Having Meaning in life is good for you
Positive Psychology (PP) research consistently shows that experiencing high levels of meaning in life is associated with all sorts of positive wellbeing indicators such as life satisfaction, hope, optimism and resilience to name a few. Meaning is also described as a key factor in most models of flourishing. But what do we mean by meaning and how is this different from purpose or spirituality? Well, of course there are different ways of defining meaning, but here’s my take on it and my understanding of why it’s an important but often neglected area in PP research and intervention.
What is the meaning of meaning?
Steger (2012) describes meaning in life as an overarching construct which combines two dimensions. Firstly, comprehension of one’s self, the external world and how these interrelate. Essentially, our understanding of the way the world works and how we fit into it. Secondly, purpose, which describes our aspirations and motivates relevant behaviours and activities in line with our conceptual world view. Thus, purpose flows from comprehension and the reciprocal interaction and adjustments between these give rise to meaning. As a species, it seems we are wired to seek understanding and being able to make sense of our place in the universe is therefore important for us to feel fulfilled. The match between our comprehension of the world and our purposeful actions leads to a sense of authenticity which fuels coherence and psychological well-being.
Are we any clearer?
Many questions remain, however. Is it the presence of meaning in life that underlies well-being or the process of seeking it? How do people create meaning? How does our sense of meaning change and develop over time? How do we respond to events which challenge our world view and sense of meaning? Does our meaning-making need to be consistent and coherent to be beneficial?
There is a considerable amount of research on how people respond when their life view is challenged or their behaviours and beliefs don’t match (cognitive dissonance). Typically people either reframe their view of the situation to be consistent with their world view (assimilation) or update their model for understanding the world to incorporate the new information (accommodation). Much of this research is carried out in laboratory situations so it’s hard to know how accurately the findings reflect how people really construct and modify meaning in real life.
A further challenge to understanding and researching meaning is that it is elusive. Various authors have constructed lists of possible sources of meaning in life which typically include things like relationships, service, intimacy, achievement, growth, fairness and justice, transcendence and spirituality. However, individual sources of meaning are highly subjective and this makes it difficult to define and research.
Transcendence and Spirituality in Meaning
Some authors (e.g. Wong, in press) have argued that an element of self-transcendence or spirituality is an essential component of meaning. Thus meaning can only be achieved when we shift from a personal perspective to a meta-narrative connecting to something greater than ourselves. This brings us to the role of spirituality and religion which for many people is a key foundation of meaning in their lives.
I believe this is an important reason why meaning is a relatively neglected topic in PP. In my previous blog on values in PP (January 2018), I touched on this issue. Psychologists are keen to be seen as objective scientists and tend to shy away from anything that might be considered judgemental in their work. I think we don’t want to be seen as pushing religion and psychologists who are overtly religious tend to make the community uncomfortable. I
believe it is possible to have a self-transcendent, coherent worldview that gives rise to personal meaning that is not based on a recognised religion. Indeed, I know many people who achieve a meaningful life without any belief in a higher power through pursuing political, environmental or other activism or simply serving others through meaningful work. However, we should also not be reluctant to say that, for many people, working within the framework of a recognised faith can be a huge source of meaning in life and a major contributor to well-being. So meaning in life can involve spirituality or religion but doesn’t have to.
Wong (in press) has been an influential (and inspirational) figure in the advocacy of second wave PP which emphasises the dialectics of emotions and integrates PP with existential psychology. He has developed Integrative Meaning Therapy. This approach, which is heavily influenced by the work of Frankl (1985), encourages people to face the inevitability of suffering in life with courage and personal responsibility as a foundation to sustainable flourishing through meaning-making.
Using Meaning to promote well-being
While I feel that not everyone may be ready to hear Wong’s (in press) message of embracing suffering, I do believe that contemplating meaning in our lives is an essential element to consider in promoting our personal well-being and that of those we work with. As a coach, I always ask people about where they find meaning in life and am surprised by how many people don’t know how to answer the question.
Wong’s approach is a response to a superficial culture that values wealth, celebrity and consumerism selling the dream of a perfect life and ignoring the reality of hardship for the majority of the world’s population. The global pandemic has challenged many people to confront the idea of “the pursuit of happiness” as a viable life purpose.
Surely, now is the time for us all to ask ourselves the difficult questions about what is really important to us in life and how we can take responsibility and action to promote a more sustainable future for all people and our planet. This involves examining the challenging issues of whether our actions match our underlying values and what we might be prepared to sacrifice to live more authentically. This approach is consistent with the agenda of third-wave positive psychology (Lomas et al. 2020), which espouses the need for PP to reach beyond the individual and become a more multicultural, interdisciplinary and systemic endeavour. Thus, the search for meaning could actually be the route to making the world a better place and personal flourishing just might be the happy side effect.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Washington Square Press.
Lomas, T., Waters, L., Williams,P., Oades, L.G. & Kern, M.K. (2020) Third wave positive psychology: broadening towards complexity, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1805501
Steger, M.F. (2012). Making meaning in life. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 381–385.
Wong, P. T. P. (In press). Existential Positive Psychology and Integrative Meaning Therapy. International Review of Psychiatry.
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