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Meaning: Extraordinary or Everyday?

written by Kathryn Britton 17 August 2012

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.

Editor’s Note This article continues the report on the 7th Biennial Meaning Conference started in Meaning Can Come from Suffering AND Play.

Paul Wong was in his element…

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?”

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.

  Drs. Shmotkin & Sundararajan

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.

Todd Kashdan moderating the panel

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:

Facilitate Undermine
Autonomy Absence of pressure
Goal Choice
Strategy choice
Pressure toward outcome
Contingent Rewards
Competence Optimal challenge
Positive feedback
Informational rewards
Negative feedback
Non-optimal challenge
Relatedness Warmth
Acknowledging emotions
Cold interactions

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:

  1. Identification of personal potentials, for which exposure to a wide array of alternatives increases likelihood of success
  2. 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
  3. Determination of goals toward which skills can be directed
  4. 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

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Lawrence Carson 17 August 2012 - 9:21 pm

What I extracted from the second edition of “The Human Quest For Meaning” – by Paul Wong + 24 others was the following:
One’s sense of “Self Esteem” is the growing synergistic effects gained by developing and improving upon the four “P-CAR” driving motives of one’s state of being.
1) Principles – One’s Goals, Objectives, Practices and Rewards anticipated or achieved, extrinsic or intrinsic.
2) Character – One’s growing sense of Competency, Commitment and Cardinal Virtues being lived and worked on.
3) Authority – One’s sense of choice, autonomy and agency.
4) Relations – One’s lower self’s relationship with one’s Higher Self … and the relationships those two have with other third party Selves and with the Higher Self of allness … or God.
What has never – to my current knowledge any way – been addressed with any serious academic or pragmatic field research is the following notions:
1) Everything is energy and energy is conscious
2) Belief systems are conscious energy systems employing humanity as their hosts.
3) Beliefs do not only fill in the empty space of words giving words meaning, they also create, contain and control man’s thoughts … resulting emotions … reactive behavior … and the realities they allow to be apperceived by the human.
4) Beliefs are alpha, man is servant … until that is … when man decides to take back control of his unconscious Meta Meaning Making Matrix.
5) Therefore … the Meaning Making Matrix is the most powerful energy generator of the universe.
I love the work that is being done by this group. I only wish I had finished my paper “Minding Your P’s & Q’s” for distribution and feedback from a group such as yours. I know deep within that the meaning making process is the bridge to human evolution and transcendence.

Lawrence Carson – Meridian ID

Tomas AB Imperial 18 August 2012 - 3:51 am

Inpeiring to live with…

Jeremy McCarthy 18 August 2012 - 9:40 am

Thanks Kathryn, that panel sounds amazing and even just your snippets of each person’s perspective provide a lot to ponder on!

Sean 18 August 2012 - 2:30 pm

Oh I wish I could be there! Thank you for the great article Kathryn. The panel reminds of a story I heard about Viktor Frankl. When asked what is the meaning of life, Frankl responded that that was like asking a chess grandmaster what is the best move. It depends on context, what pieces you have on the board, stage of the game.

oz 18 August 2012 - 9:10 pm

Kathryn – it seems that meaning is such a broad church that it is meaningless. To me it seems to be framed by exclusion – if you’re not happy then its because you have no meaning in life.

PsychedinSF 20 August 2012 - 2:11 pm

What a great, thought provoking read. Its such a personal opinion what the meaning of life could be and it seems that it can change depending on what you have been through. For example someone who lives out of fear that there isn’t enough time to do all that they want may encounter a near death experience and then shift their priorities to slow down and experiences the richness in all of life. This too depends on what we were taught as children has value and importance, then you factor in religion and personal opinions and life can have many different outcomes. The point being, it seems that when we determine what we want our life to amount to- we feel accomplished and meaningful when that is what we achieve. Here at Psyched in San Francisco we believe in the beauty of living authentically. Thank you for such a great read!-PsychedinSF

Kathryn Britton 21 August 2012 - 1:44 pm


At least the CAR part of your P-CAR reminds me of the SDT basic needs.

For the rest of it, I’m not sure I know what you mean by “Everything is energy and energy is conscious.” Could you elaborate?

Also, what do you mean with “Beliefs are alpha”?


Kathryn Britton 21 August 2012 - 1:46 pm

Tomas, Sean, and Jeremy,
Glad you found it interesting.

Sean, Thanks for bringing up Frankl’s chess master analogy. It’s nice to have a change from the blind men and the elephant.


Kathryn Britton 21 August 2012 - 2:02 pm

That’s a fair point, that meaning is a pretty broad term. In her banquet speech, Laura King talked about “pathetic little measures” meaning questions like “My personal existence is very meaningful.” She commented that we don’t know what people are rating, and they don’t know what they’re rating. But high results still predict lower risks of morality, depression and Alzheimers as well as higher well-being. She has found, as you say, that when people are in a good mood, life feels more meaningful. As she put it, a pretty good mood will work in a pinch. But that doesn’t mean that meaning is irrelevant or non-existent when people are unhappy. It seems to have a different role to play in existence.


oz 22 August 2012 - 3:48 pm

Kathryn – I was actually suggesting meaning becomes important when things aren’t going well.

I recently saw two interesting studies relating to meaning – one suggested that people who endorse strengths report higher meaning – people who actualy do something with their strengths report higher wellbeing.

The second study found that the impact of spirituality on wellbeing was only important for those that had little personal control in their lives.

What conclusions might you draw?

Kathryn Britton 22 August 2012 - 4:42 pm

Taking a leaf out of your book, I’d be cautious about drawing conclusions.

I’d like to take a look at them. Could you post the references?


oz 23 August 2012 - 5:36 am

Kathryn – excellent – I assume this is your new editorial policy

Science before a good story.

If so I have achieved my intent and can now bow out gracefully from the ring.

Clive 3 September 2012 - 4:58 pm


Based upon my personal deliberations on this subject, I feel that the subject can make more sense by drawing distinctions in two respects. Firstly, between ‘purposeful’ and ‘meaningful’ and, secondly, between ‘subjectively meaningful’ and ‘objectively meaningful’. It seems to me that anyone can ascribe ‘purposeful’ to their existence with reasonable cause, providing that they they have goals that they are pursuing. If my goal in life is to live as long as possible whilst spending as much time on the sofa whilst watching TV and drinking beer as I can, then I have a life purpose. The question then becomes one of whether this is a meaningful thing to be doing. To which the beer drinking sofa sitter might reply “Well, it is meaningful to me”.

It seems that positive psychologists might be too ready to accept this explanation as signifying that, ergo, a person has a meaningful life. I feel that this needs to be challenged on the grounds that it reduces the definition of ‘meaningful’ to something that is meaningless because it then becomes a subjective explanation, which is highly unsatisfactory. We should be trying to ascertain what might constitute an ‘objectively meaningful life’ and my idea is that we need to be thinking in terms of ‘universal values’. That is, actions that humans have, throughout history, recognised as being of significance, worthwhile and really mattering. Seligman and Peterson performed a similar task when arriving at their virtues and I believe that such a project can be accomplished in respect of ‘universal values’. Naturally enough, I have some thoughts as to what these might constitute and lifelong sofa sitting isn’t one of them.

By re-framinmg the question of a meaningful life with reference to universal values, we could move the debate forward in a coherent manner, which seems to be currently lacking, in my opinion. This could be of real assistance to those who are looking for some sort of enlightening perspective on how best to live their life.


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