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M is for Meaning

Today we are introducing the fourth in a five part series of blog posts from Anita Marsden – Clinical Psychologist, lover of life and member of Sunday Assembly Brighton’s organising committee.

We are continuing our blog series with meaning. In the PERMA model meaning is all about engaging with something greater than oneself. This can be different things for different people. For some it is their family, having a sense of values and traditions from generations before you and wanting to pass them down through your own family. For some it is their work, being part of a ‘good cause’ such as a charity, the NHS, a community initiative. For others it is their spirituality, perhaps their religion, or being passionate about the environment. Whatever it is for you, the PERMA model suggests we all need it in our lives to feel a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness.

The inclusion of meaning in the PERMA model, demonstrates that there are some aspects of our wellbeing that do not necessarily induce immediate positive feelings. For example, it has been shown that couples with children have, on average, lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.

I think this is called ‘playing the long game’. Investment in family and some other meaningful activities can of course require much effort and cause stress. However, they also have the potential to produce life satisfaction and happiness, but perhaps not necessarily while engaging in the meaningful activity.

I want to digress slightly and focus specifically on ‘spirituality’ in a secular sense, to help define and conceptualise one aspect of meaning a little further. In his seminal book, Flourish, Martin Seligman describes the ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’ program, “to make the U.S. Army as psychologically fit as it is physically fit”. Soldiers enrolled in four fitness modules each designed to build wellbeing, based on the PERMA model, one of which is ‘spiritual fitness’. Designed by Ken Pargament, a professor of psychology and Colonel Pat Sweeney, they describe our spiritual core as:

“The foundation of the human spirit… comprised of an individual’s most central values and beliefs concerning purpose and meaning in life, truths about the world, and vision for realising ones full potential and purpose…”

The module looks at the following aspects of our ‘spiritual core’:

  • Self-awareness is about trying to gain insight into your “identity, purpose, meaning, ability to be authentic, to create a life worth living and fulfilling your potential”. It refers to self-reflection and introspection.
  • Sense of agency refers to your ability to feel responsible for your actions, to be responsible for your own development and success, to accept your strengths and weaknesses and “to realise you are the primary author in your lives”.
  • Self-regulation is all about your ability to understand yourself, your thoughts, feelings and behaviour and to develop some control over them.
  • Self-motivation is your internal force that drives you to do something; our intrinsic motivation.
  • Social awareness refers to our understanding of how others play an important part in our lives and “in the development of meaning or the human spirit”. It’s about the understanding that although others may have different values and beliefs to ourselves we can be open to their views without being untrue to our own. Even sharing and learning from each other in a mutually respectful way.

I’d like you to re-read each of these descriptions now and to think about how you display or develop each of them in your own lives. For example, you might find you regularly develop self-regulation through a meditation practice, or even going to therapy (it’s very CBT). And perhaps pick one that you think might be good to work on and decide how you might go about doing this.

In addition, your specific meaningful exercise for this week is to think about yourself as an 80 year old looking back on your life. I’d like you to write your own obituary or eulogy. What would you like to say about yourself? What would you like other people to say about you? What has your life meant to others and the world? It doesn’t have to be long, but spend about 10-15 minutes making some notes highlighting your values and purpose in particular. What’s in your future history?

Happy reminiscing, kind of!