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Meaning and Engagement make Australians Well

written by Amanda Horne 3 August 2009

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Last month, a reader commented on a PPND article “research has shown that pleasure, engagement and meaning contribute equally to life satisfaction for Americans whereas engagement was only important for Australians.”

Amanda with Dianne Vella-Brodrick

Amanda with Dianne Vella-Brodrick

This prompted Senia to invite me to write about this Australian research. I was only too delighted to read the article, “Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples,” and to interview Dianne Vella-Brodrick, co-researcher with Nansook Park and Chris Peterson. She and I discussed the research and the practical implications.

Dianne is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine, at Monash University, Australia. She specialises in positive psychology and well-being. The purpose of this latest research was to measure the extent to which the three orientations to happiness (pleasure, engagement and meaning) contribute to subjective well-being.

Subjective well-being is an umbrella term which encompasses satisfaction with life, positive affect and negative affect. For example, high satisfaction with life, high positive affect and low negative affect
contribute to high subjective well-being. The orientations to happiness include:

  • Ice Cream signPleasure: maximising pleasant and positive experiences; sensory pleasures, instant gratification, the ‘feel good’ stuff
  • Engagement: immersing oneself in activities which involve high levels of absorption which involves challenge and require the use of skills and strengths; time passes quickly; we feel satisfied with our life if we have engaging activities
  • Meaning: being part of something larger than oneself, and contributing to the greater good

This research built on earlier findings published by Peterson, Park and Seligman in 2005, and confirms that all three orientations contribute to increased subjective well-being, with meaning and engagement explaining the greatest variance in all three factors (life satisfaction, positive affect, negative affect).

Focusing on the Australian research

Dianne sampled 332 Australian adults. She measured satisfaction with life, positive affect, and negative affect. She also controlled for socio-demographic variables (age, gender) and personality (the big five factor personality traits). This enabled her to identify the extent to which pleasure, meaning and engagement contributed to subjective well-being beyond personality, age and gender.

The Australian results

The bottom line: some pleasure is good, but to make a real difference to our subjective well-being, we need to put more energy into engagement and meaning.

  • Pleasure, engagement and meaning all contribute to subjective well-being.
  • Meaning and engagement are quite powerful as predictors of subjective well-being after accounting for socio-demographics, personality and pleasure.
    • “Pleasure did not play as significant a role in predicting subjective well-being as meaning and engagement.”
    • “Pleasure was not significant for the Australian sample other than for negative affect.”
  • Of the three orientations to happiness, engagement was the biggest predictor of satisfaction with life beyond age, gender and personality. Pleasure was not a significant predictor.
  • Pleasure, engagement, and meaning all predicted positive affect, with the latter two being more significant predictors.
  • Meaning predicted negative affect beyond the control variables and pleasure e.g. low pleasure and little meaning in life is strongly correlated to depression.

The practical implications

All three orientations help us to achieve a general state of well-being. Pleasure is great – it’s part of being human. However, we should put a more energy into engaging and meaningful components.

Learning to Row

Learning to Row

We can deliberately spend more time on activities which put us in flow, or which are meaningful and contribute. Sometimes we might not need to do anything other than to shift our attention. In savouring, we recall the good times. We can extend savouring to recall those moments which are engaging and meaningful. For example a farewell dinner for friends who are moving overseas was fun an enjoyable; we felt good. And we were ‘in flow’ preparing the meal, and it gave us great satisfaction to do something meaningful.

If an event occurs which might not be enjoyable, or which increases our negative affect, we could reflect on the moments of flow and meaning. We can elicit some satisfaction even though we might not feel that great.

Vivian Gianopoulos, one of Dianne’s honours students, is researching an adaptation of the three blessings / three good things exercise: each day reflect on a pleasurable activity, a meaningful activity and a engaging activity.

Balloons in Canberra

Balloons in Canberra

At work, leaders should not focus exclusively on helping employees to just feel good. More attention should be on helping them to be engaged at work, and to pursue meaningful and purposeful work.

In raising children, all the above applies. Do your children hear you only reflecting on the good feelings and pleasures? Do they also hear about the meaning and engagement aspects of your day?

As we so often hear: it’s more than just feeling good, it’s about doing good.


Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.

Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N. A., & Peterson, C. (2008). Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90, 165-179.

All photos are courtesy of Amanda Horne. A few details below:

  • Amanda Horne and Dianne Vella-Brodrick in Croatia at the European Positive Psychology Conference, June 2008
  • Icecream photo – from wall of Wild Thyme Café, Adelaide, Australia

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