0.07 0.16** 0.08 0.08 0.02 0.21*** 0.11* 0.031
11) Religious - 0.06 0.03 0.07 0.07 0.21*** 0.03 0.08 0.15** 0.08 0.07
Notes: Dummy variables were used for gender (with 0 = male and 1 = female), for marital status (with 0 = not married and 1 = married), for having children (0 = childless
and 1 = having children), and for being religious (with 0 = no and 1 = yes). *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001.
married, 1 = married) and religiosity (0 = no, 1 = yes) were
entered into the regression equation. In the second step, at-
tachment and caregiving scores were entered into the regression
equation. In the third step interactions between the attachment
and caregiving variables were entered into the regression equa-
tion (see Table 2). The hierarchical regression analysis with
MLQ-P as the dependent variable was significant F(13,284) =
13.48, p < 0.001 and accounted for 38.5% of the variance in
meaning in life with the attachment and caregiving variables
accounting for most of the variance (25%). There were signifi-
cant unique effects of deactivated caregiving (β = 0.43, p <
0.001), attachment anxiety (β = 0.15, p < 0.05), attachment
avoidance (β = 0.12, p < 0.05) and religiosity (β = 0.21, p <
0.001), and there was a significant interaction between attach-
ment anxiety and caregiving deactivation (β = 0.13, p < 0.05).
The hierarchical regression analysis with MLQ-S as the de-
pendent variable was significant (F(13,284) = 4.33, p < 0.001)
and accounted for 16% of the variance in searching for meaning
in life, with attachment anxiety (β = 0.40, p < 0.001) and care-
giving deactivation (β = 0.13, p < 0.05) accounting for most of
the variance (14%).
Testing the Moderation Hypoth esis
As mentioned above, there was a significant interaction be-
tween attachment anxiety and caregiving deactivation in pre-
dicting meaning in life (MLQ-P) (β = 0.13, p < 0.05). The rela-
tion between deactivating caregiving and perceived meaning in
life at two levels of attachment anxiety was examined using the
Aiken and West (1991) method for evaluating moderation. This
analysis indicated that the association between caregiving deac-
tivation and the presence of meaning in life was higher for peo-
ple who were lower in anxiety (β= 0.58, p < 0.001) than for
those who were higher in anxiety levels (β = 0.30, p < 0.001
respectively). As shown in Figure 1, when caregiving deactiva-
tion was high, meaning in life was relatively low regardless of
attachment anxiety level, but when caregiving deactivation was
low, being high in attachment anxiety contributed to lower
meaning in life.
The experience of meaning in life is a fundamental aspect of
human wellbeing (Frankl, 1963; Steger, 2009). The present
study confirms, as expected theoretically, that attachment secu-
rity—the opposite of anxiety and avoidance—is associated with
having a sense of meaning in life. In support of H1 and in line
with previous studies (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005; Bonder et
al., 2013), the current study indicates that low levels of anxiety
and avoidance are positively associated with presence of mean-
ing in life. However, meaning in life is also associated with
more secure forms of caregiving—the opposite of deactivated
or hyperactivated caregiving. These effects were retained when
age, gender, religiosity, and having children were statistically
controlled, even though meaning in life was correlated with all
of these variables except gender. In line with H3, these results
support previous work that suggest that meaning in life is most
fully achieved when people dedicate their talents to something
beyond themselves (Seligman, 2002; Steger, 2009). As ex-
pected, searching for life’s meaning was associated signifi-
cantly with attachment anxiety, suggesting that the feeling of
needing to search for security in close relationships with other
people is connected with a similar desperate search for secure
meaning in life as indicated previously (Mikulincer & Shaver,
2005). No demographic variables were significantly associated
with searching for life’s meaning. Also, in accordance with H3
and in line with Shaver and Mikulincer’s (2002) theoretical
model, the findings suggest that attachment can moderate care-
giving orientations. The pattern of the significant interaction
between deactivated caregiving and attachment anxiety sug-
gests that anxiety level does not affect meaning in life very
much in the presence of highly deactivated caregiving. Mean-
ing is at its lowest when caregiving is deactivated, whether
attachment anxiety is present or not. But when caregiving deac-
tivation is low—that is, when a person is open and ready to care
for another person—being anxious about attachment interferes
with finding meaning. In a practical sense, these results suggest
that a person who finds life less meaningful than average might
be helped by encouragement to get involved in helping others.
But in the process of making this change (that is, becoming
more activated with respect to caregiving), it would be impor-
tant not to engage in caregiving in a desperate or needy (i.e.,
anxious and intrusive) way.
The fact that hyperactivated caregiving lost its significant
association with meaning in life when it was entered into a
Table 2.
Standardized regression coefficients predicting meaning in life.
Variable Variable MLQ-P MLQ-S
Step 1 Age 0.04 0.09
Gender 0.09 0.01
Religiosity 0.15* 0.05
Marital status 0.09 0.09
Having children 0.21* 0.05
R² 0.11*** 0.01
Step 2 Age 0.01 0.03
Gender 0.02 0.01
Religiosity 0.18** 0.06
Marital status 0.08 0.07
Having children 0.10 0.10
Attachment anxiety 0.19** 0.41***
Attachment avoidance 0.12* 0.03
Caregiving hyperactivation 0.02 0.03
Caregiving deactivation 0.39*** 0.15*
R² 0.25*** 0.14***
Step 3 Age 0.01 0.02
Gender 0.04 0.01
Religiosity 0.21*** 0.05
Marital status 0.09 0.07
Having children 0.08 0.10
Attachment anxiety 0.15* 0.40***
Attachment avoidance 0.12* 0.01
Caregiving hyperactivation 0.04 0.06
Caregiving deactivation 0.43*** 0.13*
AAvo* CDe 0.01 0.01
AAnx* CHyper 0.06 0.02
AAnx* CDe 0.13* 0.07
AAvo* CHyper 0.03 0.05
R² 0.03 0.01
Total R² 0.385 0.16
Total F 13.48*** 4.33***
Notes: AAvo = attachment avoidance; AAnx = attachment anxiety; CDe = caregiving deactivation; CHyper = caregiving hyperactivation. *p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p <
Figure 1.
Attachment anxiety moderates the association between caregiving deactivation and the presence of mean-
ing in life.
Open Access 1043
regression analysis with attachment anxiety (as predictors of
meaning in life) suggests that the significant correlation be-
tween hyperactivated caregiving lower meaning in life (r = 0.25,
in Table 1) was a reflection of attachment anxiety, which cor-
related (r = 0.56) with hyperactivated caregiving. In other
words, providing another person with attention, care, and sup-
port to facilitate the desperate search for appreciation and vali-
dation is a consequence of attachment anxiety. Thus, simply
advising people to increase their sense of meaning in life by
caring for others might be misleading if the form of care they
provided was anxious, intrusive, and overly self-focused.
Limitations and Conclusion
Limitations of the present study include the use of a conven-
ience sample and a cross-sectional design that does not allow
strong inferences about causality. It is possible that gaining a
sense of meaning in life might increase a person’s sense of
security without necessitating a change in one’s behavior in
close relationships (see Davila & Sargent, 2003). Moreover, the
results of this study were based on self-report questionnaires
that may have been influenced by perceptual biases and the
inclination to provide socially desirable responses. Therefore, it
is recommended that future studies take a longitudinal approa-
Despite the limitations of this exploratory study, research
findings support the idea that meaning in life is enhanced by
attachment security and providing responsive, nonintrusive care
to others. The findings fit with the views of traditional human-
istic psychologists who stressed the importance of “Being-love”
(Maslow, 1971) and compassionately taking on others’ suffer-
ing. Research findings also support the views of Victor Frankl
(1963), who claimed that through their love people can enable
their beloved to find meaning, and by doing so, gain an en-
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