Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies And Mental Illness.
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Ten days ago, about 300 people attended the international 2008 Meaning Conference in Toronto, Canada July 24-27, 2008. The main conference theme was “Living well and dying well: New frontiers of positive psychology, therapy and spiritual care.” This 5th biennial conference was hosted by the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM), a multidisciplinary society founded to expand the legacy and vision of Viktor Frankl, M.D. Major subthemes of the conference included research and clinical applications of grief, positive psychology, resilience, death anxiety, spirituality, and meaning-making.
“Meaning” is a core concept in the study of character strengths – related to spirituality under the virtue of transcendence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), as well as a major thread in the INPM conference and a facet of many of life’s burning questions. Most presenters endorsed the idea that what is most important is the “experience” of meaning, not merely talking “about” it. In each highlight below, I’ll speculate on the connection of meaning to the respective research area.Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., is a leading figure on the character strength of self-regulation/self-control; he is well-known for his analogy of self-control functioning like a muscle (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) in that when an individual acts for an extended period of time on one task, resources “fatigue” or are depleted. His research indicates that aggression results when both the self-control muscle has been depleted and aggressive impulses are present. While the debate on media violence and its impact on the individual has hardly been resolved, Baumeister presented some new interesting research on video games and its participants. Individuals who played a violent video game that had a prosocial goal for the violence were significantly less likely to engage in aggressive behavior after the game, than those individuals who played violent video games that had no prosocial goal or purpose for the violence. Meaning = having prosocial goals.
Robert Neimeyer, Ph.D., a leading authority and researcher on grief, death anxiety, and meaning, explained the majority of studies on death anxiety/attitudes over past decades has suffered from methodological flaws. Correcting for these flaws, he and his colleagues have made some striking observations. Neimeyer’s findings note those with greater past regrets have higher levels of death anxiety; self-worth, support, and religiosity were correlated with greater death acceptance. Neimeyer studies what predicts and accounts for positive and negative grief reactions, examining meaning-making practices such as sense-making, benefit-finding, and identity reconstruction, as well as the passing of time. In studying 157 parents who had lost a child to death, he and his colleagues (Keesee, Currier, & Neimeyer, in press) found that the passing of time makes a trivial contribution to predicting outcome; what matters most is what a person does with the time, that is, making sense of the loss. Meaning = finding ways to make sense of losses.Paul Wong, Ph.D., presented papers on living with cancer, embracing death, and coping with grief. He considers these three areas the frontiers of positive psychology. He has focused his research and clinical work on existential/religious coping, death acceptance, and the transformation of grief through meaning (Tomer, Grafton, & Wong, 2008). Wong, also the conference founder and coordinator, embodies the character strength of humor/playfulness. Striking an impressive balance between serious research, inspiring stories of painful persistence through cancer, and playful collegial banter, Wong maintained an approach of joy and good-humor, his smile lingering for an indeterminate amount of time after interactions. Meaning = embracing the vicissitudes of life.
Jeffrey Zeig, Ph.D., and Adam Blatner, M.D., master teachers and clinicians of the highest level, gave audiences “experiences” with their spontaneity and creativity. Both are renown protégés of two of the most influential psychiatrists in history: Milton H. Erickson and psychodrama founder, Jacob L. Moreno, respectively. Zeig spoke of ways to empower resilience in clients through imagery, hypnosis, and giving clients new experiences of themselves.He reflected obstacles to resilience as evidenced in the research of Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies the neurophysiology of love by studying the emotional pains of rejected lovers; those in the first stage following a rejection – the protest stage – experience a rise in dopamine and norepinephrine leading to obsessing, rumination, and frustration making such resistance “metabolically expensive.” Blatner emphasized deepening one’s sense of rootedness through social connections, non-competitive games, and activities involving belonging. Echoing Peterson’s (2003) oft-repeated maxim, “Other people matter,” Blatner left the audience with an equally important adage, “Other people need you.” Meaning = being resilient and having social connections.
Other emphases included presentations by Salvatore Maddi, Ph.D., who discussed his extensive work on hardiness; an inspiring talk by widely acclaimed, award-winning, Canadian journalist/author, Pamela Wallin; and Viktor Frankl’s grandson, Alexander Vesely, a filmmaker and psychotherapist who spoke on real life lessons of logotherapy. The conference was covered by two local television news stations, which plan to broadcast many of the sessions this Fall.
Here are some practical applications for the preceding research:
- When you participate in media (e.g., video games) and life, choose games that have prosocial goals.
- If you experience a loss, don’t wait for time to heal it, instead work hard to find meaning by trying to make sense of it.
- Engage in your character strength of playfulness/humor. Allow your smile to linger an extra second or two.
- Because other people need you, do something about it!
Keesee, N. J., Currier, J. M. & Neimeyer, R. A. (in press). Predictors of grief following the death of one’s child: The contribution of finding meaning. Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Muraven, M.R., & Baumeister, R.F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247-259.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tomer, A., Grafton, E. & Wong, P. T. P. (Eds.) (2008). Existential and Spiritual Issues in Death Attitudes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.