Thriving Together Series: Meaning and Well-Being

Meaning TT beach

By: Nance Lucas, Ph.D., Executive Director and Chief Well-Being Officer

Much has been written about the search for meaning and purpose in life. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand what this looks like is through the examination of the lived experience.  In Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, he chronicles how he found meaning out of suffering and through discovering something bigger than himself, despite the external forces he couldn’t control while being held captive in a concentration camp. Frankl had an answer to the timeless question of  what makes life worth living.

Numerous scientific studies have linked meaning in life to great well-being. Having a sense of meaning in life, including in your goals and activities, is also linked to your physical health. And let’s not confuse meaning with happiness in life. Pursuing happiness as an end goal can be counter-productive. Focusing on meaning and purpose can lead to happiness along the way.

Michael Steger, founder and director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose, defines meaning in life as “the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to have a purpose, mission, or overarching aim in life” (Steger, 2009, p. 682).  And the search for meaning is a dynamic process, which can change over the lifespan. You can take Steger’s interactive  Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ) –- a  free 10-item, self-report scale designed to measure life meaning. It measures two dimensions: how you feel your life is of meaning and how engaged and motivated you are to find or deepen meaning in your life.

How might you experience greater meaning in life? Many studies reveal that activities like volunteering, writing gratitude notes, and establishing close relationships and having a social network help cultivate greater meaning.

Your Future Best Self Activity

There’s evidence that envisioning your future best self can also lead to greater life satisfaction, goal attainment, and positive expectations about your future –- all important for your overall well-being.

Take a moment to imagine your life in the future. What is the best possible life you can visualize? You can reflect on all dimensions of your life: relationships, career, health, education, etc.

For 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be. Imagine a brighter future in which you are your best self and your circumstances change just enough to make this best possible life happen. Be as specific as possible and as imaginative as you’d like. Challenge yourself to do this for 15 minutes a day for two weeks for longer lasting positive effects.

Additional Resources

Michael Steger’s Ted Talk on What Makes Life Meaningful

Dan Pink’s Ted Talk on The Puzzle of Motivation

A video on the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

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