Over 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle determined that meaning in life was not merely achieving subjective feelings of happiness, but cultivating individual development of our true nature that encourages us to reach our full potential. (1) What incredible insight.
"You can't choose your potential but you can choose to fulfill it" Theodore Roosevelt
Many of us continue to search for more meaning in our lives, even those of us who feel as though we have meaningful roles. We want purpose and we also want to make a difference, we want to contribute and we want to leave a legacy. However, prior to searching for that meaning, it's essential for us to take a step back and ask ourselves what meaning is and to understand how our personal (subjective) meaning varies from individual to individual.
A topic that has been discussed and debated for thousands of years, meaning, remains an obscure notion for the general population.
Philosophers and psychologists alike have identified meaning as an element of well-being, as well as a foundation for psychological well-being. (2, 3). Professor of psychology Paul Wong has devoted much of his career to meaning and offers 4 essential components to a meaningful life through his PURE model.
Purpose - motivational component to include goals, directions, values, aspirations.
Understanding of Self and others - cognitive component involves making sense of the world, effectively communicating, building relationships, clarity & coherence.
Responsible Action - behavioural component involves appropriate actions and reactions, doing what is morally right.
Enjoyment OR evaluation - emotional OR evaluative component that assesses degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction in situation or life.
Through his research, Dr. Wong has discovered that having a meaning mindset increases the likelihood that one's life purpose is aligned with their highest values; furthermore, a clear sense of purpose and significance leads to an increase in motivation for goal striving. (4)
A meaning mindset reflects one's philosophy of life and core values, what matters most to that individual and their driving motivation. Ultimately a meaning mindset can lead to long-term fulfilment & happiness.
Researchers have also determined that our philosophy about what matters and what makes a good life determines the choices we make and the actions we take. (5) For some, it can be chasing the high, the luxury car, the dream home, the status. These individuals are constantly striving for more and find themselves on the hedonic treadmill ~ meaning that they will get an initial increase in their happiness however it will be fleeting and they will ultimately return to their baseline. For others, they possess a eudaimonic approach; they have a commitment to something larger than themselves, they consider virtue as the key to flourishing and possess a holistic approach to living; they accept the negative experiences and overcome adversity whilst intentionally participating in positive experiences that evoke positive emotions. These individuals possess a meaning mindset and are striving for authentic happiness. (6)
"A single-minded pursuit of personal happiness and success in not sustainable, eventually it will lead to despair, disillusion and other psychological problems" (7).
Organisations are interested in establishing meaning in the workplace as it has been related to increases in productivity, engagement and performance. Hansen & Keltner have offered ways to accomplish this in their HBR article Finding Meaning in Work Even When Your Job is Dull. Not dissimilar to meaning in life, they suggest finding purpose, personal growth and accomplishment as key elements in assimilating meaning.
It would be amiss of me if I did not include the insight of Viktor Frankl who wrote:
"Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.
This is deep but definitely something to consider. Think about what is meaningful to you, what gets you out of bed each day and motivates you to set and achieve your goals? Do you take the time to evaluate your life and ensure you are aligned with your goals and values? Do you know what your values are? Can you find meaning in the mundane?
For more information on meaning see Dr. Paul Wongs' site here and to take the Meaning in Life questionnaire click here. (create an account & go to questionnaires)
Kirsten works with individuals and organisations to help them achieve their full potential through the foundations of mindfulness, positive psychology and neuroscience. Contact her today to make a positive impact.
1 Ryff, C. & Singer, B. (2008). Know thyself and become what you are: a eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies (9), 13-39.
2 Steger, M. F. (2012). Experiencing meaning in life: Optimal functioning at the nexus of spirituality, psychopathology, and wellbeing. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning (2nd ed., pp. 165–184). New York, NY: Routledge.
3 Wong, P. T. (2011). Reclaiming positive psychology: A meaning-centered approach to sustainable growth and radical empiricism. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(4), 408-412.
4, 5 Wong, P. T. (Ed.). (2013). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications. Routledge.
6 Seligman, M. E. (2004). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Simon and Schuster.
7 Schumaker, J. F. (2007). In search of happiness: Understanding an endangered state of mind. Westport, CT: Praeger.