Evidence is accumulating that demonstrates the important role of personal meaning in well-being and quality of life. This paper introduces a meaning-centered model of well-being consisting of three factors: positive affect, personal growth and reduction of negativity. I propose that a complete positive psychology of flourishing encompass three overlapping systems: (a) the three factors of welling-being, (b) the positive triad of resilience, and (c) the dual-system of managing approach and avoidance.
The Meaning of Meaning
A proper understanding of the relationship between meaning in life and well-being needs to distinguish between specific meaning and global meaning (Park & Folkman, 1997), situational meaning and ultimate meaning (Frankl, 1985), or situational meaning and existential meaning (Reker & Chamberlain, 2000; Reker & Wong, in press). In this paper, meaning in life refers to both situational meaning and existential meaning.
Reker and Wong (1988) define personal meaning as the “cognizance of order, coherence and purpose in one’s existence, the pursuit and attainment of worthwhile goals, and an accompanying sense of fulfillment” (p. 221). Wong (1989) defines personal meaning as a socially and individually constructed system, which endows life with personal significance. This meaning system includes five components: affective, motivational, cognitive, relational, and personal (i.e., personal characteristics and status in life (Wong, 1998).
According to Steger (in press), meaning in life consists of cognitive (comprehension) and motivational (purpose) components. Alternatively, meaning of life can be conceptualized as meeting four basic needs: purpose, efficacy or control, value and justification, and self-worth (Baumeister, 1991).
The Structure and Functions of Meaning
A comprehensive way to define meaning is in terms of the PURE model (Wong, 2010, 2011), which emphasizes the four essential components: Purpose, Understanding, Responsible action, and Enjoyment/Evaluation. Life would not be meaningful in the absence of any of these ingredients.
Functionally, these components entail the four major psychological processes for living the good life: motivational (purpose, life goals, needs), cognitive (understanding, making sense of life), social/moral (responsibility, accountability, commitment), and affective (enjoyment/evaluation, positive emotions).
Measures of Meaning in Life
The purpose dimension of meaning has been measured by the Purpose in Life scale (PIL; Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1969). The understanding dimension can be measured by the Sense of Coherence scale (SOC; Antonovsky, 1983). The Personal Meaning Profile (PMP) (Wong, 1998; McDonald, Wong, & Gingras, in press) measures overall level of meaning in life as well as sources of meaning.
The Life Regard Index (LRI; Battista and Almond, 1973) measures personal meaning independent of priori conceptions of the “true nature” of personal meaning. It consists of two subscales: the Framework scale measures whether an individual has the necessary framework for developing life goals; and the Fulfillment scale indicates the extent to which these goals are fulfilled. The Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ; Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler, 2006) measures both the Presence of meaning and the Search for meaning. There is considerable evidence the above measures of meaning in life are related to well-being and mental health (Wong, in press b; Wong & Fry, 1998).Dimensions of Well-Being, Mental Health & Quality of Life
Dimensions of Well-Being, Mental Health & Quality of Life
Quality of life is often used as an umbrella concept covering the full range of the World Health Organization’s definition of health: “physical, psychological, and social well-being.” For example, Kane et al’s (2003) research on the self-report measures of quality of life for nursing home residents include comfort, functional competence, autonomy, dignity, individuality, privacy, relationships, meaningful activity, sense of security and safety, enjoyment, and spiritual well-being.
I propose that quality of life indicators need to include measures of subjective well-being and personal meaning. I want to make the case that a global index of quality of life needs to include some measures of meaning in life and subjective well-being. In other words, one cannot have a high quality of life devoid of meaning and purpose.
Different Types of Well-Being
Snyder and Lopez (2007) are correct in proposing the formula: Happiness + Meaning = Well-being. Diener (1984, 2000) uses the terms happiness and subjective well-being interchangeably, reflecting a hedonic perspective of subjective well-being. A eudaimonic perspective of subjective well-being focuses on meaning and virtue (Waterman, 1993; Ryan and Huta, 2009).
According to Ryff and Keyes (1995), psychological well-being is based on several dimensions: self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relationships with others. These dimensions cover much of the same domain as sources of meaning (Wong, 1998). According to Keyes (1998), social well-being consists of five dimensions: social integration, social contribution, coherence, actualization, and acceptance. Complete mental health includes emotional, social, and psychological well-being (Keyes & Magyar-Moe, 2003) in addition to the absence of mental illness symptoms (Keyes & Lopez, 2002).
Spiritual well-being as measured by the Spiritual Well-being Scale (SWBS; Paloutzian & Ellison, 1982) measures subjective and highly personal aspects of life. It consists of the Existential and the Spiritual subscales: the former is the quest for personal meaning, while the latter is about one’s relationship with God. Research has shown that the SWBS is also a useful indicator of global health and well-being because it is related to physical, psychological, and relational well-being (Ellison & Smith, 1991).
Recently, Seligman (2011) proposed a five-component model using the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, accomplishment, and relationship. This model encompasses both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Seligman’s PERMA is an extension of his earlier conception of authentic happiness (2002). However, the emphasis of PERMA is still happiness-oriented rather than meaning-oriented as differentiated by Wong (2011).
Most of the above models on well-being include a component of meaning and purpose. The present meaning-oriented approach makes meaning the overarching framework for well-being and mental health. Wong’s model emphasizes the PURE model as well as the eight sources of meaning: positive emotion, achievement, relationship, intimacy, religion/spirituality, self-transcendence, self-acceptance, and fairness/social justice (Wong, 1998). For individuals with a meaning mindset, their pursuit of well-being emphasizes meaning and virtue not just for themselves but also for humanity. Even in the absence of positive affect and active engagement, one can still enjoy certain levels of well-being based on meaning, virtue and spirituality. According to Haybron (2000), “pleasure does not really matter all that much in itself, being merely a by-product that accompanies the achievement of what is truly worthwhile” (p. 20).
The Role of Meaning in Enhancing Quality of Life
I propose that meaning serves at least three important functions: (a) meaning as a contributor to well-being, (b) meaning as a protective and preventive factor, and (c) meaning as the basis for hope in hopeless situations. This three-factor theory is depicted in Figure 1. I also examine meaning as an outcome measure of well-being.
Sources of Meaning as Contributors to Well-Being
Numerous studies have linked meaning in life with positive affect and life satisfaction (Chamberlain & Zika, 1988; King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006; Ryff, 1989; Zika & Chamberlain, 1992). More recent research has shown that the Meaning in Life Questionnaire (MLQ; Steger et al., 2006) and the Life Regard Index (LRI; Battista and Almond, 1973) are also related to a variety of well-being and mental health measures (Steger, in press; Debats, 1998).
Sources of meaning as measured by Wong (1998) are related to both presence of well-being and absence of mental illness. Mascaro (2006) found that a sense of personal meaning as measured by the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP; Wong, 1998) was negatively related to depressive symptoms, depression and hopelessness, and positively related to meaning fulfillment, hope, and internal locus of control. A Dutch translation of the PMP administered to cancer patients was found to be positively correlated with psychological well-being and negatively correlated to distress (Jaarsma, Pool, Ranchor, & Sanderman, 2007). Simms’ (2005) research found that mental health and well-being consists of five main factors: personal meaning, subjective well-being, personal growth, hardiness, and positive relationship.
Although all these studies are correlational, there are some perspectives and longitudinal studies which show that meaning can predict future well-being (Mascaro, 2006; Mascaro & Rosen, 2008). Ideally, experimental studies are needed to more clearly demonstrate how various sources of meaning contribute to well-being.
Meaning as a Protective/Preventive Factor
When things are going well and people are enjoying pleasant, engaging, and successful activities, positive emotions are probably sufficient to sustain a high level of subjective well-being. Research has clearly demonstrated the health benefits of positive affect (Fredrickson, 2001; Lyubormirsky, 2007). However, when people are going through very difficult times, meaning, rather than positive emotions, becomes more important in maintaining some level of well-being (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2010, 2011).
According to the meaning-centered approach to well-being, the ABCDE strategy serves the function of transforming negatives into positives, as well as making suffering more bearable. The ABCDE acronym stands for acceptance, belief, commitment, discovery, and evaluation/enjoyment. I have given a detailed account on how these components contribute to resilience and well-being in adverse situations (Wong, 2010; Wong & Wong, in press).
Meaning can contribute to effective coping and reduction of stress through several pathways. First, adaptive attribution and explanation can contribute to hope and success (Seligman, 1990; Weiner, 1985; Wong & Weiner, 1981). Second, existential coping strategies such as acceptance and seeing the positive potential of negative events are important in coping with situations beyond our control (Wong, Reker, & Peacock, 2006). Third, having a clear sense of meaning and purpose contributes to the will to live in extreme situations (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2009). Fourth, Wong’s (1993; Wong, Reker, & Peacock, 2006) resource congruence model also emphasizes the importance of preventive coping in terms of cultivating coping resources.
There is a vast literature on the importance of appraisal and meaning in effective coping and stress reduction (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Wong & Wong, 2006). For example, Debats, Drost, and Hansen (1995) found that the LRI was positively correlated with effective coping with stressful life events in the past. In short, meaning serves two important functions: protecting one’s well-being through effective coping, and enhancing one’s well-being through meaning reconstruction and the development of psychological resources.
Meaning as the Basis for Hope in Extreme Situations
The important role of hope in maintaining one’s well-being and health has been well documented (Snyder, 2000). Hope provides the motivation to strive and improve one’s life. However, in extreme situations such as the Holocaust, being trapped 3,000 feet underground, or dying from incurable cancer, one needs a different kind of hope that is not based on confidence in one’s own competence or positive expectations of a good outcome. Viktor Frankl (1985) developed the concept of tragic optimism which enabled him to survive the Nazi death camps. I have identified the key components of tragic optimism as consisting of acceptance, affirmation, faith in God, self-transcendence, and courage. Only meaning-oriented hope can survive unimaginable horrors and sufferings.
Meaning as an Outcome Measure
I have already argued that meaning needs to be included as part of the global measures of well-being and quality of life. The obvious reason is that positive emotions tend to lead to the perception of meaning (King & Hicks, in press). Another reason is that individuals who pursue meaningful and virtuous life goals can still achieve some level of satisfaction and well-being in spite of hardships and suffering (Frankl, 1985; Haybron, 2000; Wong, 2011).
A Meaning-Centered Model of Well-Being and Mental Health
A meaning-centered approach to well-being and mental health will consist of three factors as depicted in Figure 1. The first factor refers to meaning as an outcome or meaning-based positive emotion. As such, it will contribute to flourishing like any other positive emotion as predicted by Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build model of positive emotion.
The second factor refers to the beneficial effects of pursuing the eight sources of personal meaning according to Wong (1998) in enhancing personal growth, psychological, social and emotional well-being as defined by Ryff and Keyes (1995; Keyes & Lopez, 2002; Keyes & Magyar-Moe, 2003).
The third factor refers to the reduction and transformation of negativity based on the deep-and-wide theory of the meaning-centered ABCDE intervention (Wong, in press a, 2010). The deep-and-wide theory posits that repeated encounters with obstacles will compel one to dig deeper into one’s inner resources and explore more broadly for solutions and options. I have provided some empirical support for this theory elsewhere (Wong, 1979, 1995). The third factor contributes to resilience and reduction of mental illness symptoms. Together, these three factors contribute to complete mental health as defined by Keyes and Lopez (2002).
Meaning Management Theory of Resilience & Flourishing
Meaning management refers to how we manage our inner lives, such as feelings, desires, perceptions, thoughts, and interpretation of life experiences. The quality of one’s inner life depends on how we manage the basic processes of meaning, meaning-seeking, meaning-making, and meaning-reconstruction (Wong, 2007). Thus, it is a meaning-centered self-regulation or self-determination theory.Meaning management consists of regulating two overlapping systems: the three-factor model of well-being described earlier, and the positive triad of resilience described elsewhere (Wong & Wong, in press). In addition, meaning management involves the dual-system model responsible for managing the interactions between approach and avoidance; the dual-system is involved in both the protection of well-being and the enhancement of resilience.
Meaning management consists of regulating two overlapping systems: the three-factor model of well-being described earlier, and the positive triad of resilience described elsewhere (Wong & Wong, in press). In addition, meaning management involves the dual-system model responsible for managing the interactions between approach and avoidance; the dual-system is involved in both the protection of well-being and the enhancement of resilience.In view of the above analysis, meaning should be part of any indices of global measurements of well-being and quality of life. Also, intervention programs to improve the quality of life need to incorporate meaning-enhancing exercises and activities. Finally, more research is needed to understand the meaning-management processes in living a healthy and fulfilling life.
In view of the above analysis, meaning should be part of any indices of global measurements of well-being and quality of life. Also, intervention programs to improve the quality of life need to incorporate meaning-enhancing exercises and activities. Finally, more research is needed to understand the meaning-management processes in living a healthy and fulfilling life.
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Shorter version published as Wong, P. T. P. (2014). Meaning in life. In A. C. Michalos (Ed.), Encyclopedia of quality of life and well-being research (pp. 3894-3898). New York, NY: Springer.