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What Is the Worst New Term Created by Psychologists?

Scientific jargon impedes impact

If you cannot explain your ideas to an 11-year old then you might know less than you think. Psychologists would have a greater impact on the world if they held this mantra. I live in a world of researchers who devote their lives to studying happiness, meaning in life, stress, and social relationships. These topics possess universal significance. Children's books have been written on all of these topics (some of which are fantastic) because with the proper language and storytelling, kids can understand the nature of well-being and learn strategies for how to get there.

I want to tell you about a term that will never end up in a children's book. The reason is that the idea is incomprehensible. The latest, worst bit of jargon in the field of psychology happens to be Eudaimonic Meaning. To deconstruct this term, it is best to begin with Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia - which is best translated as happiness or flourishing. In Merriam Webster's dictionary, the second definition listed for eudaimonia is "a life of activity governed by reason" which has been interpreted by philosophers to mean a life governed by virtuous action. This seems simple until you scrutinize how psychologists have used this term. Here is the grab bag of concepts that have been used by psychologists to define and measure eudaimonia:

  • fulfilling one's full potential
  • orientation toward personal growth
  • feeling engaged
  • personal expressiveness
  • positive relations with others
  • a sense of mastery over environmental challenges
  • a sense of autonomy
  • a sense of purpose in life
  • self-acceptance
  • frequent states of flow

In other words, this concept is a freaking mess; something I discussed in a prior post.

Despite rolling up all of these terms into a piece of glop called eudaimonia, Drs. Eric Garland, Barbara Fredrickson, Philippe Goldin and Norman Farb decided to add more baggage by creating a term in December 2015: Eudaimonic Meaning. In their words, this term “is characterized by a sense of purpose and meaningful, positive engagement with life that arises when one’s life activities are congruent with deeply held values even under conditions of adversity”. Read that one more time before moving forward. It is virtually impossible to unpack this definition because nearly every one of the key terms – purpose, positive engagement, values, congruence between activities and values, and adversity is ambiguous. How is this different from plain 'ol meaning in life? or purpose in life? How much leeway is a person given to deviate from being positive during times of adversity?

Garland, Fredrickson and colleagues introduce Eudaimonic Meaning as part of their  "Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory". A theory recently described in The Huffington Post as A Radical New View of Mindfulness. After thousands of years of practice, theory, and research on mindfulness, you might be skeptical of anything described as radical. Here is the theory in their own words:

[we] propose the mindfulness-to-meaning theory (MMT) for a specific and discrete aim: to provide a causal account for how mindfulness might promote the sense of eudaimonic meaning in the face of adversity...The MMT represents an evolution of the mindful coping model (Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009) and upward spiral model of flourishing (Garland, Fredrickson, et al., 2010), which were derived in part from an earlier second-order cybernetic model of mindfulness, stress, and coping (Garland, 2007) that attempted to integrate mindfulness into Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) transactional model through the lens of systems theory, cybernetics, and constructivism (Bateson, 1972; Maturana & Varela, 1987). These three models of mindfulness, as precursors to the MMT, attempted to explicate how mindfulness facilitates stress coping by facilitating reappraisal, thereby promoting fluid adaptation and reconstruction of one's views of self and world. The MMT expands upon these earlier iterations by going beyond coping to connect mindfulness to eudaimonic meaning via the dual mechanisms of reappraisal and savoring.

That's a lot of jargon to chew on, so perhaps it will be easier to understand if I offer more of their own words:

According to the MMT, mindfulness meditation can be used to disengage from extant schema into a metacognitive state of awareness in which attention expands to encompass previously unattended data from which new cognitive structures can be constructed. A positive reappraisal is but one of the many types of cognitive structures that may be engendered by mindfulness practice. In that regard, classically, mindfulness meditation was used to gain insight into the nature of existence, leading to such ontological or metaphysical reappraisals as everything is impermanent, life is suffering, and the self is empty of independent existence. Such insights might lead to a transient state of fear or unease by radically reframing of the ontology of the self, thereby producing anxiety in the short term, and in the long term more profound meaning and freedom. When applied to the domain of addiction (see McConnell & Froeliger, this issue), mindfulness might facilitate a different form of cognitive reconstruction, that is, interrupting cognitive schema that subserve automatic drug use habits (Tiffany, 1990), which can then be consciously reconfigured in working memory to build a novel association between drug-related stimuli and the aversive consequences of drug use. Examples aside, we hypothesize that mindfulness disrupts current configurations within working memory, allowing for flexible reorganization of information into new appraisals and schemas to coordinate adaptive function and effective goal pursuit. Transforming a negative situational appraisal into a positive reappraisal is but one example of the types of cognitive change facilitated by mindfulness meditation (see Figure 1), albeit one that we felt deserved a detailed theoretical treatment in the target article. Nakamura and Ho (this issue) rightly raised the question of meaning from a biosemiotics perspective. To this question, we respond: At a fundamental level, meaning pertains to the way in which patterns of information are organized and embodied within the global workspace of consciousness. We believe that the contemplative science field will advance through systematic investigation of how mindfulness meditation results in a reorganization or transformation of embodied cognitive patterns within both working memory and long-term memory.

Because we didn't understand much of this, we wrote a commentary on the problems of using jargon that obscures ideas that can be of great benefit to humanity. There are hundreds of high-quality scientific studies to suggest that mindfulness is linked to a wide range of psychological, social, and physical health benefits outside of meaning in life (see work by my colleague Kirk Brown and others).

Depending on the well-being theory, there are dozens of different facets including: self-esteem, self-compassion, sense of autonomy, sense of competence, sense of belonging, being in love, personal growth, physical health, life satisfaction, positive affect, (lack of) negative affect, vitality, knowledge, creative activity, getting what one wants or needs, achieving one's goals, and a willingness to commit effort that is aligned with deeply held values and interests. This begs the question of why Garland and his colleagues focus solely on eudaimonic meaning in their theory of mindfulness?

Is it because mindfulness relates uniquely to meaning in life? A quick review of the literature suggests this position is untenable because trait mindfulness correlates moderately to strongly with positive affect, life satisfaction, vitality, autonomy, competence, positive relations with others, self-esteem, and others (Bowlin & Baer, 2012; Brown & Ryan, 2003). Further, mindfulness training predicts less anxiety, depression, perceived stress, somatization, and greater self-esteem, environmental mastery, positive relations with others, personal autonomy, and personal growth (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004; Carmody & Baer, 2008).

Indeed, it would be difficult to argue from our present knowledge that mindfulness has a stronger link with meaning in life compared to other well-being facets. One study found trait mindfulness correlated about the same with meaning in life as with other facets of well-being (Bowlin & Baer, 2012). Mindfulness training studies, however, have failed to find increases in meaning in life (e.g., Stijnen, Visser, Garssen, & Hudig, 2008).

Mindfulness is associated with a multitude of benefits. Is it wise each time we see a connection between mindfulness and a benefit, after delineating one or two possible mechanisms, to create a new theory such as Mindfulness-to-Weight Loss or Mindfulness-to-Immunological Functioning or Mindfulness-to-Ambitious Goals? This is the splitting approach. Splitting will help identify specific mechanisms for certain outcomes, but it will also lead to isolated strands of research, where people who are working on related problems do not learn from another, a state of affairs likely to hamper long-term scientific progress.

If our goal as psychologists is to improve the quality of people's lives, my suggestion is that we stick to simple, clear language. My suggestion is that we capture life as its lived. This means avoiding terms such as eudaimonic meaning. This means acknowledging that detecting meaning is different from intentional efforts to create meaning (something that a broad term such as eudaimonic meaning misses). Sometimes we create meaning through acts of mindfulness but the most common acts of making sense of the world involves automatic reactions, intuition, and other nearly effortless operations that run counter to mindfulness. Mindfulness represents an important tool to augment psychological health. But it is only one tool in the toolbox.

if you want more depth on the commentary in this post:

Kashdan, T.B., Rottenberg, J., Goodman, F.R., Disabato, D.J., & Begovic, E. (2015). Lumping and splitting in the study of meaning in life: Thoughts on surfing, surgery, scents, and sermons. Psychological Inquiry, 26, 336-342.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book explores the science and practice of how to tolerate, accept, and harness anxiety and stress to be more curious, courageous, and creative, titled: The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment. More information can be found on his website: