Leadership Coaching Series:  “Get More Meaning” – from the mundane to the meaningful

"What people actually need is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of them. What they need is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by them."

(Frankl, 1963, p.166 – modified with inclusive language) 

Have you noticed that as a society we can get caught up in “the rat-race”? Some would say that our focus on self, through competition, experimenting sexually, and striving to accumulate material things, is really misplaced. They would say that what we’re really striving for is a sense of meaning and purpose and that we are just going about it in the wrong way.   Researchers have started to look more closely at having a sense of meaning and how it is connected to our well-being. Studies have found that having material wealth beyond what is required to meet our basic needs is not associated with happiness. Of course, this is not a new idea; maybe someone in your life has even said to you, “Money can’t buy you love (or happiness)”. What is new is that we now have the research to prove it!

Researchers also have discovered a strong positive relationship between peoples’ mental and physical well-being and having meaning in life. Specifically, some studies have found that people who have a sense of life-purpose also report higher levels of well being and do not tend to struggle with issues like depression.


What does having a sense of meaning mean?

Meaning is difficult to define but it is generally thought to include three main components:  

Motivational/Behavioural

This is defined as… “…the pursuit of activities and life goals considered by the individual to be valuable and worthwhile.

A meaningful life is never passive…there is a will to meaning – a forward thrust toward purposefulness and significant life goals.”


Emotional

These are the “…feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that flow from the pursuit of worthwhile activities and life goals.”


Cognitive

…an individually constructed way of thinking which “makes sense of life and endows it with purpose and significance.

This cognitive system is devel oped in a particular cultural context, thus incorporating many of the beliefs, values, and assumptions shared by that 

One aspect of meaning that seems to be an essential part of all three components is the need for connection to others. After having conducted research that looked at peoples’ sense of meaning in life, Wong concluded that:

“It requires that individuals have positive and mature attitudes toward life and self and that they lead a purposeful and productive life. There are limits to meaning-seeking if individuals are alienated from their community and the spiritual realm. Therefore, individuals need to get involved in and contribute to community. They also need religious [sic spiritual] faith that makes sense of the larger and difficult issues about life, suffering, and death” (Wong, 1998, p.118)

Victor Frankl, who wrote the opening quote to this section, managed not only to survive but to find meaning and purpose in his experience of being captured and held in a Nazi concentration camp. He survived this trauma and spent the remainder of his life sharing his wisdom through talking with others and writing about the importance of meaning in people’s lives. Frankl emphasized the importance of looking outside one-self. As you will read in the quotation below, Frankl believed that to find meaning, people need to shift the focus from being so caught up in themselves and their own needs to a more outward focus: more love, hope, compassion, and generosity directed toward others. This of course could include such things as working for a specific social cause, or engaging in tasks and pursuits that are outside of the self.

"A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how" (Frankl, 1963, p.127).

Frankl’s beliefs about meaning-finding have influenced the questions social science researchers have asked. Recent exploratory studies have found that people tend to agree that the following are common sources of meaning. However, as we stated earlier, the relative importance of what makes life meaningful varies from person to person. These are some common sources of meaning. 


How to measure personal meaning?

A key instrument used to measure meaning in life is  the Personal Meaning

Profile as developed by Wong (1998). This is a 57- item scale that loads on 7 factors.  The subscales are Self acceptance, Fair treatment, Intimacy, Relationship, Self Transcendance, Religion and Achievement.  The total PMP score is an index of magnitude – the greater the score the more successful a person is in approximating the ideally meaningful life.  The main advantage of the PMP is that it specifies the sources of meaning seeking.


Sources of Meaning

Relationships

— People find great satisfaction and personal meaning in supporting and being supported by others. This includes friendships as well as involvement in organisations or clubs whose work fosters community growth and development.

Score: _______

Intimacy

— Meaning is achieved in the sharing of one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, desires, goals, triumphs, and failures, with a special person. It could be anyone; a lover, life-partner, friend, or relative, with whom you have a deep and meaningful connection.

Score: _______

Self-acceptance

— Individuals are more likely to discover meaning if they are able to accept themselves for who they are. Self-acceptance comes from developing the ability to learn from past mistakes, to identify strengths and limitations, acknowledging areas of personal growth, and to working toward being the best we can be. It is much more difficult to find meaning in life when people focus on their perceived personal inadequacies.

Score: _______

Fairness/Respect

— Being able to live and function in a place or nation where fairness and respect is valued and practiced is certainly helpful in the process of finding meaning. But as Frankl and many others have demonstrated, it is possible to achieve a sense of life-giving meaning even under the most oppressive conditions.

Score: _______

Achievement

— The ability to pursue and achieve one’s own goals, both large life goals and even smaller projects, has been found to greatly contribute well-being.

Score: _______

Self-Transcendance

— This goes back to what Frankl said about needing to move out of the self and toward others. People who report that a fairly high level of personal meaning in their lives believe that it is partly through their focus on causes, responsibilities, and pursuits outside themselves.

Score: _______

Religion

— Belief in a higher power and developing a relationship with God or Allah or other omnipotent being is commonly found to be a strong source of personal meaning for people.

Score: _______

OVERALL SCORE: __________

References

Wong, T. P. P. (1998). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (Wong, P.P.T. & Fry, Prem S. eds.). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Wong, T. P. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (Wong, P.P.T. & Fry, Prem S. eds.). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, Simon and Schuster.  


 
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