Since the International Network on Personal Meaning’s (INPM) first International Meaning Conference in 2000, INPM has continued to pursue the same path of seeking an integrative and comprehensive understanding of meaning, given the profound complexity of this construct. More specifically, the INPM seeks to advance meaning-oriented research and therapy in order to deepen our understanding of what it means to live a meaningful, fulfilling life and how to achieve it in spite of the dark side of human existence, such as suffering and death. This integrative approach to meaning has always been a major part of our mission to develop a more balanced existentially informed positive psychology 2.0 (Wong, 2011).

Methodologically, we want to advance scientific meaning research by also taking into account the phenomenological lived experiences of subjects in addition to mere behavior, cognition and affect. Thus, in addition to the traditional researcher-centered investigation, we also recognize the value of de-centered research that incorporates the explanatory framework of both researchers and research participants.

Over the years, we have consistently invited leading authorities with different theoretical perspectives to our Biennial Meaning Conferences, primarily from the humanistic-existential school and the contemporary positive psychology movement. Just to name a few of the principal contributors, they have included: Irvin Yalom, Ernesto Spinelli, Emmy van Deurzen, Kirk Schneider, Shelton Solomon, Chris Snyder, Robert Emmons, Roy Baumeister, Geroge Vaillant, Laura King, Chris Peterson, etc. Occasionally, sparks flew during heated discussions, but most of the time, we were able to have impassioned and intellectual dialogues on all matters related to meaning.

Background of this Special Issue

Meaning summits have been an integral part of the International Meaning Conferences organized by the INPM. For 2014, INPM joined forces with the Constructivist Psychology Network to create the First Congress on the Construction of Personal Meaning. However, we not only continued the tradition of hosting a meaning summit, we also elevated it to a new level by having three summit panel discussions on the following topics:

  1. What is the Nature and Conceptualization of Meaning? This was chaired by Gordon Medlock. Panelists included Alex Pattakos, Crystal Park, Paul Wong, Rebecca Schlegel, and Veronika Huta.
  2. The Objective Conditions and Measurement of Meaning, chaired by Phillip Shaver. Panelists included Brent Potter, Joshua Hicks, Michael Steger, Paul Wong, Robert Neimeyer, and Stefan Schulenberg.
  3. Social/Cultural Construction of Meaning and Meaning-Oriented Interventions, chaired by Paul T. P. Wong. Panelists included Alex Batthyány, Kiran Salagame, Marie Dezelic, and Maurits Kwee.

What was common for all three summit panels was that each panelist (1) had no more than 10 minutes to present their own ideas, either formally or informally, (2) interacted and dialogued with other panelists to find some common ground, and (3) was given my brief editorial (Wong, 2014a) and an introduction and a description of the issues central to each panel.

INPM Meaning Summit I: What is the Nature and Conceptualization of Meaning?

What do I do to make my life worthwhile and significant? Most people at some point in their lives have struggled with such questions, because intuitively they know that meaningful activities are associated with deeper life satisfaction and suffering is more bearable if they can find a good reason for it. Although meaning in life remains an important topic in psychology, building a science of meaning is difficult.

The first Meaning Summit addressed the fundamental issues regarding the nature and conceptualization of meaning. More specifically, we attempted to find some consensus regarding the following:

  1. Developing a taxonomy of meaning, such as cosmic vs. personal meaning, existential vs. cognitive meaning, etc.;
  2. Identifying the constituents of meaning, such as purpose, understanding, relational context, etc.;
  3. Creating a comprehensive working definition of the construct of meaning in life.

INPM Meaning Summit II: The Conditions and Measurement of Meaning

Clever experimental manipulations of variables in meaning research may not be very relevant to the real existential issues people are struggling with. This Summit explored and critiqued the conceptual and methodological flaws in meaning research. It also examined the following issues:

  1. Fundamental conditions and sources of meaning
  2. Methodological problems of self-report measures of the meaning construct
  3. Need for understanding the content as well as the context of meaning in life, before we can measure it with some measure of internal validity
  4. Importance of both qualitative and quantitative research in order to advance the scientific knowledge of meaning

INPM Meaning Summit III: Social/Cultural Construction of Meaning and Meaning-Oriented Interventions

One fallacy of mainstream research on meaning is based on the assumption of meaning as a universal concept and that scientific research (based on the positivist paradigm) is the only way to make truth claims about what makes life meaningful. Recent developments in cross-cultural psychology and indigenous psychology have challenged this approach as reflecting Euro-American ethnocentric bias(see http://www.indigenouspsych.org/). There has been very little concern about the possibility of misapplication of scientific findings to meaning-oriented interventions in other cultures. Since meaning is based on cultural values and norms, such discussion is of utmost importance.

In this Summit, experts from both East and West discussed how to reconcile the conflict between the universality approach and historical/culture-specific approach to meaning-oriented interventions.

All panelists were encouraged to address their specific issues and were made aware of our attempts to find some common ground in the dialogue about the nature of personal meaning. Panelists were encouraged to submit articles for a special journal issue or monograph based on the three summit meetings. This current issue is the direct result of these dialogues.

Some Common Understandings Resulting from the 2014 Summits

I am most grateful to Gordon Medlock (this issue) for undertaking the gigantic task of describing the highlights of each panel and putting together this collection of papers. I am sorry that not every panelist found time to contribute a paper, but based on those who submitted to this issue, we can detect some areas of agreement and shared concerns.

Meaning is at the Core of Human Experience

Since meaning is at the core of human experience and well-being, it reflects something deeper than mere self-ratings of behavior, cognition and emotion. It is related to one’s core self as Rebecca Schlegel and Joshua Hicks (this issue) point out in their paper. Huta (this issue) described her Meaning Experience Scale and Dezelic (this issue) described her bio-psycho-social-spiritual model of meaning – both of which emphasize the connection of personal meaning with one’s core sense of self.

Given the deep and holistic nature of the human phenomenon of meaning, the inadequacy of self-report measures, especially one-item measures, seems obvious. Numbers in and by themselves do not have much meaning, unless they are directly related to lived experiences and resonant with a broad spectrum of people. In other words, numbers need to have internal and external validity. Even when numbers are significantly correlated with other numbers, they still do not tell us much about what really matters to people in their daily struggles for survival and flourishing, nor do they tell us much about human nature. I hope that we can all see the benefit of having narrative and phenomenological research along with quantitative data as Brent Potter (this issue), Park (this issues) and Neimeyer (this issue) have argued.

The Main Components of Meaning in Life

There is some consensus that meaningfulness consists of at least two components: making sense of life (cognition) and having a sense of purpose (motivation). However, beyond this basic distinction, there is little agreement with respects to terminology and classification.

Park (this issue) reports a three-component model for global meaning systems” comprising beliefs (cognitions), goals (motivation), and a subjective sense of meaning (emotion)” For the subjective sense of meaning, Park and her graduate student propose a tripartite comprising senses of comprehensibility, purpose, and mattering (George & Park, 2014). Thus, Park’s model does not include a broader positive emotion component emphasized by positive psychology researchers (e.g., Schlegel & Hicks, this issue).

For many years, I have proposed a four-factor model: Purpose (motivation), Understanding (cognition), Responsible action (Behavior) and Evaluation (Emotion) (Wong, 2010, 2012b). The PURE model was intended to apply to both subjective and objective meaning systems.

What is noteworthy about the PURE model is that the behavioral component is characterized as responsible or as ethically responsible in accordance with Frankl’s (1986) conception of meaning – where to live meaningfully is to live responsibly in an ethical matter. “The guide which guides man…in his taking responsibility for his life, is his conscience” p.60). Thus, what is meaningful in the PURE model is by definition ethically responsible. I have made the case that the meaning literature suggests that this PURE model provides the most comprehensive account of the main constituents of meaning in life (Wong, 2012b).

Global Meaning vs. Situational Meaning

There is strong consensus that it has both heuristic and practical value to differentiate global meaning and situational meaning as Park (this issue). There are still finer distinctions within each broad category. Global meaning encompasses) ultimate meaning (Frankl, 1985), life goals and callings (Wong’s (2014b) and meaning-mindset (Wong, 2012a).

Situational meaning can include both meaning of the moment as well as meaning of an event; these represent the most concrete types of meaning. Situational meaning may include both appraisal and reappraisal (Peacock & Wong, 1990), as well as causal and existential attributions (Wong, 1991). Much research is needed to discover how global meaning and situational meaning interact with each other.

Presence of Meaning vs. Meaning Seeking

There is also consensus regarding the distinction between presence of meaning and meaning seeking (Steger et al. 2006). Presence of meaning indicates that meaning has been discovered or made, while meaning seeking implies the process of searching for something such as values and goals that are capable of satisfying the inner void and meaning deficiency. The former is a state while the latter is a process. An elaboration of Frankl’s meaning-seeking model can be found in Wong (2014b).

It is worth noting that even the presence of meaning as a state is not guaranteed to be stable over long periods of time, because circumstances change and people change. What is meaningful at one stage of development may not be relevant at another stage of development. For young adults, the presence of meaning may include having found an ideal vocation and an ideal marriage partner, whereas for older adults, the presence of meaning maybe primarily related to a sense of self-transcendence (Reed, 1991).

With regards to the presence of meaning, Park (this issue) mentions the distinction between meaning and meaningfulness. The presence of cognitive meaning that there is order and pattern in the natural world is very different from the presence of existential meaning that one’s life has meaningful contents and worthwhile life goals. When we do not keep this distinction in mind, we are likely to make the mistake of Heintzelman and King (2014), who asked in jest “where is the evidence of existential vacuum”, simply because nature has order and makes sense (see Brown & Wong, 2015 for a critique).

Meaning Seeking vs. Meaning Making

Some meaning researchers favor meaning seeking because they believe that meaning potentials already exist in various life situations as well as in human existence, and they only need to be discovered. Some meaning researchers believe that there is no meaning in this world, and it depends on individuals to create or make meaning for themselves. The difference emphasis hinges on one’s presupposition or worldview. Some researchers, like Crystal Park, seem to use these terms interchangeably; for example, she listed meaning seeking under the category of meaning making in her (2010) influential meaning-making model.

Frankl (1985) and Wong (2014b) in their meaning-seeking model emphasize meaning-seeking as distinct from meaning making. According to the meaning-seeking model, meaning seeking is an irreducible and primary motivation of pursuing meaning, or more precisely, self-transcendence – seeking to serve something bigger or higher than oneself.

Such motivation for self-transcendence stems from the spiritual dimension of human nature, whether this spiritual nature is conceptualized as coming from a supernatural source or from the forces of evolution (Frankl, 1985; Haidt, 2012). This motivational view also assumes that the absence of meaning creates a uncomfortable inner void of or existential vacuum, which triggers our existential question for something significant and self-transcendent to fill the inner void.

Thus, meaning seeking is spiritually oriented and value-based, with self-transcendence as a terminal value (Wong, 2014b). The paradox is that the quest for existential meaning can never be completely fulfilled, because, according to Frankl (1985), we need the constant tension of striving towards a worthy goal to keep us mentally healthy. We still do not have any scale that measures this kind of never-ending existential and spiritual quest.

Meaning making has at least three meanings. (1) cognitive processes of attribution and appraisal, (2) creative work of employing one’s gifts to make a useful contribution, and (3) narrative process of constructing a personal story to make sense of an event or one’s life. Meaning making refers to both what we think to make sense of events and what we do to make a contribution. In meaning research, the term meaning making has been used far more frequently than meaning seeking or meaning construction. It would be helpful if can clearly differentiate between meaning-seeking and meaning making, as well as clarify the difference, if any, between meaning making and meaning construction.

Conclusions

Readers can judge for themselves whether the 2014 Meaning Submits have achieved their objectives which were listed in the first section of this paper. From my perspective, there is still much work to be done. I look forward to the future meaning summit in our 2016 International Meaning Conference.

I can see several issues that demand our attention. For example, self-transcendence requires a lot more conceptual analysis and empirical work. It has been regarded as a dispositional variable or personality trait (Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck, 1993), a spiritual experience of oneness and sacredness (Maslow, 1972), a major source of meaningfulness (Wong, 1998) and a primary motivation “will to meaning” (Frankl, 1985, Wong, 2014b).

Repeatedly, Frankl emphasized that self-transcendence is essential to human existence: “What I have called the self-transcendence of existence denotes the fundamental fact that being human means relating to something, or someone, other than oneself, be it a meaning to fulfill or human beings to encounter. And existence falters and collapses unless this self-transcendent quality is lived out” (Frankl, 2010, p.159).

Wong (2015) sums up the important social implications of self-transcendence:

In sum, self-transcendence offers a vision of the best possible future, not only for individuals, but also for humanity. In a paradoxical way, self-transcendence points out that we have to redirect our focus from self-interest to others, in order to live the good life. It is in awakening and cultivating our spiritual values of will to meaning and self-transcendence that we find a sense of fulfillment and significance. If we continue to expand our interest beyond ourselves to include an ever growing circle of influence, we will eventually lose our “small selves” in finding our “larger selves.

Another area that demands attention is how meaning is related to virtue and happiness. According to the meaning hypothesis (Wong, 2014c), meaning is central to virtue and happiness primarily through the mechanisms of self-transcendence and eudaimonia (see Huta, this issue). A lot more research is needed to study the connections and interactions between the three pillars of positive psychology – meaning, happiness and virtue, because the good life needs all three of them.

Finally, Dmitry (this issue) raises the issue of subjective versus objective meaning. While Salagame (this issue) advocates the Indian conception of non-duality, he also recognizes the heuristic value of the subjective versus objective distinction. It is unfortunate that while most psychologists emphasizes the subjective view of meaning, most philosophers emphasize the objective condition of meaning (Haybron, 2013; Metz, 2013)

My position is that meaning is both subjective and objective. Meaning cannot be simply based on what we think or how we feel subjectively; it has to do with how we live and what we do with our lives objectively. An addict may think that he is living a meaningful life, because feeding his addiction makes him, but no one would consider a self-destructive addictive life is meaningful, when the person has no meaning-content in his life.

In sum, meaningfulness is not just a subjective expression or subjective self-rating; it also refers to the actual contents and the direction of our lives as an objective reality that can be observed by others. For example, to engage in what really matters and to connect with individuals who really matter to us, as Pattakos and Dundon (this issue) described in their paper on the OPA way and as also observed by Salagame (this issue) in Indian culture, are two of the objective conditions for meaningful experiences; such observations of real people are consistent with research findings in psychological laboratories.

In a lecture on “the pluralism of sciences and the unity of man”, Frankl (2010, p.137) pointed out the need for a integrative and comprehensive account of human beings because “we are living in an age of specialists but sometimes, a specialist is a man who no longer sees the forest of truth for the trees of fact.” This concern is very relevant to the mounting accumulation of findings gathered by researchers with different theoretical orientations and technical specialties. I do hope that this issue serves as a milestone in our pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of the core human phenomenon of meaning in life.

References

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Cite

ong, P. T. P. (2016). A decade of meaning: Past, present, and futureJournal of Constructivist Psychology, 30(1), 82-89. doi:10.1080/10720537.2015.1119085