3 min read
But the concept of “meaning in life” is not an easy one to get our arms around. The meaning we make of our lives and the events that befall us is highly subjective and largely a product of our unique personal histories, cultures, and personalities.
Amidst this diversity, however, common threads can be seen in the way that people make meaning of their lives.
Here, global meaning refers to enduring values, beliefs about the world, perceptions of others, and expectations for oneself that, more or less, remain constant across a multitude of circumstances and situations.
. . . it is exactly at this point where the rubber meets the road, where life experiences challenge us and provoke new understandings of the world, that we want to talk about.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
In contrast, situational meaning is more specific and localized. It involves the way we interpret events and experiences as they unfold as well as when we re-interpret them upon later reflection.
We might, for example, interpret an event as threatening or challenging, or perhaps attribute responsibility for it to ourselves or someone else.
When our interpretation of an event is mostly consistent with the global meaning we’ve made of the world, memories of it are seamlessly integrated into the vast storehouse of personal knowledge in our brains. And the entire process unfolds automatically without a hitch.
It could be a sudden death that challenges our beliefs about the security and predictability of the world, or a job loss that makes us start to doubt our abilities and lose self-confidence.
In any case, when there is a conflict between situational and global meaning of this kind, we are faced with two fundamental choices. We can accommodate the event, by somehow altering our global beliefs to better fit the circumstances. So, maybe the world wasn’t as safe and predictable as I thought? Or perhaps I’m more vulnerable than I once believed?
Alternately, we could assimilate the event into existing understandings of the world, by developing an interpretation of it that is more consistent with our existing beliefs and worldviews. It could be re-interpreted as a growth experience or other connections could be made that help to integrate the discrepant event into an overarching life story that makes sense and allows for a hopeful future.
In the coming weeks and months ahead we’re going to explore meaning in both a global sense, discussing topics such as clarifying values and working with negative thoughts, as well as meaning at a more situational level, grappling with topics like coping with caregiving and learning to say goodbye to those we love.
In tomorrow’s piece, we draw a distinction between happiness and meaning in life and discuss their implications for your health and well-being.
On Wednesday, you can take our quiz and find out the extent to which you have made meaning of a stressful event in your life.
Then, we end the week with an exploration of the importance of stories in our pursuit of meaning (Thursday) and an explication of the 7 pillars of a meaningful life (Friday).
So, come back everyday this week for more on meaning and share your experience pursuing meaning in the Comments box below.
3 min read.
. . . those with greater happiness were more likely to describe themselves as takers rather than givers. -Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
. . . those with greater happiness were more likely to describe themselves as takers rather than givers.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
Paraphrased from the writings of the ancient Jewish scholar, Hillel the Elder, these questions cut the very heart of what it means to be human.
Part of living a good life must involve pursuing my own goals, seeking pleasure, and avoiding suffering. Yet, as Hillel the Elder acknowledges, if my life were only consumed with these self-interests, it would be a rather shallow existence.
Intuitively, we realize that these self-interests must be balanced by a sense of purpose and meaning that calls us to look beyond ourselves and serve some larger group or cause that we believe in.
Over the past decade, a number of key studies have been conducted allowing for these two life pursuits to be better teased apart and compared in terms of their effect on overall life satisfaction and well-being.
In particular, these studies examine the distinction between happiness vs. meaning, where happiness is conceptualized as the experience of a high degree of positive emotion without any significant negative emotion. And meaning refers to a sense that one’s life has some larger purpose and makes sense as a coherent whole.
A long line of research points to the benefits of positive emotions (e.g., joy or pride) and harmfulness of negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, or fear) for a variety of short- and long-term mental and physical health outcomes.
Likewise, a sense of meaning in life (as assessed in a variety of ways) has been shown to be reliably linked with improved mental/physical health and overall well-being. Thus, both happiness and meaning seem to be an important part of living a “good life.”
Yes, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. A number of studies have now shown that there can be a dark side to happiness.
For example, in a series of studies conducted in 2010 and 2011, a psychologist and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Iris Mauss, and her colleagues found that those who valued happiness to a greater degree tended to also experience more loneliness and disappointment.
It seemed that the pursuit of happiness, when taken to the extreme, could have unwanted side-effects by: (a) orienting one toward only selfish pursuits that alienated them from others and (b) producing unrealistic expectations and inevitable letdowns.
In a 2013 landmark study, a psychologist and researcher at Florida State University, Dr. Roy Baumeister, and his colleagues surveyed roughly 400 Americans about the extent to which they felt their lives were happy and meaningful.
Baumeister and his team were particularly interested in identifying factors that were associated with meaningfulness but not happiness, and vice versa, to tease apart the unique features of each.
One of the most striking findings of this study was that those with greater happiness were more likely to describe themselves as takers rather than givers. And individuals reporting a high degree of meaningfulness showed an opposite pattern, being more likely to describe themselves as givers.
But this giving orientation toward life didn’t come without a cost. Meaningfulness was also associated with a greater degree of anxiety, worry, and arguing; whereas, happiness tended to have the opposite effect.
In a 2016 study of students being supervised at a field training site, their daily diary entries were analyzed using a computer program that categorized words into several relevant domains. The students were then followed for a period of months and years and provided information about their current functioning and well-being at a later point.
What the researchers found was that, although the students’ use of more positive emotion words (e.g., “happy” or “good”) in their diaries was associated with better ratings by their supervisors in the short-term, a preoccupation with happiness was not significantly associated with long-term ratings of overall well-being in life.
Conversely, students who used more words in their diaries that reflected an orientation toward meaning-making (e.g., using causation words like “because” or “effect”) were more likely to express a sense of well-being and gratitude at the follow-up assessment.
And this effect was strongest when students were able to assume a detached, third-person perspective that allowed them to take a bird’s eye view of their lives and consider fresh perspectives and options.
If you were to make a list of the activities that enhance the meaningfulness of your life, would it differ much from a list of activities that make you happy? A study just published in October of 2017 suggests that in everyday life there may be little difference between the two.
In this study, people were asked to come up with activities that: (a) enhanced their sense meaning in life, (b) made them feel happy, (c) enhanced meaning but not happiness, or (d) made them feel happy but were not considered meaningful.
Activities that enhanced meaning but not happiness (e.g., arguing about an important issue) could be clearly distinguished from those that promoted happiness but not meaning (e.g., frivolous shopping).
But when people were simply instructed to engage in activities that either promoted meaningfulness or happiness, there was little difference in the types of activities that were chosen. Thus, it appears that many activities have a dual effect of promoting happiness and meaning, and people seem to naturally gravitate to those that offer both.
Happiness and meaning are both important facets of a good life. And most of the time, the two don’t seem to conflict.
But, there are moments when short-term happiness must be sacrificed in order to pursue some higher cause or purpose. Maybe it’s a difficult but important conversation that you’d prefer not to have or a valued commitment that would be easier to break than follow through on.
In these moments, we’re faced again with Hillel the Elder’s conundrum: If I am not for myself, then who am I? But if I am only for myself, what am I?
I’ve struggled with this aphorism since I read it nearly 20 years ago. But it once occurred to me that perhaps there is a reason Hillel the Elder chose to express this lesson as a series of questions.
It, of course, reminds us that only we can answer these questions for ourselves. But perhaps more importantly, it also expresses the dynamic, fluid nature of such matters, which demand ongoing consideration, as one asks and re-asks the question from one situation to another.
So, what are your thoughts on balancing happiness and meaning? Have you ever sacrificed happiness for some greater purpose? What did it reveal about what’s most important to you? Let us know in the comments box below.
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., … & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24, 1123-1132.
Kring, A.M. (2008). Emotion disturbances as transdiagnostic processes in psychopathology. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotion (3rd ed., pp. 691–705). New York: Guilford Press.
Suls, J., & Bunde, J. (2005). Anger, anxiety, and depression as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: The problems and implications of overlapping affective dispositions. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 260-300.
1 min read
Complete this brief 6-item version of the Integration of Stressful Life Experiences Scale (ISLES). See article below to learn more.
They want to know why something happened, both in a worldly sense (e.g., What caused this to happen?; Who is responsible?) as well as on a more cosmic level (e.g., Why is this happening to me?).
. . . those who have made meaning of a stressful life event are less likely to experience mental and physical health problems afterward.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
It turns out that the answers people develop to these kinds of questions matter a great deal after a stressful life event.
My colleagues and I have developed the Integration of Stressful Life Experiences Scale (ISLES) that assesses the degree to which someone has made meaning of a negative life event. It includes questions about the extent to which an event or experience “makes sense” as well as other questions that inquire about one’s sense of values, faith, and worldviews and how they have (or haven’t) changed afterward.
In a number of studies, we’ve found that those who have made meaning of a stressful life event (as assessed by the ISLES) are less likely to experience mental and physical health problems afterward, even after accounting for other known risk and resiliency factors.
It seems that after a stressful life event we have a need to integrate the experience into a coherent life story that makes sense and allows for a hopeful and purposeful future. And when this process is stymied, we’re more vulnerable to a number of mental and physical health problems, including elevated stress levels and dysregulation of hormones related to stress.
Holland, J. M., Currier, J. M., Coleman, R. A., & Neimeyer, R. A. (2010). The Integration of Stressful Life Experiences Scale (ISLES): Development and initial validation of a new measure. International Journal of Stress Management, 17, 325-352.
4 min read
In early childhood, we begin developing stories about ourselves — who we are, our likes and dislikes, our traits and values — all of which serve to create a unified and coherent sense of self.
. . . people who told stories that included more redemption sequences had higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction and less depression.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
And just like any story, the stories we construct about ourselves have a protagonist (i.e., you), supporting characters (e.g., your family and friends), overarching themes (e.g., of survivorship or resiliency), emotional tones (e.g., pride or disappointment), and inevitable ups and downs (e.g., tragedies and personal achievements).
And this process plays out in everyday life, as we engage in activities, interact with others, and tell stories about the happenings of the day.
But this process can get disrupted when an event or experience is so discrepant from one’s overall life story that it sticks out like a gaping hole in a tapestry on the wall. Somehow the pieces just don’t fit together.
The psychologist and meaning expert, Dr. Robert Neimeyer, discusses this phenomenon in terms of problematic micro-narratives — stories about specific life events and situations like losing a loved one or surviving a traumatic accident — that fail to be integrated into the larger macro-narrative of our lives.
So, what are the key strategies that people use to successfully weave together difficult micro-narratives into a larger macro-narrative? At least 3 narrative patterns have been observed among those who have successfully adjusted to a difficult life event.
Themes of growth in one’s life story are predictive of a variety of positive outcomes. In one study, people who had gone through a major life transition (i.e., in either their career or religious beliefs) wrote about their experiences and reflections on what occurred.
People whose stories emphasized themes of achievement or mastery were more likely to believe that the transition had a positive impact on their lives. Higher levels of well-being were also found among individuals who stressed themes relating to increased intimacy with family, their community, or a higher power.
In another study that followed a cohort of women for 40 years, narrative accounts of the “most unstable, confusing, troubled, or discouraging time” in their lives were analyzed and examined as predictors of future well-being and maturity nearly 10 years later.
Women who focused on themes of positive self-transformation in their written accounts were most likely to be physically healthy and satisfied with their lives a decade later.
Their narratives also tended to take an exploratory approach, acknowledging negative experiences and considering their meaning, and often concluded with a coherent positive ending that offered some final, summarizing statement signaling that the story had reached a conclusion.
In a series of studies, people’s life stories, elicited in extensive interviews, were examined for two specific kinds of emotional sequences: (a) Redemption sequences involved a negative life scene, which then turned positive. A bad situation was somehow redeemed or mitigated by the fact that it ultimately had a positive outcome. (b) Contamination sequences showed the opposite pattern with a positive scene being followed by a negative one. An initially good experience was ultimately spoiled or contaminated by the events that followed.
The researchers found that people who told stories that included more redemption sequences had higher levels of well-being and life satisfaction and less depression. Contamination sequences on the other hand were associated with poorer outcomes on all of these same domains.
Want to get practice working with your own life stories? Click here for 10 exercises designed to help you make sense of difficult life events and develop a hopeful and coherent life narrative.
Try these exercises and let us know how it goes in the comments box below!
McAdams, D. P., Reynolds, J., Lewis, M., Patten, A. H., & Bowman, P. J. (2001). When bad things turn good and good things turn bad: Sequences of redemption and contamination in life narrative and their relation to psychosocial adaptation in midlife adults and in students. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(4), 474-485.
Pals, J. L. (2006). Narrative identity processing of difficult life experiences: Pathways of personality development and positive self‐transformation in adulthood. Journal of Personality, 74, 1079-1110.
1 min read
Such matters certainly involve a high degree of personal subjectivity. However, the psychologist, researcher, and meaning expert, Dr. Paul Wong, believes that meaningful living can be described in a more precise manner.
1. Believing that there is inherent meaning in human existence
2. Having a deep understanding of who you are and how you fit in
3. Discovering your unique passion and mission
4. Fulfilling your best potentials and becoming your best self
5. Striving to serve something that is bigger and longer lasting than yourself
6. Relating well to people, especially to loved ones
7. Feeling fulfilled that you are living a productive life as a decent human being
To what extent do these 7 pillars describe you? What areas of your life feel more or less meaningful? Let us know in the comments box below.