Meaning – the M in Positive PsychologyApr 30, 2021 11:00AM ● By Ann C. Reeves
Positive Psychology (PP) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, its research encompassing neurobehavioral, cognitive behavioral and physiological science. The acronym used in PP is PERMA-V. M stands for Meaning, another lens through which to achieve wholeness and deep contentment.
Founder of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, speaks about three routes to well-being, each of which is a valid way to seek it. The first is the Pleasant Life, seeking pleasure (P), through savoring, gratitude and broadening and building on the happiness that comes. The second is the Good Life, where one is absorbed through engagement (E) and flow. The third is the Meaningful Life (M), where one uses one’s strengths in the service of something greater than oneself. It can be helpful to contemplate which one fits for us.
Some have asked whether there is a difference between meaning, purpose, goal, values and passion. Having purpose is often a lifelong pursuit, while a goal is a more contained event. A passion is an inclination toward an action, while values serve as a compass, expressing what is important in our lives. Strengths are often values in action. Meaning is seen to surround all of these. Researchers have proposed that purpose is more action-oriented, whereas meaning may be more of an internal state. In addition, purpose has been found to be more vulnerable to stress, and is more fragile than meaning, with resilience being more related to a strong sense of meaningfulness.
When we experience a sense of meaning within at least one aspect of our lives, it is useful to ask ourselves what, exactly, feels meaningful to us? For many of us, our hectic lives preclude the thought of finding meaning. Between jobs, kids, caregiving responsibilities, social media and now, the energy needed to manage COVID-19, it may seem hard to find. If it’s difficult to come up with something, a helpful strategy is to spend some quiet time thinking or journaling about earlier times in life, including childhood. Was there ever a time when we followed an interest—photography, art, a spiritual commitment, a hobby, social protest, being with animals, nature or a quest for something, well, meaningful? What would it mean to commit some time to return to or search for it?
Post-traumatic growth is the positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning. Although these circumstances highly challenge a person’s ability to adapt, post-traumatic growth invokes psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world. These contribute to a significant personal process of change that is deeply meaningful. Such individuals demonstrate unusual resilience in face of extreme trauma, with an ability to approach life looking more toward the future than the past.
For many, meaning is tied in with spirituality, whether religious, or the desire to experience transcendence and awe. In some ways, the brain is wired to connect with people or experiences larger than ourselves. Haven’t we all heard people say “my religion is in nature”? The experience of a beautiful natural immersion can bring that transcendence and awe, giving us a glimpse of greater meaning.
Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg studies the relationship between brain function and various mental states. A pioneer in the study of religious and spiritual experiences, he takes brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals and trance states in an attempt to better understand the nature of religious and spiritual practices and attitudes. One of his books, written with Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain, reveals research from such brain scans, plus analyses of adult drawings of God, concluding that active and positive spiritual belief changes the human brain in a positive way. They also determined that actual religious faith is not necessary—nonbelievers who meditate on positive imagery can obtain similar neurological results.
Most religions contain myth-making, story-telling and ritual, which engage the senses through rhythmic and repetitive movement, which has a positive impact on the brain. Awe is the feeling of reverential respect, sometimes mixed with wonder as well as fear. One can seek awe through travel to a beautiful place; immersing oneself in a very large crowd where we realize we are both so small, and yet part of this impressively large group; watching a moving artistic performance; becoming roused by listening to a highly inspirational person; or even simply turning our gaze upward.
Another approach toward discovering more potential for finding meaning is to explore our values, the compass of our life. The Values in Action Institute has an interesting survey of character strengths in a 240-item questionnaire designed for adults. It takes about 25 minutes to complete, there is no time-limit and it is free and highly informative. Find this survey at www.AuthenticHappiness.sas.upenn.edu, and jump-start a personal investigation of life’s meaning.
Read the next article in this PERMA-V series, focusing on the A for achievement, in the June issue.