Kathryn Britton, MAPP ’06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning (Theano Coaching LLC). She teaches positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. She recently published a book,Smarts and Stamina, on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits. Her blog is Positive Psychology Reflections. Full bio. Kathryn’s articles are here.
The chair of the 7th Biennial Meaning Conference, Dr. Paul Wong, opened the second day with the statement that he had worked for 10 years to bring positive psychologists together with existential and humanistic psychologists to work toward greater understanding of meaning in life. Pursuing this goal, he convened a panel of 9 speakers broadly representing different types of philosophy and psychology to explore the question, “What makes life worth living?”
Editor’s Note This article continues the report on the 7th Biennial Meaning Conference started in Meaning Can Come from Suffering AND Play.
Differences of Opinion
The panel was one of my favorite parts of the conference, lively, disputatious, and thought-provoking. Thinking about Paul Wong’s categories, I’d put Richard Ryan, Chris Peterson, and Dov Shmotkin in the positive psychology category, Emmy van Deurzen and Harris Friedman in the existential psychology category, and Jordan Peterson and Alan Waterman in the humanistic psychology category. I’m probably wrong, and I doubt if any of them wants to be put in a particular box!
Clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, chose to speak about his personal experience. Life is made worth living by the pursuit of truth and by listening humbly to the people around him, even when they say things he doesn’t want to hear.
Chris Peterson spoke as an empiricist. He once ran a campus-wide project titled “What makes life worth living?” at the University of Michigan, from which he collected hundreds of ideas from students, faculty, and staff. He found the ideas fell into 4 primary categories: work, love, play, and service.
Clinical psychologist Harris Friedman stated that he doesn’t think life inherently has meaning and that people, in fact, tend to prematurely foreclose on meaning. His stated goal is to live with the ambiguity of having no definite meaning.
Richard Ryan has asked thousands of people what makes life worth living. He has found that relationships, in particular, caring for others, tend to be most satisfying. Referencing Viktor Frankl, he stated that life doesn’t need to have a goal or purpose.Louise Sundararajan said that she was tired of hearing about common threads. As an indigenous psychologist, she is wary of imposing western ideas on the world: “Your freedom is not my freedom.”
Referencing gerontological studies, Dov Shmotkin pointed out that older people experience well-being and meaning in the immediate presence of friendly relationships. Reflecting on the statement about inalienable rights in the American Declaration of Independence, he commented that humans have no right to happiness itself (an outcome), only to the pursuit of happiness (a process). Meaning is a working system that is functional for us, helping us cherish the opposites, complexities, and opportunities of daily life.Alan Waterman commented that those humans who are highest on self-realization have the most to give others and in actuality do give the most to others.
When Todd Kashdan asked, “Where do we go from here?” Emmy van Deurzen suggested that we define terms. She wanted to know whether the conversation was about motivation, purpose, being pushed by the past, or moving into the future. We are all born, have time, evolve, and then die. Meanings and purposes evolve both in single lives and across history. We can only start to weave the strands together once we agree on terms.
Richard Ryan: Motivations behind Meaning: An SDT Perspective
Psychologist Richard Ryan received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the conference banquet. In his keynote, he focused on the basic needs that drive motivation and the experience of meaning. He showed conditions that facilitate or undermine each need:
|Autonomy||Absence of pressure
|Pressure toward outcome
As illustrated in his study with Bernstein and Brown, well-being tends to fluctuate within a person depending on levels of need satisfaction.
I was intrigued by his studies of video games and why they have such a powerful draw. His research team has found that games like World of Warcraft are highly motivating because people have chances to increase in skill, make their own choices, and connect with others online. Ryan’s group has found that violence has no motivational role even for adolescent males. When the games are rewritten with the game of tag substituted for war, they tend to elicit the same levels of motivation.Allan Waterman: Eudaimonic Identity Theory
Alan Waterman contrasted two metaphors of identify formation: the act of finding what is already there (Existentialist Philosophy) and the act of creating from elements (Essentialist Philosophy).
For Existentialists, being comes from nothingness and people make choices without external criteria. For Essentialists, being and form arise together and people make choices by recognizing potentials and acting on them. He proceeded to describe effective identify formation:
- Identification of personal potentials, for which exposure to a wide array of alternatives increases likelihood of success
- Development of personal potentials with hard work, which is sustained not through hedonism but through the eudaimonic sense of becoming who we are meant to be
- Determination of goals toward which skills can be directed
- Discovery of opportunities within our social contexts to make meaningful choices
Laura King: Noticing Meaning in Everyday Life: Pleasure, Intuition, and Magic
Psychology professor Laura King spoke at the Saturday banquet, after the presentation of awards to students and to the three Lifetime Achievement Honorees (Emmy van Deurzen, Chris Peterson, and Richard Ryan). I loved King’s humor and down-to-earth common sense.
King complained that the problem with positive psychology is that the goal posts keep moving. It used to be ok to be happy; now we have to be flourishing. Meaning is acknowledged as adaptive and important, but described in ways that make it seem inaccessible to all but the rare few. In contrast, what if meaning is an almost inescapable part of everyday life?King pointed out that we mostly talk about meaning when it’s broken. Meaning comes from observing connections and patterns in the world around us. When adversity happens, those patterns appear to disintegrate. That’s when people search for meaning. People don’t have to search for meaning in positive events. It’s just there.
King went on to contrast System 1 and System 2 ways of knowing about meaning. System 1 is the intuitive, automatic operation of the brain that knows without asking why and is facilitated by positive emotion. System 2 is the analytical reflective part of the brain that wants to know why and is facilitated by negative emotion. System 1 brings us meaning in terms of intuitive feelings of pattern in the environment.
Happiness and meaning are so highly correlated that they could almost be the same thing. When people are in a good mood, life feels more meaningful to them. A feeling of meaningfulness tell us that we can extract reliable associations from the world around us, which is an adaptive state for all creatures. We humans not only experience meaning, but we also get to feel ourselves experiencing meaning.
King described experiments in her lab exploring the connection between perceiving patterns and feeling that life is meaningful. In one experiment, people saw several sets of four pictures, each picture showing a tree in a particular season. One group of participants always saw the trees in season order (Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter). The other saw trees arranged in random order. Those who saw the season-ordered presentations scored higher on evaluations of the meaningfulness of their own lives. She ran the experiment again with three groups. The third group saw every group of pictures in the same order, but not the season order (e.g., Winter-Spring-Summer-Fall). The third group also evaluated the meaningfulness of their lives higher than the group that saw the random presentations.
So maybe meaning isn’t as hard to find as people make it sound.
Hicks, J.A., Trent, J., Davis, W. & King, L. A. (in press). Positive affect, meaning in life, and future time perspective: An application of Socioemotional Selectivity Theory. Psychology and Aging.
King, L. A. (2010). The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View. McGraw-Hill.
Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer & Orlofsky (1993, 2012). Ego Identity: A Handbook for Psychosocial Research. Springer.
Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). A Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement. Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 154–166.
Ryan, R. M., Bernstein, J. H., & Brown, K. W. (2010). Weekends, work, and well-being: Psychological need satisfactions and day of the week effects on mood, vitality, and physical symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 95-122.
Shmotkin, D. (2005). Happiness in the Face of Adversity: Reformulating the Dynamic and Modular Bases of Subjective Well-Being. Review of General Psychology, 9 (4), 291–325.
Shmotkin, D. (2010). The pursuit of happiness: Alternative Conceptions of subjective well-being. In L. W. Poon & J. Cohen-Mansfield, Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old (pp. 27-45). Cambridge University Press.
Schlegel, R. Hicks, J. A., King, L. A. & Arndt, J. (2011). Feeling like you know who you are: Perceived true self-knowledge and meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 745-756.
Waterman, A. S. (2011). Eudaimonic identity theory: Identity as self-discovery. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.). Handbook of Identity Theory and Research(pp. 357-379). New York: Springer.
All pictures used with permission from Dr. Charles McLafferty. See the complete set of conference pictures here.
Edited by Natasha Utevsky