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Report on the Biennial Meaning Conference

written by Kathryn Britton 30 August 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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.

Short-term Meaning Therapy

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.

Tell Your Own Strengths Story

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.

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Daniel Jordan 31 August 2010 - 10:57 am

Excellent summary, Kathryn! Thanks for bringing it all back to me. You didn’t put your presentation as one of the highlights but I recall that humility is an important character strength (or is it a virtue?) in the world of Positive Psychology. See you in Toronto in 2012 for the 7th Biennial International Conference on Personal Meaning!

Senia 31 August 2010 - 1:02 pm


I feel like I was there. What an incredible summary, and images, and details.

Also, I love how discussions of meaning invariably turn poetic:
“questions that create ripples of meaning”
“messiness of life”
“a strengths spotter”
Thanks for the details about everyone’s research.

Although I wasn’t there, I second Daniel’s comment about your work on meaning at work being intriguing!


Kathryn Britton 31 August 2010 - 2:55 pm


I guess I was a little too word conscious, because I didn’t include thanks to you for all the things — large and small — that you did to keep the conference going.

I wasn’t all that humble, in that I mentioned that there was a recording of my presentation among others. But I had to decide against reporting on parallel sessions. With 3 lectures open to the public and 7 keynotes, there just wasn’t reporting “space” to talk about the 5 pre-conference workshops and 30+ panels, presentations, and mini-workshops that ran in parallel.

In my first draft I wrote a paragraph about how I always feel like I’m in the wrong place at a conference when there are 3 or more parallel sessions. When I listen to someone I already know is a great speaker, I think about missing the chance to learn something completely new (or inadvertently contributing to insufficient audiences for new speakers). When I’m listening to someone I haven’t heard before, it doesn’t always connect for me and I may feel I’m missing an update … Now that I know that I always feel that way, I just ignore the feeling and the opportunity costs of making a choice.

But I will say that there was almost too much going on at this conference!


Kathryn Britton 31 August 2010 - 3:06 pm

Thank you for the flower. Also, thank you for drawing my attention to the conference in the first place. It was important to me to think about meaning in a more open-ended way because things keep changing in life — as my previous article on Finding Meaning in a Shrinking World indicates. Speaking of poetry, how about the words of Alexander Batthyany: “being open and flexible to the ever-changing meaning of the moment.” Important message for me!

Sandy Lewis 1 September 2010 - 3:17 pm

Bravo Kathryn for your presentation and your wonderfully detailed recounting of what looks like an interesting conference. We cannot have enough discussion on meaning!


Rob Archer 1 September 2010 - 5:03 pm

A wonderful summary Kathryn, thank you. I was struck by this thought you have: “Now that I know that I always feel that way, I just ignore the feeling and the opportunity costs of making a choice”. Don’t ignore the feeling, have compassion for it!
warm regards, Rob

Kathryn Britton 1 September 2010 - 8:11 pm

Good point, Rob. I guess what I meant to say was that I accept that I’m going to feel that way — whether I’m in one room or another — so I don’t let it ruin my experience being in one particular place. Compassion is a better way of expressing it than ignoring it. Perhaps there’s a bit of self-laughter in there too.

It reminds me of two queuing theoreticians I once knew who spent the day after Thanksgiving creating a tongue-in-cheek proof that you will always be in the “wrong line” in the grocery store, whichever line you choose. So I stopped fretting about whether I should move to a different line.

Kathryn Britton 1 September 2010 - 8:13 pm

Thank you for the flower, Sandy. I think it is hard to talk about Meaning in terms that are sufficiently concrete to support either research or practice – so whenever it happens is to be celebrated.



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