In the PERMA model the M is for meaning and purpose, a crucial part of living a happy life. All of us have either found meaning or are looking for it, whether we realise it or not. To find our meaning we first list our values and priorities. At the top of that list will be what matters most, your meaning in life. Attaching yourself to this higher value or priority does for the nonreligious and unbelievers what religion can: attach meaning to something bigger than you are. Even better is that meaning can come from multiple sources, thereby boosting our ability to get through life happy and fulfilled.
One of the founding father’s of modern humanistic psychology is Victor Frankl. He founded Logotherapy which is literally ‘meaning therapy’. Fankl was a holocaust survivor and finding meaning in the face of something that terrible was the only way he found to cope:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Victor Fankl
Frankl spoke of three main sources of meaning:
- Work: Not necessarily just a job but any purposeful work.
- Love: Love in any form it comes in (spouse, family, friends..etc). Frankl felt love to be the person that brings out the best in you. “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” Victor Frankl
- Suffering: Courage in the face of difficulties. “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.’ -Victor Frankl
The most recent and comprehensive study found four main areas of meaning:
- Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes — objective goals and subjective fulfillment.
- Values: Which can justify certain courses of action.
- Efficacy: The belief that one can make a difference.
- Self-worth: Reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person apparently are what results from immersion in our natural talents or what we excel at. (Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (2005, p. 610))
Studies vary about where people get their meaning from. One study found ‘Family was by far the most commonly cited source of meaning in life, with an overwhelming majority of mentions (36.14%). Interpersonal relations was the next most mentioned source of meaning (14.40%), followed by personal life (9.65%) and work (8.83%).” (Melissa E. Grouden, Paul E. Jose) But another one found 10 sources of meaning (Reker and Wong (1988)). Yet another study by Westerhof, Bohlmeijer, and Valenkamp (2004) found 5 sources of meaning. They all have 2 things in common:
- Internal sources of meaning: Personal growth, values and ideals, religious/spiritual enlightenment, emotional intelligence…etc.
- External sources of meaning: Work, leisure, relationships, cultural and religious activities…etc.
What all of this tells us is two things: First, that you don’t need to take meaning from just one thing and second that meaning can also change. Taking meaning from multiple sources ensures us that if we ever lose one source of meaning another is always there to keep us going through life, a safety net and the bigger the net the better. Also, our lives can change at any given moment and so it is prudent to regularly re-examine what gives our life meaning. Knowing this we will always have a source of strength and a fundamental tool in our ability to cope with life.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Print.
Emmons, R. (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.)
Baumeister (1991). Meanings of life. New York:
Guilford.Baumeister, R. & Vohs, K. (2005). Meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 608-618). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
Emmons, R. (1997). Motives and goals. In R. Hogan & J. A. Johnson (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology, (p 485-512). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.