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Meaning and The Meaningful Life

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Martin Seligman defines the meaningful life as “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” He comments that Authentic Happiness is meant “as a preface to the meaningful life.” He also writes:

Authentic HappinessIn the hope that your level of positive emotion and your access to abundant gratification has now increased, I turn to my final topic, finding meaning and purpose in living. The pleasant life, I suggested, is wrapped up in the successful pursuit of the positive feelings, supplemented by the skills of amplifying these emotions. The good life … is a life wrapped up in successfully using your signature strengths to obtain abundant and authentic gratification. The meaningful life has one additional feature: using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are. To live all three lives is to lead a full life. (p. 249).

Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (2005, p. 610) associate the quest for meaning in life with four main needs:

  1. Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes — objective goals and subjective fulfillment.
  2. Values, which can justify certain courses of action
  3. Efficacy, the belief that one can make a difference
  4. Self-worth, reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person

Although people tend to think of meaning as singular, Emmons (1997) states, “Empirically, however, people’s lives usually draw meaning from multiple sources, including family and love, work, religion, and various personal projects.”

Meaning is not a topic that has received a lot of direct attention in PPND. There are many references to something being meaningful and some to the importance of meaning, such as this comment by Margaret Greenberg: “Identifying, understanding, and applying your strengths are cornerstone concepts for living a productive and meaningful life.”

All of the articles shown below have at least a few sentences that talk about the role of meaning in happiness. But there aren’t yet many answers to the question asked in a comment by Jeff Dustin: “Are there reliable ways to create lasting purpose or meaning?”

This is a fruitful area for future work!

PPND articles directly addressing Meaning

Kathryn Britton By Kathryn Britton:

Meaningful Work as Part of a Meaningful Life

By George Vaillant, Guest Author:

A Fresh Take on Meaning

By Gail Schneider:

Positive Psychology and Life’s Second Acts

PPND articles referencing Meaning indirectly
By Margaret Greenberg:

Positive Psychology & Institutions: Highlights From a Panel Discussion

Positive Work Environments: How One Company is Putting Theory into Practice

What Leaders Must Do, Know & “Be”

An Interview with Toyota University’s Mike Morrison

By Timothy So:

Where Has Our Birthday Wish Gone? From Wishes and Goals to the Journey of a Flourishing Life

Flourishing or Soulless Work?

Glamour, Prestige, Money: Why Are Lawyers Still Unhappy?

By Sean Doyle:

Poetry and Midlife

Kathryn BrittonBy Kathryn Britton:

Giving Gifts by Kathryn Britton

Taking Positive Psychology to Work, Part 1: Positive Core and Strengths

>By Sherri Fisher:

It’s Not That Easy Being Green: The Treadmill of Sustainable Happiness During the Holidays and Beyond

By Aren Cohen:

Passages and Positive Psychology by Aren Cohen

The Minding Life

By Sulynn:

Musings – ‘Finding Your Voice’

Determination, Resilience or Foolhardiness? by Sulynn

By Iris Marie Bloom:

Generosity, Empathy, and Moral Philosophy in Airport Conversations

By David J. Pollay:

The Keys to a Happy and Successful Life

Martin Seligman FaceBy Martin Seligman:

Positive Psychology in Space

Nick HallBy Nicholas Hall:

Happy Rewards for Goal-Seekers


Other resources on Meaning

Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Chapter 10, pp. 214-240 is titled The Making of Meaning. “Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience.” p. 216.

Laura King

King, L. A., Eells, J. E., & Burton, C. M. (2004). The good life, broadly and narrowly considered. In A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice, pp. 35-49. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived, pp. 83-104. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Emmons, R. (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived, pp. 105-128. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Visit the Happiness Hypothesis site for information about the book. Chapter 10, Happiness Comes from Between, directly synthesizes a lot of the positive psychology work on meaning. Unfortunately, it is not available online.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. & Davis, C. (2003). Positive responses to loss: Perceiving benefit and growth. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 598-607. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Baumeister, R. & Vohs, K. (2003). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 608-618.. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Pratt, M. & Ashforth, B. (2003). Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn, Positive organizational leadership: Foundations of a new discipline, pp 309-327. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Wrzesniewski, A. (2003). Finding positive meaning in work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn, Positive organizational leadership: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Seligman, M. (2004). Eudaomonia, The good life. Edge conversation with Martin Seligman about meaning in life.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

“Positive psychology points the way toward a secular approach to noble purpose and transcendental meaning…” (p. 14.) “A calling is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake.” (p. 168).

See especially chapter 14, a discussion of meaning and how it relates to Robert Wright’s win-win thesis in Nonzero. Chapter 14 ends with these words, “The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness. A life that does this is pregnant with meaning, and if God comes at the end, such a life is sacred.” (p. 260).

Wright, R. (2002). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.

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