Paper Session: Meaning in Life (Meaning-Seeking & Meaning-Making)

Scheduled for Sunday, July 31, 4:15 PM – 5:45 PM


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Invited Talks

  1. Joel VosThe Effectiveness of Meaning Therapies: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis

Paper Presentations

  1. Gordon MedlockImplicit Spiritual and Value Orientations Relating to Personal Meaning
  2. Stephanie MedlockThe Inextricable Link Between Storytelling and Personal Meaning
  3. Lia NaorPeak Experience
  4. Lynn ThompsonLiving on Purpose, a Way of Life
  5. Jonte VowinckelThe Presence of a Meaningful Balance
  6. Elizabeth YuAsian American Values as Predictors of Life Meaning in Asian and European American College Students

Invited Talks


Joel Vos

Joel Vos, Ph.D., is Reader (cf. Associate Professor) in Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton in London, UK. He studied clinical and health psychology and philosophy at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, all focusing at existentialism. His masters’ theses addressed the existential impact of immigration on the lives of immigrants. At the same university, he continued with a PhD study on the subjective interpretation, existential processes, psychological impact, family communication and medical decision-making of cancer patients who underwent DNA-testing to examine the heredity of their disease. Subsequently, the Dutch Cancer Society awarded him a grant to develop a meaning-centered group therapy for cancer survivors at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In the meantime, Dr Vos started to develop existential psychometric instruments, and together with others he conducted a systematic review and meta-analyses on existential therapies. His academic research has always been fed by the rich contribution of his clients in his psychology practice as meaning-centered therapist, and by the inspiration of his students. In the summer of 2013, Dr Vos decided to make a meaningful decision, namely to continue his research at the other side of the North Sea and to build a new life in the UK. At the University of Roehampton he is coordinating research on existential therapies, and on meaning-centered therapies more in particular, in close collaboration with mental health services. Together with his doctorate students, he coordinates clinical trials for patients in palliative care, living with cancer, after a heart attack or stroke, and in chronic pain. His professional focus on meaning is also reflected in his work as consultant to political activist groups, such as organising conferences for activists and academics e.g. ‘How to do it: creating bottom-up political participation’ and founding ActivistWiki.net. Dr Vos has published over 40 peer-reviewed articles and chapters in handbooks, and a book on the psychological-existential impact of genetic counselling. His book ‘Meaning in life: a guide for practitioners’ will be published by the end of 2016, which will be followed in 2017 by the book ‘Surviving capitalism: ten steps to living a meaningful life in a meaningless system’.

Interested in more from Dr. Vos? Find out more here.

The Effectiveness of Meaning Therapies: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis

Many psychological therapists speak with their clients about meaning-in-life, for instance to improve their quality-of-life or address meaning-related concerns underlying psychological-stress. Until recently, there has been little systematic research on the effectiveness of these meaning-centered therapies. This may be attributed to a traditional reluctance to standardisation and to Frankl’s belief that logo-therapy is a ‘supplement rather than a substitute for psychotherapy’. This lack of research has created the scientifically unsatisfactory situation, that there are many meaning-centered practitioners and training-institutes and their practices have only received limited validation up to current academic standards. Possibly due to this lack of validation, meaning-centered practices usually play a marginal role in public mental health care and are not included in health-guidelines. Therefore, researchers have conducted effectiveness trials for pragmatic reasons. This presentation discusses a systematic literature review and meta-analyses of 70 trials(total sample N=6547) of which 26 were randomized-controlled-trials(N=1975), 22 non-randomized controlled trials (N=1800) and 22 non-randomized non-controlled pre/post-measurement studies(N=2772). Twenty-nine different meaning-related therapeutic schools can be identified, most of which are directly or indirectly based on the work of the Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl. Half of all trials focused on clients with a chronic or life-threatening physical disease, others on psychological concerns. All studies combined showed large improvements from baseline to immediate post-treatment and follow-up measurement on quality-of-life(Hedges’g=1.13, SE=.12; g=.99,SE=.20) and psychological-stress(g=1.21, SE=.10; g=.67, SE=.20), although effects varied between studies and were inflated by studies with control groups. Therefore, subsequent analyses showed large effects compared with control-groups (mostly active treatment or care-as-usual, some waiting-lists), both immediate and at follow-up on quality-of-life (g=1.02, SE=.06; g=1.06, SE=.12) and psychological-stress (g=.94, SE=.07, p<.01; g=.84,SE=.10). Immediate effects were larger on general quality-of-life(g=1.37, SE=.12) than on meaning-in-life(g=1.18, SE=.08), hope and optimism(g=.80, SE=.13), self-efficacy(g=.89, SE=.14) and social well-being(g= .81, SE=13). Meta-regression analyses showed improvements in meaning-in-life strongly predicting decreases in psychological-stress(β=-.56, p<.001). ). Larger effects were found when therapy did not include religious-spiritual formulations, were structured, included mindfulness/meditation exercises, explicitly stimulated clients setting and experimenting with achievable goals, explicitly discussed one type of meaning per session, addressed self-worth, existential limitations and the totality of time, and focused on creating a positive therapeutic relationship. In conclusion, meaning-centered therapies improve quality-of-life, reduces psychological stress, and seem cost-effective. This warrants making meaning-centered therapy more widely available. Specific recommendations will be provided for the development and testing of evidence-based meaning-centered therapy.


Paper Presentations


Gordon Medlock, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the Wright Graduate University with over 25 years of experience as an educator, psychotherapist, executive and life coach, and human capital management (HCM) consultant. He has a doctorate in philosophy from Yale University and a master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Chicago, with a research and practice focus in existential psychology. His current research focus is the study of personal meaning, authenticity, creativity, and optimizing human potential, with recent articles published in The Humanistic Psychologist, The Forum for Qualitative Research (FQS), and the Journal of Constructivist Psychology.  He is a board member of the International Network of Personal Meaning (INPM) and assistant editor of the International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy.

Implicit Spiritual and Value Orientations Relating to Personal Meaning

A life oriented toward the fulfillment of personal meaning has been defined by psychologists in terms of at least three key dimensions:  living with purpose; creating a coherent narrative about who we are and our understanding of ourselves and our world; and experiencing a sense that we matter to ourselves and to one another. These dimensions not only characterize the processes and motivations of living a personally meaningful life, but also imply more comprehensive spiritual and value orientations associated with living such a life.  This presentation attempts to clarify the implicit spiritual and value orientations associated with experiences of personal meaning.  The presentation draws on psychological traditions originating with Adler and Frankl; the findings of contemporary meaning researchers and positive psychologists (Baumeister, Gergen, Peterson, Seligman, Wong, etc.); and philosophical writings on ethics, social justice, and meaning of life (Frankfurt, Lerner, Taylor, Wolf, & others).  This presentation identifies key principles and values associated with the psychological understanding of personal meaning, including: notions of higher purpose; human dignity; consciousness; responsibility; empathy, care and compassion; relational being; transcendence; and dialogical ethics. It also helps to clarify the central role of spirituality and ethics to our understanding of personal meaning.


Stephanie Wilson Medlock, M.A., is an author and storyteller who explores the power of true, imaginatively told stories that lie at the heart of our construction of personal meaning.  Her background as a sociologist in the tradition of symbolic interactionism and recent interest in research on the narrative construction of memory have contributed to her understanding of the art of storytelling. She has been writing and telling stories all her life, beginning with book of fairy tales at the age of 10 and including a career as a journalist and freelance writer.  She worked as a course developer with the University of Chicago for over 20 years, developing the nationally known publishing programs, including certificates in editing and translation, as well as the National Museum Publishing Seminar, and a separate creative writing program known as the Writer’s Studio.

More recently she helped develop the International Storytelling Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, now in its third year, where she co-teaches a storytelling workshop to festival participants. Her recent novel, The Lives of Things, has been optioned for a film. Her stories and short memoirs have been published in publications from “Tues/Night,” and “Still Crazy,” to Celebrating Animal Rescue, and she performs her stories at a variety of venues in the greater Chicago area.

The Inextricable Link Between Storytelling and Personal Meaning

While storytelling is arguably the oldest form of oral history, it is enjoying a popular resurgence in the United States and Canada. It has emerged both as a form of entertainment and as an opportunity for individuals from all walks of life to share important aspects of their lives with others, and in some cases to re-construct the meaning of their lives.  This session will examine the emerging data about the importance of storytelling and the creation of personal meaning. It will describe the narrative structures that characterize personally transformative stories, drawing on research from the history of storytelling and the fields of constructivist psychology and interpersonal neurobiology. It will also suggest ways that psychologists, coaches, and educators can use storytelling to encourage the creation of new narratives with clients who may be stuck in an old “story” of themselves.  A concluding story performance illustrates how stories enable us to construct vivid, coherent accounts of personal meaning and inspire others to discover parallel meanings in their lives.


Lia Naor is a PhD student in the Department for Counseling and Human Development at the University of Haifa, Israel. Lia is currently working on a model for therapy in nature – the aftermath of a four-year research project involving the study of positive personal transformation, particularly at it occurs in nature. Lia holds a BA in social work and an MA in drama therapy. Lia teaches nature therapy, lectures on related topics and has a private practice, she has presented her work in several academic conferences around the world and has written several papers on the topic.

Peak Experience: When Flow Gains Meaning

This paper examines the complex nexus of relations between two grand constructs of positive psychology: Flow and Peak Experiences. In contrast to former research pointing to Flow and Peak Experience as distinct phenomena, we propose that Flow is a potential precedent to Peak Experience and personal development when personal meaning is attached to the experience. We suggest that there is more to Flow than an intrinsic, pleasurable, and absorbing activity. Seeking the meaning beyond the activity and immediate outcome of Flow may generate opportunities for understanding and developing human potential. This movement from Flow as an activity or experience, to the perspective meaning of Flow is a process of inner discovery eluding of potential for meaning and growth that may then lead to Peak Experience.


Lynn Thompson, Producer and Host of Living on Purpose Podcast

Living on Purpose, a Way of Life

There is an impression that having a “life purpose” can be both clear and elusive. My research through the abundance of these exchanges reveals the value of compassion for ourselves and others, discerning purpose in how we live each day, with our thoughts, emotions, words and actions being keys to connecting with the bigger picture. The feeling of insignificance provides perspective. We are supported and loved by our “team” both seen and unseen, as we are being prepared for what is being prepared for us.


Jonte Vowinckel, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Bonn, Germany

The Presence of a Meaningful Balance: Healthy Future, Past and Present Time Perspectives Predict Meaning in Life and Meaning in Life Mediates the Relationship Between Balanced Time Perspective and Well-Being

Two essential aspects of meaning in life (MIL) are self-transcendence and a sense of interconnectedness. Generating a sense of MIL likely relies on an individual’s ability to mentally transcend themselves beyond the here and now (i.e., into the past and future), as well as the ability to experience interconnectedness by being mentally and behaviorally engaged with the ‘non-self world’. Previous experimental research evidenced that experimentally-induced thinking about the past and the future can enhance self-reported meaning in life (Waytz, Hershfield, & Tamir, 2015). Nonetheless, an open, engaged, mindful, and flow-prone present orientation could help promote interconnectedness with the world on a mental and behavioral level. Thus, healthy orientations to the past, present, and future might all be important contributors to MIL. The current study attempted to test this hypothesis by examining the relations among time perspectives and meaning in life. Additionally, a balanced time perspective (BTP) is composed of healthy orientations to the past, present, and future. With reference to the meaning maintenance model (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006), which states that when meaning is threatened in one domain, people can reaffirm meaning in a different domain, we suggest that a BTP may foster this meaning maintenance process by enabling compensation of a threat or shortcoming of meaning in one time zone by providing the possibility of switching to alternative spaces for cultivating meaning. Both BTP and MIL are well-confirmed and robust predictors of various indicators of well-being. In the current study we also examined the pattern of relations among BTP, MIL, and well-being. We hypothesized that MIL would mediate the relationship between BTP and well-being.


Elizabeth A. Yu, Graduate Student, Clinical Science, University of Michigan

Asian American Values as Predictors of Life Meaning in Asian and European American College Students: Evidence for Cultural Differences?

Past studies have shown that the most salient and strongest sources of meaning in life are those that are related to interpersonal relationships such as community, harmony, family, friends, and love (Delle Fave et al., 2013; Schnell, 2009). Additionally, many Asian American values center on interpersonal relations (e.g., collectivism, conformity to norms), especially regarding the family (e.g., respect for family, future support for family, family recognition through achievement). Thus, Asian American values, especially those focused on maintaining and enriching relationships, may be particularly important predictors of meaning in life for Asian Americans. In the present study, we examined for ethnocultural differences in how a variety of Asian American culturally relevant values predict meaning in life in a sample of 107 Asian American and 131 European American college students. Results indicated that the set of values as a whole only predicted a significant amount of variance for meaning in life for Asian Americans. Specifically, the value of humility uniquely predicted meaning in life for Asian American college students, but not for European American college students. Findings from the present study point to the importance of cultural considerations in understanding psychological well-being, particularly perceived meaning in life.


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