Three “Meaning in Life” Strengths You Didn’t Know You Had
Overcome the taking-life-for-granted effect by using the science of meaning.
Posted September 5, 2018
It’s easy to take life for granted. We assume we’ll live to be at least 80, that our significant other will always be there for us, that we’ll always have that job, that our coffee will always be hot, we’ll always have lunch to eat, and that our dog will always come up to us wagging its tail. But, on some level, we know none of that is true. We know that everything is impermanent. We fall into the trap of acting like things are permanent, that everything will stay the same. That our comfort will always be exactly as it is. In other words, we lose touch with “meaning in life” and fall into the trap of taking things for granted.
Luckily, there are new solutions and insights on meaning we can benefit from.
Scientists have looked closely at the sources of meaning in life and have tried to make sense of ways people like you and I search for and discover meaning. What is it within us that connects with a life of meaning? Across two studies separated by 13 years involving people from different cultures, there were three core character strengths that rose to the top as being most important for a meaningful life (Peterson and colleagues, 2005; Wagner and colleagues, 2018). The 3 strengths are curiosity, gratitude, and spirituality.
Other strengths research has shown that two of these three (curiosity and gratitude) are quite common. They are among the most endorsed strengths across the globe (McGrath, 2015; Park and colleagues, 2006). This means many people relate to these strengths and appreciate their potential. Here’s how these strengths connect with meaning and how you can give each a quick boost right now.
If you are high in curiosity, you love to explore what’s new and different. Novelty is your friend. Asking questions is your default approach. Trying new foods, meeting new people, and traveling to new places are ways you satisfy your curiosity for life.
When you use curiosity to explore your world, your are searching, wandering, and wondering–you are seeking adventures. In this way, you are trying to make sense of your experiences and the world around you. That type of sense-making is known as coherence and is a central element of meaning in life.
Quick boost: During the next activity you do after finishing this article, pay attention to three novel features of the activity. Use your senses to notice small details you would normally take for granted. If your next activity is to walk downstairs, pay attention to the movement of your body and the placement of each foot on the ground. If your next task is to check your email, pay attention to the muscles in your thumb and fingers as they swiftly take action on your smart-phone or keyboard. If your next task is to talk to a colleague, pay attention to the expressions on their face, the speed of their words, and the strengths they are using.
Gratitude goes beyond expressing thanks to someone who has been nice to you or has given you a gift. People who are grateful have a wide sense of appreciation for life–they are grateful for their own life, even if they are amidst struggles. They are quick to catch themselves taking life for granted. They can rapidly shift their focus from autopilot mindlessness to mindful attention of what is good around them.
Quick boost: After you finish reading this article, pause and count your blessings. This means to be grateful for at least two people or recent situations that happened that you have taken for granted. Be specific. Perhaps you’re grateful you felt a burst of energy this morning? Perhaps you’re grateful for the creativity your spouse showed in a recent conversation? Perhaps you’re grateful you live in today’s technology world where you can communicate with loved ones in a matter of seconds?
Spirituality has been defined consistently as the search for or communing with the sacred. What is sacred is unique to each person. Common examples include spending one-on-one time with your child, participating in a religious ritual, observing someone else’s kindness, or being present to the beauty of nature. Meaning in life fits this strength like glove in hand. If you are spending time consciously engaging in what you believe as sacred, special, or holy, it would be nearly impossible to not view that as meaningful at the same time. When we imbue something as sacred we are pressing meaning-filled intentions and energy in that direction. We are obliterating the taking-life-for-granted-effect. My sacred times laughing with my children, marveling at a tree on a meditation retreat, and leading a strengths exercise for students are also meaning-filled times.
Quick boost: As you look to transition from reading this article to perusing online or doing another activity, pause for a moment. Look for the sacred in this moment. What is special about this particular moment? It’s another moment you’re alive, capable of feeling your breathing. It’s another moment you have the power of choice to do what you want to do. It’s a moment you can use your strengths to do good. That’s special. That’s sacred. That’s your spirituality strength.
Use these three character strengths to enhance your life meaning and overcome the taking-life-for-granted-effect now!
McGrath, R. E. (2015). Character strengths in 75 nations: An update. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 41–52. http://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.88858
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118–129. http://doi.org/10.1080/1743976060061956
Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-004-1278-
Wagner, L., Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., & Ruch, W. (2018). Character strengths and PERMA: Investigating the relationships of character strengths with a multidimensional framework of well-being. Applied Research in Quality of Life.