David J. Pollay, MAPP, is the creator and author of the international phenomenon, The Law of the Garbage Truck (Sterling Publishing). David is a keynote speaker, syndicated columnist, and popular blogger. You can find out about David's mission to increase happiness, success, and civility in the world at The Law of the Garbage Truck site. Full bio.
I used to do it every time I went to an art museum. I would view a painting that I liked, and then I would head for the wall directly to the right of it. Now I was careful not to disturb anyone’s view on my approach, so I would make a big swing to the right and then shimmy up the wall until I reached the little metal plaque next to the painting.
Sure, I was interested in the name of the painting, who painted it, and the year in which it was completed. But I mostly wanted to know one thing. I wanted to know how long the artist lived. I was always relieved and happy when I saw that the artist had lived a long life, and I was disappointed when I saw it had been a short one. For as long as I can remember I thought a good life was a long life. Positive Psychology helped change my thinking.
Psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi co-founded Positive Psychology when Seligman was president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. Seligman was celebrated for his research on “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism,” while Csikszentmihalyi was best known for his research on “flow,” and for his best-selling book by the same name. Both men set Psychology on a course to discover what made people happy and thrive in life. They wanted to know what made up the “good life.”
The results of countless research studies that followed the launch of Positive Psychology led Seligman to conclude that there were three approaches to the good life. And they were all important. When you savor the present, are grateful for the past, and are hopeful for the future, you are experiencing positive emotion, the first component of happiness. When you do what you do best, when you use your signature strengths in your life’s work, you are engaged; this is the second contributor to happiness. And when you are involved in activities that are beyond your self-interest, and that you believe matter to the world, you are experiencing the third and final component of the good life: your life is full of meaning.
While genetics do play a role in affecting our happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research has demonstrated that as much as 50% of our happiness is within our direct control. The headline here is that the good life is possible; it’s within our grasp, and it is not measured only by the number of years we live.
Butterfly up close
My little girls helped me learn this lesson last year. Dawn and I took Eliana and Ariela, 3 and 2 at the time, to a museum of butterflies in Key West.
When we entered the museum through a special pressurized entrance, we were immediately surrounded by thousands of butterflies, all flapping their multi-colored wings. My girls were thrilled! I turned to our Museum guide and asked, “How long do butterflies live?” She said, “About ten days.” I thought to myself, “Ten days – what do you do in ten days?!” So I blurted out, “What do they do in ten days?!” And she stopped, paused, and said, “They make the world a more beautiful place.”
Every day I now ask myself, “How am I making the world a more beautiful place?” A long life is good; a good life is better.
Martin Seligman defines the meaningful life as “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” He comments thatAuthentic Happiness is meant “as a preface to the meaningful life.” He also writes:
In the hope that your level of positive emotion and your access to abundant gratification has now increased, I turn to my final topic, finding meaning and purpose in living. The pleasant life, I suggested, is wrapped up in the successful pursuit of the positive feelings, supplemented by the skills of amplifying these emotions. The good life … is a life wrapped up in successfully using your signature strengths to obtain abundant and authentic gratification. The meaningful life has one additional feature: using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are. To live all three lives is to lead a full life. (p. 249).
Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs (2005, p. 610) associate the quest for meaning in life with four main needs:
Meaning is not a topic that has received a lot of direct attention in PPND. There are many references to something being meaningful and some to the importance of meaning, such as this comment by Margaret Greenberg: “Identifying, understanding, and applying your strengths are cornerstone concepts for living a productive and meaningful life.”
All of the articles shown below have at least a few sentences that talk about the role of meaning in happiness. But there aren’t yet many answers to the question asked in a comment by Jeff Dustin: “Are there reliable ways to create lasting purpose or meaning?”
This is a fruitful area for future work!
PPND articles directly addressing Meaning
By Kathryn Britton:
Meaningful Work as Part of a Meaningful Life
By George Vaillant, Guest Author:
A Fresh Take on Meaning
By Gail Schneider:
Positive Psychology and Life’s Second Acts
PPND articles referencingMeaning indirectlyBy Margaret Greenberg:
Positive Psychology & Institutions: Highlights From a Panel Discussion
Positive Work Environments: How One Company is Putting Theory into Practice
What Leaders Must Do, Know & “Be”
An Interview with Toyota University’s Mike Morrison
By Timothy So:
Where Has Our Birthday Wish Gone? From Wishes and Goals to the Journey of a Flourishing Life
Flourishing or Soulless Work?
Glamour, Prestige, Money: Why Are Lawyers Still Unhappy?
By Sean Doyle:
Poetry and Midlife
By Kathryn Britton:
Giving Gifts by Kathryn Britton
Taking Positive Psychology to Work, Part 1: Positive Core and Strengths
>By Sherri Fisher:
It’s Not That Easy Being Green: The Treadmill of Sustainable Happiness During the Holidays and Beyond
By Aren Cohen:
Passages and Positive Psychology by Aren Cohen
The Minding Life
Musings – ‘Finding Your Voice’
Determination, Resilience or Foolhardiness? by Sulynn
By Iris Marie Bloom:
Generosity, Empathy, and Moral Philosophy in Airport Conversations
By David J. Pollay:
The Keys to a Happy and Successful Life
By Martin Seligman:
Positive Psychology in Space
By Nicholas Hall:
Happy Rewards for Goal-Seekers
Other resources on Meaning
Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Chapter 10, pp. 214-240 is titled The Making of Meaning. “Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience.” p. 216.
King, L. A., Eells, J. E., & Burton, C. M. (2004). The good life, broadly and narrowly considered. In A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice, pp. 35-49. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.Jeanne Nakamura
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived, pp. 83-104. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Emmons, R. (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived, pp. 105-128. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Jon Haidt
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Visit the Happiness Hypothesis site for information about the book. Chapter 10, Happiness Comes from Between, directly synthesizes a lot of the positive psychology work on meaning. Unfortunately, it is not available online.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. & Davis, C. (2003). Positive responses to loss: Perceiving benefit and growth. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 598-607. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Baumeister, R. & Vohs, K. (2003). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology, pp. 608-618.. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Michael Pratt
Pratt, M. & Ashforth, B. (2003). Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn, Positive organizational leadership: Foundations of a new discipline, pp 309-327. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.Amy Wrzesniewski
Wrzesniewski, A. (2003). Finding positive meaning in work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn, Positive organizational leadership: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.Martin Seligman
Seligman, M. (2004). Eudaomonia, The good life. Edge conversation with Martin Seligman about meaning in life.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
“Positive psychology points the way toward a secular approach to noble purpose and transcendental meaning…” (p. 14.) “A calling is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake.” (p. 168).
See especially chapter 14, a discussion of meaning and how it relates to Robert Wright’s win-win thesis in Nonzero. Chapter 14 ends with these words, “The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness. A life that does this is pregnant with meaning, and if God comes at the end, such a life is sacred.” (p. 260).
Wright, R. (2002). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.