New Strategies for You to Build Meaning in Life
Global experts bring new insights and tools to life meaning and strengths.
Posted Nov 05, 2019
This guest post has been authored by Dr. Mike Steger and Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer.
How can I have a more meaningful life?
This is a common question posed to us as meaning in life experts and scientists. We have spent years conducting research on meaning and have guided practitioners and the general public on this topic. Meaning in life has become one of the most researched topics in all of positive psychology.
We can’t give you meaning itself or even say what the ultimate meaning of your life should be—in fact, no one can do that, not even YouTube gurus or best-selling authors. But we can offer you something important—we can explain what the latest science has revealed to help you discover meaning.
Having a meaningful life is achievable. But getting more meaning takes effort. Your effort, applied over time, is a common definition of the word “work.” This means you’re likely to be disappointed if you expect to find meaning in five minutes or less using only a cocktail napkin. As Edgar Allan Poe put it, “The best things in life make you sweaty.” It takes work, effort, and the use of your character strengths, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the sweat.
Meaning in life is really about three broad ideas: Significance, Purpose, and Coherence (Martela & Steger, 2016). Significance expresses that your life is worth living, that your life has inherent value, and that your life matters in some way. Purpose expresses that there is something important you want to strive for, something that is worthy of the life you’ve been given. Coherence expresses that you can make sense of life, that you understand yourself and the world around you, helping you see life as consistent and predictable most of the time.
All three, Significance, Purpose, and Coherence, work together to help you experience life as meaningful. Your life feels worthwhile when you are doing something important with it. And you know what you should be doing with your life when you better understand who you are and can make sense of the world around you.
This is a lifelong pursuit. That’s not to say that small victories aren’t important. Maybe those five minutes you spend writing on a cocktail napkin will help you commit to a new path. Maybe saying to yourself that you will stop holding yourself back helps to uplift your strength of hope and helps you envision a better future.
Maybe those five minutes of really acknowledging someone’s significance will instill in him or her a sense of new hope. But that is where the work starts. Having a more meaningful life often means making real changes to your life.
This is where your strengths of character come into play. Gaining an understanding of the nature and use of your strengths is one way to build your meaning and is backed by research.
While still a graduate student, Mike conducted a study of the VIA Survey and of meaning in life among a sample of twins. The original intent was to understand whether meaning in life, and character strengths, were genetically heritable (Steger, Hicks, Kashdan, Krueger, & Bouchard, 2007). However, Mike never had the chance to publish the connections between meaning in life (as measured by his Meaning in Life Questionnaire) and the VIA Survey.
What Mike and his research team found was that all 24 character strengths have significant correlations with meaning in life. That means, endorsing any of the VIA strengths to a higher degree is linked to also perceiving your life to be meaningful.
The strongest connections with meaning in life were large correlations and were for the strengths of Perspective, Love, Spirituality, Zest, and Hope (all above .40). We would anticipate that strongly endorsing these strengths contributes a great deal to a meaningful life. And, it must be said, who wouldn’t want to hang out with a wise, loving, hopeful person, brimming with spirituality and zest?
The smallest correlations were pretty small, with Humility, Fairness, Teamwork, Prudence, Forgiveness, and two of Mike’s signature strengths, Humor/Playfulness and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, each correlating less than .25. We might presume that strongly endorsing these strengths would only make a modest contribution to meaning in life. Fortunately, we each have numerous strengths, and we learn to use strengths that we currently score low on.
Pninit then wondered: Do individuals who purposefully prioritize meaning in organizing their daily lives, actually experience increased meaning and well-being? She found that people who prioritize meaning through their actions do tend to have a greater sense of meaning in life, and in turn, they experience less negative emotion and more positive emotion, gratitude, coherence, happiness, and life satisfaction (Russo-Netzer, 2018). This is further evidence that the meaning of life has a lot to do with our choices and priorities. This is also where character strengths can play an important role in cultivating meaning in life daily.
For example, aligning your character strengths, passions, and values with your “to-do list” of daily activities as a ritual at the beginning or end of your day may enable you to calibrate your inner compass better. Consider how you can use your character strengths to add more meaning to your everyday activities: How might you use your character strength of creativity or curiosity to prioritize activities that are meaningful for you today? How can you use your character strength of prudence to plan your day ahead to experience more meaning?
Another activity is to consider the character strengths that strongly correlate with meaning. Look for opportunities to use those strengths in your daily life. On the days when you use those strengths, you could pay extra attention to how a meaningful life feels. You might even find that those strengths develop more.
For example, Mike is working on Hope, which is nowhere near the top of his list of strengths. Ask yourself where and how your top character strengths correspond with each of the three components of meaning mentioned earlier—Significance, Purpose, and Coherence. For example, you can use your character strength of Social Intelligence to validate another person’s sense of Significance. Use your character strength of Curiosity to uncover your Purpose and Bravery to act upon it. Use your Perspective to view your life as a whole, your life story, and important memories, to develop more Coherence.
Another activity is to use meaning to move you toward your character strengths. When Mike and Pninit get together to teach about meaning or facilitate workshops, we invite participants to take 10 photos of “whatever makes your life feel meaningful.” We then have them share the stories behind those photos with one another and to name the character strengths that emerge from these meaningful stories. The strong theoretical link between meaning and character strengths, as well as encouraging research results, are some of the reasons why we incorporate a lot of character strengths activities into our workshops.
We wish you lots of meaning on your life journey.
Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose. He is a researcher, author, and teacher, and is a world expert on meaning and purpose and globally sought-after speaker and facilitator.
Pninit Russo-Netzer, Ph.D., is a researcher, author, lecturer, and facilitator. She is renowned for her work on positive psychology, meaning, and spiritual development, and is the co-developer of the Mindfulness-Based Meaning Program.
We will be using some of the activities described in this article and many more in our upcoming five-day retreat in wonderful Ubud, Bali: Meaning 360, between April 26, 2019, and May 1, 2020.