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Why Authenticity is the Hub of Meaning

By getting to know yourself you can begin to find your purpose.

Meaning in life is so important. For many clients it is the search for meaning that brings them into coaching in the first place.

You can’t tell a person what meaning to make of their life but you can help them to work out how to go about finding it for themselves. The key to this is to understand that underneath the meaningful life is the authentic life.

This finding was demonstrated in 2009 by Rebecca Schlegel and her colleagues at the University of Missouri in an ingenious set of studies. In one study, participants were invited to the laboratory to take part in an experiment. The first task they were given was to circle ten words from a list of 60 descriptive words (such as ‘warm,' ‘friendly,’ and ‘outgoing’) that described their true self, defined as, ‘Those characteristics that you possess and would like to express socially, but are not always able to, for whatever reason. Think of only those traits that you are able to express around those people you are closest to.’ Participants also completed a questionnaire designed to score how much meaning they had in their life.

Finally, participants were given a computer task. Words from the original descriptive list were presented on the screen and participants were asked to respond as quickly as possible to each word by pressing a button labelled ‘Me’ or another labelled ‘Not Me.' The researchers found that those who were fastest at correctly identifying ‘Me’ scored highest on meaning in life. The reason, the researchers argued, is that authenticity is the hub of meaning, so those who know themselves better are able to interpret life experiences in a more meaningful way.

Perhaps related to this is the observation that authentic people seem to have a clearer direction in life. A study of students by Nathan White and Terence Tracey at Arizona State University found that those higher on authenticity were less indecisive about their careers.

And those who found themselves trapped in jobs that they find dissatisfying and meaningless might feel compelled to find a new and more meaningful direction. Sara Hirschorn and Kate Hefferon at the University of East London interviewed ten people in their late twenties and thirties who had left their careers to go travelling around the world. Their participants described how they had to face the fear that came with making such a big decision but that once they had made the leap there was a sense of being more alive and true to themselves.

Finding meaning in life is important in all sorts of ways, but too often we don’t take the time to sort out for ourselves what it is that actually provides our sense of meaning. To do that we have to know ourselves well enough to understand what truly matters to us, because it is our authenticity that provides the hub of meaning.

References

Hirschorn, S. and Hefferon, K. (2013), ‘Leaving it all behind to travel: Venturing uncertainty as a means to personal growth and authenticity’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 53, 283–306

Schlegel, R.J., Hicks, J.A., Arndt, J. and King, L.A. (2009), ‘Thine own self: True self-concept accessibility and meaning in life’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 473–90

White, N.J. and Tracey, T.J.G. (2011), ‘An examination of career indecision and application to dispositional authenticity’, Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 78, 219–24

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