A Meaningful Life
When you study a topic like meaning in life, you can expect to get some version of the following question… a lot:
So, how do I have a more meaningful life?
The good news is that having a meaningful life is quite achievable; the bad news is that getting more meaning takes effort given to the search for meaning over time. Coincidentally, effort applied over time is a common definition of the word, “Work.” Those of you hoping to find meaning in 5 minutes or less using only a cocktail napkin are likely to be disappointed. As Edgar Allan Poe put it, “The best things in life make you sweaty.” It takes work, effort, and the utilization of our character strengths, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the sweat.
3 Main Types of Meaning
Meaning in life is really about three broad ideas: Significance, Purpose, and Coherence (Martela & Steger, 2016).
- Significance: expresses that life is worth living, that one’s life has inherent value, and that one matters in some way.
- Purpose: expresses that there is something important we want to strive for, something that is worthy of the life we’ve been given.
- Coherence: expresses that we can make sense of life, that we understand ourselves and the world around us, helping us see life as consistent and predictable most of the time.
All three, Significance, Purpose, and Coherence, work together to help us experience life as meaningful. Our lives feel worthwhile when we are doing something important with them. And, we know what we should be doing with our lives when we better understand who we are and can make sense of the world around us.
A Meaningful Life Takes Commitment
Doing all of this is not something that will happen in 5 minutes, it is a lifelong pursuit. That’s not to say that small victories are unimportant. Maybe those 5 minutes you spend writing on a cocktail napkin will help you commit to a new path. Maybe saying to yourself that you will stop holding yourself back gives you greater hope and helps you envision a better future. Maybe those 5 minutes of really acknowledging someone’s significance will instill in him or her a sense of new hope. But that is where the work starts. Having a more meaningful life often means making real changes to your life, and change is often difficult.
Using Character Strengths as a Pathway to Grow
Fortunately, gaining understanding of the nature and use of your character strengths is one way of making change that not only makes sense and not only is backed by research, but also is supported by numerous resources here through the VIA Institute.
While still a graduate student, Mike conducted a study of the VIA and of meaning in life among a sample of twins. The original intent was to understand whether meaning in life, and character strengths, were genetically heritable (Steger, Hicks, Kashdan, Krueger, & Bouchard, 2007). However, Mike never had the chance to publish the correlations between meaning in life (as measured by his Meaning in Life Questionnaire) and the VIA Inventory of Strengths.
Research Supports Strengths-Use to Find Meaning
All 24 VIA strengths have significant correlations with meaning in life. That means that endorsing any of the VIA strengths to a higher degree is linked to also perceiving your life to be meaningful. The smallest correlations are pretty small, with Humility, Fairness, Teamwork, Prudence, Forgiveness, and two of Mike’s signature strengths, Humor/Playfulness and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, each correlating less than .25. We might presume that strongly endorsing these strengths would only make a modest contribution to meaning in life. Fortunately, we each have numerous strengths, and we can even learn to use strengths that we currently score low on.
The strongest correlations are large. Perspective, Love, Spirituality, Zest, and Hope all are correlated greater than .40. We would anticipate that strongly endorsing these strengths contributes a great deal to a meaningful life. And, it must be said, who wouldn’t want to hang out with a wise, loving, hopeful person, brimming with spirituality and zest?
There actually is more research out there than this. For example, people who use their strengths at work have higher well-being and more meaningful work (Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010). But Mike’s curiosity (another of his signature strengths, r = .39, BTW) pushed him to look at these never-before published results. Curiosity is one character strength that both of us, Pninit and Mike, have in common. Pninit was curious about the question of how people translate their intentions, values and that which makes their lives worth living to everyday life. She wondered, do individuals who purposefully and habitually prioritize meaning in organizing their daily lives, actually experience increased meaning and well-being? She found that people who prioritize meaning through their actions do tend to have a greater sense of meaning in life, and in turn they experience less negative emotion and more positive emotion, gratitude, coherence happiness, and life satisfaction (Russo-Netzer, 2018). This is further evidence that rather than the abstract question of "What is the meaning of life?", experiencing meaning in life is a concrete question that has a lot to do with our choices and priorities. This is also where character strengths can play an important role in cultivating meaning in life on a daily basis.
Using Your Character Strengths To Find More Meaning
For example, aligning your character strengths, your passions and values with your “to-do-list” of daily activities as a ritual at the beginning or end of your day may enable you to better calibrate your inner compass. How can you use your character strengths to add more meaning to your everyday activities? Ask yourself, how can you use your character strength of creativity or curiosity, for example, in prioritizing the situations, activities and contexts that are meaningful for you today? How can you use your character strengths to plan your day ahead to experience more meaning?
Another good idea might be to start with that list of strengths that strongly correlate with meaning. You could look for opportunities to use those strengths in your daily life. On those days when you use those strengths, you could pay extra attention to how a meaningful life feels. You might even find that those strengths develop more. For example, Mike is working on Hope, which is nowhere near the top of his list of strengths. You can also ask yourself where and how your own personal set of character strengths correspond with each of the three components of meaning mentioned earlier - Significance, Purpose, and Coherence. For example, you can use your character strength of social intelligence to validate another person’s sense of Significance, use your character strength of curiosity to uncover your Purpose and courage to act upon it, or use your character strengths of perspective and wisdom to make sense of your life’s story, memories and experiences to develop more Coherence.
Using Meaning Exercises to Explore Character Strengths
The previous ideas work from character strengths to move toward meaning, but we can also move from meaning toward character strengths. When Mike and Pninit get together to teach about meaning or facilitate workshops that help people build meaning and meaning-making skills, we often have people go about their day and take 8-12 photos of “whatever makes your life feel meaningful.” Normally, we have them share the stories behind those photos with other students and workshop participants. For an extra strengths boost, this activity could include a reflection and sharing of the strengths people used in creating or recognizing those photos of meaning.
New Retreat to Explore Meaning
The strong theoretical link between meaning and character strengths, as well as encouraging research results, are some of the reasons why we incorporate a lot of character strengths activities and science into our workshops. In fact, we will be using some of the activities described in this article and many more in our upcoming 5-day retreat in wonderful Ubud, Bali: Meaning 360, between April 26 - May 1, 2020. We have carefully crafted a holistic blend of cutting edge science, spiritual exploration, and practical activities to equip you with new perspectives, new practices, and new experiences for awaking to lasting meaning and purpose. Together with meaning-seekers from around the world, we will build a supportive community that creates the inspiration and encouragement to stretch yourself, explore your hopes and dreams for a more meaningful life, and answer the question “What does it mean to be fully Alive.”
Visit www.meaning360.org to explore our unique programming, our incredible venue in Bali, and the many exciting inclusions you can experience within a small and welcoming community of fellow seekers at MEANING360.
We wish you a meaningful journey!