The Psychologist guide to finding meaning
Our journalist Ella Rhodes hears from psychologists with evidence-based tips…
11 November 2021
1. Find your signature strengths
Identify signature strengths and use them in service of something greater than yourself. Psychology lecturer at Arden University Dr Leanne Rowlands says: ‘We each possess a set of character strengths that lead to feelings of invigoration and excitement when used. Fostering these signature strengths to contribute to others can allow us to develop a sense of belonging to positive social structures, and enhance meaning and purpose in our lives. Identifying these strengths requires reflection, or take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.’
Tip: Identify personal ‘signature strengths’ and seek opportunities to use these for something greater than the self.
2. Live life deliberately
Taking an active stance to life by deliberately making choices gives us meaning. Dr Natalie Lancer, existential coaching psychologist and Honorary Secretary of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Coaching Psychology, says: ‘Rather than passively living life and reacting to circumstances, we can mould our lives – which takes risk and creativity. Regularly reflect on the choices you have made and assess whether they are still serving you. Follow your curiosity to open up to alternative ideas. Do these suit you better at this point in time? Whatever the answer, you will have made an active choice.’
Tip: Regularly revisit previous decisions, weigh up alternatives and make active choices.
3. Volunteer to help others… and yourself
Prosocial behaviours such as volunteering don’t only benefit the recipients of the help. They can provide a sense of purpose, build self-worth, and boost confidence – particularly if mastering or teaching a new skill is involved. Dr Mhairi Bowe (Nottingham Trent University) says: ‘Prosocial behaviours can result in valuable social connections with fellow helpers and those being helped: volunteers often develop a strong sense of identification within their volunteering groups and within the communities where they help. Thus, prosocial behaviours can unlock the well-known benefits of social identification: belonging, support, health and well-being, whilst also satisfying identity needs such as sense of esteem and personal control. During times of challenge, this type of prosocial behaviour can be vital for boosting collective coping and community resilience. Importantly, it also affords opportunities to gain a sense that you have contributed something to people and places that are important to you – actions that volunteers suggest give them a sense of mattering to others and of feeling good about themselves.’
Tip: Try engaging in even small acts of helping in your community, that are meaningful to you: this can provide a valuable sense of connection.
4. Focus on building strong relationships
Professor Jonathan Passmore, Head of Coaching (Henley Business School), says that one route to health and life satisfaction is to build five or six strong relationships outside of any romantic relationship – through joining clubs, attending religious services, or simply taking a walk with a friend. ‘What matters most is a shared interest, along with the relationships which emerge from engaging with others in this shared experience. Use 2022 to commit to two new regular events and by 2023 you’ll have added to your friendship circle.’
Dr Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Associate Professor of Psychology (Hope College) adds that ‘most of life’s most meaningful moments involve other people, so surrounding yourself with healthy relationships that are mutual and empathic are key. Find people you can feel safe disclosing to and dreaming with. Forgiveness can increase meaning in life, likely because it improves relationship functioning. And cultivating a sense of humility and genuine care for others can make you a more desirable friend and romantic partner, which makes you more likely to have a strong social network.’
Tip: Attend events of shared interest with friends, talk about the experience and create a regular pattern of going. Try to repair relationships that are struggling.
5. Use your values to find direction
Paula Louise Dixon, business psychologist and coach, recommends a values-driven approach to finding direction – rather than relying on new year’s resolutions which so often fail. ‘Although we may lack the willpower to eat less, exercise more etc., values can provide direction in a personally meaningful way. By asking “what’s important to me?”, we unearth our values. Then, by considering, “what will I be saying and doing to embody these?” we define underlying, supportive behaviours which can then inform our goals.’
Tip: When willpower wanes, mindfully focus on values which may drive committed meaningful action.
6. Harness the will to meaning
Dr Penny Hyams (Arden University) turns to the work of Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl – a Nazi concentration camp survivor who reflected deeply during this time on his motivation to continue living in the face of horrific brutality, cold and hunger. ‘His vision of lecturing colleagues in a warm hall underpinned his cogent analysis that we are driven by a “will to meaning”; an imperative that carries us through loss and trauma. The pandemic has also destabilised our previous assumptions and meanings; bringing immeasurable loss of treasured ones and strained mental health. Yet medical science and social technology have buoyed our optimism for an emergent “new normal” in a kinder, more supportive zeitgeist.’
Tip: Harness collective anxiety creatively to forge new meanings in the post pandemic world.
7. Surprise yourself
Routine can be a person’s worst enemy – clouding judgement, suppressing instincts and dwindling skills. Dr Konstantinos Arfanis (Arden University) suggests that ‘leaving our comfort zone occasionally is vital to keeping ourselves motivated and keen, and it is easier to achieve than one might think. It might mean we take small steps towards a bigger goal. Trying something new, striking conversations with strangers, picking up from where we last failed are ways we can make every single day meaningful and purposeful. Waking up every day determined to achieve a milestone, even a small one, might light the path to a more fulfilled and happier life.’
Tip: Make a note of your achievements – use each small step as the basis for the one coming next.
8. Don’t underestimate confidence
Research has linked meaning to psychological well-being and self-confidence. Dr Mvikeli Ncube (Arden University) advises: ‘Believing in yourself can bring positive health outcomes mentally. People with a strong sense of self-confidence tend to perceive their life experience as meaningful and are optimistic that the things they will experience in the future will continue to be meaningful.’
Tip: Believe in you, invest in building your self-confidence.
9. Consider the full picture
‘Meaning cannot be discovered by condensing things down into separate parts, but rather from valuing the whole,’ says Lucy Anacleto (Arden University). ‘The purpose of Gestalt is for the individual to uncover, realise and encounter their own shape, pattern and wholeness. Gestalt sees the person holistically, as an entirety that embodies emotions, body, mind and spirit.’ In Gestalt therapy practitioners help clients to concentrate on self-awareness and focus on the here and now. ‘Heightening awareness of the present moment – by attending to immediate feelings, thoughts and behaviour as well as modes of relating – can elicit remarkable change, new perspectives and directions in a person’s life.’
Tip: Remember, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ – Aristotle.
10. Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff
It’s thought to be Nebraskan Cardiologist Robert Eliot who coined this phrase, taken up by many to frame the essential triviality of our brief human existences clinging to a rock spinning through an infinite universe. When we reached out for contributions to this Guide on Twitter, Jane Street advised ‘embed the meaning into the process not the outcome. Success then lies in how you do something.’ And Gillian Bridge – author of The Significance Delusion – noted ‘finding meaning is in itself the (delusionary) outcome of ancient genetic mutations… a comforting thought, especially for the mentally lazy!’
But maybe don’t go too far on the nihilist views… recent research by Matthew Scott and Adam Cohen, reported on our Research Digest (see tinyurl.com/digestnihilist), found that people who agree with statements such as ‘Our lives have no purpose’ were viewed more negatively.
Tip: Take any evidence-based guides to finding meaning in your life with a pinch of salt…
See also other contributions to this month’s issue, around the potential dark side of new year’s resolutions, and the powerful effects of expectaion…
You can find ‘The Psychologist Guide to…’ you and your baby, leadership, healthy living, university life, pets, and retirement, via: thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/psychologist-guide
If you have ideas for other Guides, or would like to sponsor the production of one as a leaflet, please get in touch on [email protected]