Meaning (M)

The fourth element in PERMA is meaning

To have a sense of meaning, we need to feel that what we do is valuable and worthwhile. This involves belonging to and/or serving something that we believe is greater than ourselves (Seligman, 2012). The search for meaning is an intrinsic human quality.

Discovering our true self has been the subject of philosophers, academics, artists and poets for millennia. The closer we get to being our ‘true self’, the closer we are to our source of meaning (Schlegel, et al, 2009). Having a broader purpose in life helps us to focus on what is really important when we are faced with a significant challenge or adversity in our life.

Having meaning in your life, or working towards a greater purpose, is different for everybody. This may be pursued through your profession, a cause you are passionate about (such as an environmental group), a creative pursuit, a political cause, or a religious or spiritual belief. Many people seek meaning and purpose through the work that they do. For others, their sense of meaning may not be found in what they do for a living, but what they do in their spare time. That may include volunteering for a community group, raising money for a charity, lobbying for cause, umpiring their child’s sporting team or spending time with their family. For most people, their sense of meaning is strongly related to their personal values. 

Research findings on meaning

  • People who have purpose in their lives have greater longevity and life satisfaction and fewer health problems (Kashdan & McKnight, 2009).
  • A sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself is an important element of employee engagement (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), while employees who can link their work to a larger purpose of the organisation they work for are likely to have greater levels of interest (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997)
  • People who are more optimistic are more likely to experience personal growth following adversity (Joseph & Linley, 2005) and a strong sense of meaning can also help to facilitate post-traumatic growth’ (Boniwell, 2008).
  • People who can identify a positive ending and a sense of closure from a difficult event have better subjective wellbeing outcomes (Pals, 2006) and those who find meaning after a negative life event are better able to return to positive levels of functioning (King, Hicks, Krull & Del Gaiso, 2006).
  • Bereaved adults who had a sense of meaning were better psychologically adjusted than adults who reported no meaning (Tavernier & Willoughby, 2012). 

How to build meaning: 

  • Become involved in a cause or organisation that matters to you
  • Spend time with people you really care about
  • Review your strengths. What are you really good at or really passionate about?
  • Think about how you could apply these to your life
  • Be authentic – embrace the real ‘you’