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Creating Meaning & Fulfilment

Wage increases and better conditions are hugely deserved and long overdue for hardworking teachers worldwide. However, these offers don’t address an even more important element of the teaching experience; feeling a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfilment in life. Here is an essay I have written, backed up by the latest research in psychology, about creating meaning and fulfilment in our lives and increasing well-being.

By Samuel Kett

The recent focus on purpose and meaning in life by positive psychology researchers has helped to broaden and deepen our understanding of flourishing and well-being. There are a number of ways to define meaning in life; Dr Michael F. Steger believes that making each moment in one’s life matter is one of the keys to living a meaningful life. He believes that meaning is about having significance and purpose in order to fulfil one’s needs to do and make sense of the world (TEDxTalks, 2013). Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl explains meaning as the ability to comprehend the world and create values and beliefs. Finding meaning requires individuals to self-transcend by looking beyond themselves and feeling a part of something bigger (Frankl, 1985). The search for meaning is something that many people worry about. They worry that their lives are short and yet they haven’t discovered their true purpose and a sense of meaning has not appeared before them. What is clear, however, is that one can find meaning in anything; the little day-to-day experiences where humans can connect with themselves. Meaning is about understanding oneself, existing in a way where one’s experiences and actions align with their values and goals, one feels a sense of purpose and strives to contribute to something bigger than themself.

The Link Between Meaning and Overall Psychological and Subjective Well-being

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In the early days of Positive Psychology, a lot of focus was placed on subjective well-being, otherwise known as hedonism. Hedonism refers to the more common views of happiness such as feeling positive emotions and pleasure. While this is a vital side of well-being, research over the last couple of decades into meaning in life has brought attention to the importance of psychological well-being (also referred to as eudaimonia). This has helped to broaden our understanding of human flourishing. 

“happiness is about the present. whereas meaningfulness is about linking the past, present and future together “

Aristotle believed that eudaimonia was about humans achieving the best that is within themselves. In other words, living up to their potential and acquitting themselves honourably. Aristotle suggested that this notion of eudaimonia is experienced when one lives a life of virtue that is guided by positive goals and a sense of purpose (Ryff, C.D., Singer, B.H. 2008, p.17). Baumeister et al. (2013) have found that satisfying one’s needs and wants increases happiness but has very little effect on meaningfulness. This is because happiness is about the present, whereas meaningfulness is about linking the past, present and future together (Baumeister et al., 2013).

Meaning in life is clearly linked with eudaimonia. As many researchers would agree, meaning in life is less about subjective well-being where the focus is on our momentary feelings of personal happiness. Instead, it is about feeling a sense of purpose by being a part of something bigger than oneself by pursuing meaningful goals that positively impact others. It is arguable that placing more attention on one’s psychological well-being rather than one’s subjective well-being could be more likely to provide a long-term sense of well-being and flourishing. In fact, in some cases, people seem to be willing to sacrifice hedonistic forms of happiness (subjective well-being) for meaning in life. Parenthood is a great example of this. Research clearly shows that parenthood, especially in the early years, leads to a decrease in positive emotions. However, much of the population chooses to have children. This suggests that the meaning and purpose that comes from the responsibility of parenthood and love for one’s child, may provide longer-term feelings of well-being that outweigh the decline in the present experience of positive emotions (Baumeister et al., 2013). Michael Steger (2014) backs this up when he suggests that although taking actions that bring more meaning to life may in fact decrease feelings of happiness in the present, it is safe to conclude that a meaningful life leads to higher levels of happiness and fulfilment in the long run. (Steger & Shin 2014)

Increasing An Individual’s Sense of Meaning and Fulfilment

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Self-knowledge/Self-awareness:

Many meaning in life researchers refer to the idea that meaningfulness is in part the comprehension of one’s experience, both of oneself and how one interacts and fits in with the world around them. Steger (2013) explains that the comprehension of one’s life is the cognitive component of meaning and is the interpretation of a wide range of interconnections and perceptions that enable one to comprehend their experience and move towards a purposeful future. Baumeister et al. (2013) explain meaningfulness as an “assessment of one’s life” from both a cognitive and emotional perspective as to the amount of value and purpose one experiences. Ryff & Singer (2008) add another dimension to this idea when they use the terms “self-actualisation”, “self-acceptance” and “self-realisation”. Self-actualisation refers to the idea of being one’s best self. Self-acceptance is like self-assessment and embracing one’s own weaknesses and strengths, which requires self-awareness. Finally, self-realisation acknowledges that none of this is fixed and that one should be focused on continued growth.

a starting point for meaningfulness is to step back, be mindful, take stock, assess one’s life and experiences, self-reflect, and understand one’s own values, strengths, and dreams

From this point, one is able to make more sense of their experience and direct themselves toward a more meaningful life. 

Relationships:

Research has shown that those who lead more meaningful lives consider relationships to provide more meaning than accomplishments. Building positive social connections with friends and family has been shown across a range of studies to be important to meaningfulness. Whereas happiness is positively influenced by others doing things for oneself, meaningfulness is linked to an individual being more of a giver than a taker. Although helping others may be less directly linked to happiness, it is worth noting that the meaning gained from being a helpful person inevitably increases feelings of happiness in the long run (Baumeister et al. 2013). Carole Ryff’s psychological well-being model also refers to relationships and their importance to meaning in life. Key features of the relationship dimension of this model are intimacy, affection, empathy and generativity (Ryff, C.D., Singer, B.H. 2008, p.21)

Goals:

Purpose as a concept is seen in most models and theories of meaning in life. Carole Ryff’s model of psychological well-being explains purpose as having a direction and intention in one’s life. Steger (2013) explains that there are 2 dimensions to meaning, cognitive and motivational. The motivational dimension is about one’s purpose and trajectory in life and encourages individuals to have long term goals to work towards. Baumeister et al. (2013) also support the idea that a key element of leading a meaningful life is the pursuit of goals as well as engaging in activities that “express and reflect the self”. This aligns with Steger’s conceptual model of meaning where an emphasis is placed on the self-concordant nature of the goals.

Strategies To Maximise Greater Meaning and Purpose 

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When considering specific strategies to increase meaning and purpose Michael Steger explains that there is no handbook with a set of guidelines that one can follow. Meaning can be quite a vague concept and for this reason, when looking to enhance meaning in one’s life Steger suggests starting with; making one’s work as meaningful as possible, investing in close relationships and finding opportunities to give and contribute (Canadian Positive Psychology Association, 2014). Steger (2014) goes on to hypothesise that it is the small day-to-day moments of meaning in one’s routines, habits, relationships, interactions, contributions and work that will ultimately lead to a meaningful life in a broader sense. 

Dr Russ Harris (2017) provides a simple framework for working towards a more meaningful life. He explains how in life one can make both “away moves” and “toward moves”. “Away moves” are the actions and thoughts an individual experiences that take them away from the person they want to be. “Toward moves” are the actions and thoughts an individual experiences that move them towards the person they want to be and a more meaningful life. One needs to evaluate the unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and memories that lead to “away moves” as well as the values, strengths and skills that lead to “toward moves”. Considering the lack of clear-cut strategies for a meaningful life, this simplistic concept could be a very good starting point. 

The perception that one’s life has value and matters is an important characteristic of meaning. What is consistent across the research is that individuals leading meaningful lives place a lot of emphasis on relationships, connections, self-awareness, and having goals that are aligned with a clear vision of what one is trying to accomplish in their life. When too much focus is placed on hedonistic activities, one’s life may be pleasurable at certain moments, yet an individual may feel like something is lacking. When a balanced approach is taken and an individual begins to prioritise a eudaimonic approach, flourishing and happiness may well flow from the deeper sense of meaning one has in their life.

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