Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
The 6th Biennial Meaning conference took place August 5-8 in Vancouver Canada. The theme was Creating a Psychologically Healthy Workplace, and sessions also touched on a deeper theme — the importance of meaning to the quality of our lives.
Many of the sessions were recorded and recordings are available for purchase, if this brief summary makes you wish you had been there. My own presentation on articulating a shared and valued purpose at work is available in the collection.
Here are some highlights from the conference. For quotations from the Saturday night banquet speaker, Alexander Batthyany, see my earlier article inspired by the conference, Finding Meaning in a Shrinking World.
Paul Wong described several therapeutic approaches anchored in discovering personal meaning. Among those is the PURE model of meaning:
- Purpose: goals, directions, a sense of pursuing what matters. Includes grit. Consistent with values and beliefs
- Understanding: a sense of coherence and clarity about self and others. Does your life make sense to you? Does your suffering, your job, your marriage make sense?
- Responsible Action: choosing the right thing to do, assuming responsibility for consequences
- Enjoying meaningful live OR Evaluating life anew. If you feel good, fine. But negative feelings are an important part of a self-repairing system. There is something amiss that needs adjustment.
Emotional Impact: What Can We Learn From Filmmakers..& Social Psychologists?
Jeffrey Zeig from the Milton Erickson Foundation talked about the grammar of art and art’s impact on people. To illustrate differences in impact, Zeig had the audience practice two different ways of observing a neighbor appreciatively — first by just looking at the person for 5 seconds, then using a sequence that included setup (looking at the floor and slowly letting gaze come up), intervention (making an appreciative sound), follow-through (making an appreciative gesture).
He also called for more cross-fertilization between research fields, and is working with director Alexander Vesely (grandson of Victor Frankl) on a documentary about the science of impact. It will be out in 2012.
Rediscovering the Soul of Business: The Meaning Difference
Alexander Pattakos talked about the need for businesses to incorporate meaning into leadership, workplace culture, and outcomes. Meaning underlies engagement, performance, and innovation. He called Zorba the Greek a business movie: it illustrates the principle that people have the freedom to choose their attitudes, no matter how desperate circumstances may appear. People at work can commit authentically to meaningful values and goals that only they can actualize.The Power of Appreciative Leadership
Diana Whitney gave a keynote on Appreciative Leadership, followed by a workshop on Appreciative Inquiry in practice. Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy, a process, and a set of practices. Often it involves turning questions around. Alan Marlatt, an earlier speaker, had discussed different ways to deal with college-age drinking. Diana Whitney suggested that the question could be turned from “how can we help college students who abuse alcohol?” to “what can we learn from college students who drink responsibly?” She described great leadership as a relational capacity involving 5 I’s:
- Inquiry: Asking questions that create ripples of meaning. The internal social dialog of an organization
involves what people remember and think about, how they feel, and what they talk about.
- Inclusion: Involving all sorts of constituents and using the power of improbable pairs – getting people to talk to people they wouldn’t normally meet
- Illumination: Developing the ability to appreciate, becoming a strengths spotter, cultivating an appreciative vocabulary.
- Inspiration: Unleashing the creative spirit, generating the large amounts of positive emotions, energy, and enthusiasm needed for change.
- Integrity: Making choices for the good of the whole.
Three Lessons about a Meaningful Life
Todd Kashdan discussed his search for more dynamic ways to study the messiness of life. That means studying people in context of their own lives rather than labs, collecting data from them multiple times, and finding more open-ended information sources than the usual standard questionnaires. He concluded with three lessons relevant to living a meaningful life (based on three presented studies):
- Emotion regulation can be problematic as the central organizing principle of life. He based this statement on discoveries from a study of 47 Vietnam war veterans, 21 with PTSD. Participants provided lists of the things they strive for daily, as well as information about well-being and self-esteem. Content analysis identified strivings with emotion regulation (e.g., trying to be happy), approach, and avoidance themes. According to the abstract of the paper, “The presence of PTSD and a high rate of emotion regulation strivings led to the lowest global well-being and daily self-esteem during a 14-day assessment period.”
- The influence of emotion includes how we make sense of emotions and describe them, extending well beyond both intensity and valence (positive or negative). He cited two studies in which college students were asked many times a day over a three week period about the emotions they experienced. Researchers also collected information about alcohol consumption in one study, and aggression in another. He found that intensity of negative emotions did not predict greater alcohol consumption, but the degree to which people could clearly describe their emotions correlated with lower consumption.
- A commitment to purpose in life provides a stable architecture for a life well lived. He cited a not-yet published study on cultivating purpose in life as an intervention for people with social anxiety disorder in the context of Acceptance Commitment Therapy.
In his keynote, Robert Biswas-Diener brought together the ideas of stories, strengths, and purpose. The stories we tell about our work have power. A cubicle worker described work as being shut out from the sun. After a heart attack and recovery, he returned to work with the sense that he was the star of his story. Same work, different story. Robert told a masterful story about his own strengths, a dramatic narrative of his first job in Kenya studying the Maasai – it’s a tale of bravery, but I won’t say more in case you have a chance to hear it. He urged the audience to form their own strength stories, and then tell them over and over, leaving out the non-essentials, augmenting the powerful parts, adjusting to audiences. He attributed the power of his story to practice, estimating that he has told it 30 to 40 times.Building a Good Corporation is a Noble Calling
Michael Novak closed the conference with a talk on Finding Meaning at Work. He said that corporations have the potential to be the strategic central organizations of social justice. They create new wealth, they spread new inventions, and workers depend on them for development, friendships, and future wealth.
He said moral scandals involving corporations are terribly evil. In addition to the harm done by the offending corporations themselves, scandals affect other corporations, making it easier to do ill and harder to do good. Finally they give ammunition to the enemies of a free economy.
He then discussed the need to rebuild moral ecology after 100 years of neglect. He described the 4 cardinal virtues on which a free society turns:
- Cultural humility: Awareness of one’s own limitations and the blindspots of one’s own culture. There is no nation that does not need to borrow from others.
- Respect for truth: Submitting opposing judgments to the light of evidence, awareness that we need the help of others to perceive truth fully. This means respect for adversaries, but not cultural relativism.
- Dignity of the Individual: Persons are not means but ends
- Human solidarity: Devotion to the common good, which is not just the sum of all individual goods.
Kashdan, T.B., Ferssizidis, P., Collins, R.L., & Muraven, M. (in press). Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers. Psychological Science
Kashdan, T.B., Breen, W.E., & Julian, T. (2010). Everyday strivings in combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder: Problems arise when avoidance and emotion regulation dominate. Behavior Therapy, 41, 350-363.
Linley, P. A., Willars, J. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). The Strengths Book: Be Confident, Be Successful, and Enjoy Better Relationships by Realising the Best of You.
Pattakos, A. (2010). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett Kohler.
Whitney, D. K. (2010). Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization. New York: McGraw Hill.
Wong, P. T. & Fry, P. S. (Eds.) (1998). The Human Quest for Meaning: A Handbook of Psychological Research and Clinical Applications (Personality and Clinical Psychology). Routledge.
Zeig, J. K. & Gilligan, S. G. (Eds.) (1990). Brief Therapy: Myths, Methods, And Metaphors. Brunner/Mazel, Inc.
All images are used with permission from PurposeResearch. Follow the link in the upper right corner of the PurposeResearch site to see more pictures of the conference.