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How To Build a Life with Meaning

November 19, 2018 by · Leave a Comment

The study of meaning and what makes life worth living is a central area of research in the science of positive psychology. In fact, the cover story for a recent issue of the American Psychological Association publication, Monitor on Psychology, is “The Search for Meaning.” In this post, I’ll review the best insights from this important article.

A few key research findings in the science of meaning include:

  • More than 90 percent of people say their lives are meaningful.
  • Meaning is connected to good health and positive health behaviors.
  • In the medical setting, meaning approaches have enhanced the quality of life and decreased the depression and hopelessness of patients.
  • In mental health settings, meaning approaches have increased well-being and decreased stress and depression.
  • Research shows there are many sources of meaning. The two main areas are meaningful relationships and meaningful occupation. Meaningful relationships are typically viewed as the greatest pathway for many people.

Research on meaning has steeply increased in the last decade and many interventions and easy-to-use practical strategies have unfolded. Here are a few you might try out:

  • Meaning-making is a process by which you reevaluate your sense of meaning after a problem (e.g., health problem, job loss, relationship breakup) to align your “new normal” with your previous goals and meaning beliefs.
    • How might you look at a recent setback or problem and see it as an opportunity to boost your meaning in life?
  • Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning (required reading for all human beings) highlights three main roots to meaning that we can all tap into. Long predating positive psychology, each of Frankl’s observations include a character strength to focus on:
    • Bravery/courage toward life’s difficulties.
      • Tip for everyday use: Use your bravery to face something you have been avoiding, such as a task you need to get done or a work assignment.
    • Appreciating beauty, love, truth, and goodness.
      • Tip for everyday use: Pause for a few moments one time today when you are in the midst of a beautiful environment or are witnessing an act of goodness by someone. Savor the experience.
    • Creativity and kindness expression.
      • Tip for everyday use: Use your kindness in a new way today – go out of your way to “commit” one thoughtful act for a friend or neighbor.
  • Create a personal legacy project in which you address what is most meaningful to you in your life, whether that be volunteering for a local cause, offering forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, or forging a new friendship.
  • Use the double-vision strategy from researcher Paul Wong: Aim high toward your future ideals but also stay grounded in the present moment.
    • Tip: To do this strategy, ask yourself two questions: What is something meaningful I’d like to do in the future for my family or community? What gives me a sense of meaning in my life today? Keep both of these answers at the top of your mind.
  • View your life as a journey: In one study, those people who wrote about and viewed life as a journey experienced greater meaning in life than those people who simply wrote about their lives in a literal, straightforward way.
  • Use nostalgia. Think about a positive memory of connection with a family member or friend. When you tap into your nostalgic past you access your true self and boost your life meaning.
  • Meaning can be found in any moment. It doesn’t always have to be viewed as something obscure or requiring great depth. Find meaning as you go on a walk in your neighborhood, when you greet a loved one, or when you post something to Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

Want to learn more about this research above? A wide range of scientists are doing important work in meaning. Here are several whose research is highlighted in this post:

  • William Breitbart, MD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
  • Samantha Heintzelman, University of Virginia
  • Clara Hill, Ph.D., University of Maryland
  • Laura King, Ph.D., University of Missouri
  • Mark Landau, Ph.D., University of Kansas
  • Crystal Park, Ph.D. and Login George, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
  • Michael Steger, Ph.D., Colorado State University
  • Paul Wong, Ph.D., Trent University

References

Deangelis, T. (2018, October). In search of meaning. Monitor on Psychology, 49(9), 38-44.

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