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.
does having a sense of meaning mean?
Meaning is difficult to define
but it is generally thought to include three main components:
is defined as… “…the pursuit of activities and life goals considered by the
individual to be valuable and worthwhile.
meaningful life is never passive…there is a will to meaning – a forward thrust
toward purposefulness and significant life goals.”
are the “…feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that flow from the pursuit
of worthwhile activities and life goals.”
individually constructed way of thinking which “makes sense of life and endows
it with purpose and significance.
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,
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
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