Veronika Huta, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa. She has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from McGill University. She and her students conduct research on different ways in which people seek fulfillment in life, including eudaimonic pursuits (authenticity, meaning, excellence, growth) and hedonic pursuits (pleasure, enjoyment, comfort, absence of pain), and how these relate to well-being, health behaviors, prosocial and pro-environmental behavior, parenting predictors, abstract thinking, and time perspective. She also studies well-being experiences beyond Subjective Well-Being, most notably the feeling of meaning, as well as self-connectedness, and elevating experiences (awe, moral elevation, inspiration, and transcendence). She teaches courses in positive psychology and graduate statistics. She is a past president of the Royal Canadian Institute, a co-founder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, and has previously co-organized a conference on eudaimonia for both philosophers and psychologists.
Dr. Huta will be presenting two invited lectures on How is Meaning Different than Subjective Well-Being? and What is Meaning?
What is meaning? An examination of questions that can be asked about meaning, and a quest into its mystery
I am going to do something different from the usual in this talk. I normally stick to data. Here I will take the opportunity to grapple conceptually with meaning. I will stumble and fall short, but that it is inevitable with such a profound topic.
The term meaning applies on so many levels that it is near impossible to make a comprehensive list. In this talk, I am going to grapple with analyzing some of the questions that can be asked about meaning, attempting to get at what we imply by these questions. I will then try to extract some themes that the questions have in common, in an effort to better understand the core aspects of meaning. I may reinvent insights that others have had, or I may stumble onto slightly different perspectives. In some ways the discussion will be frustratingly vague because it is so broad and abstract. But I will try to at least catch this gossamer discussion on a few small hooks, and if they’re well placed, they can help us read between the lines and develop a deeper feel for this issue.
Here are some of the questions we can ask. Does the universe have meaning? Does human life have meaning? Why did humans evolve the capacity to construct meaning? What does it take to find meaning in life? What makes a life or a specific activity more meaningful? When a person feels that their experiences and activities are meaningful, what kinds of impressions are they having? When we give the meaning of a word, what are we doing?
For certain questions, I will share some of my research findings or theoretical arguments. But the focus will not be on debating the answers, the focus will be on clarifying the question itself: What is meaning?
I find it ironic that meaning is one of the slipperiest things to pin down, and yet we all seem to grasp it intuitively, implicitly. There’s also a profound clue in that. Meaning seems to be present strongly in the very realm that our consciousness operates, the realm of concepts. So perhaps that is one piece of the puzzle: perhaps there are two sides to everything, like two faces of the same coin. On the one hand, things simply exist, the world and events and human experiences are made up of concrete “bits.” On the other hand is the face of meaning, which gives each thing its role, its relationship to the others, and its purpose; meaning reveals that things matter; it may be the very force that keeps all the bits together, and lends them the care to go forward.
But meaning is more, isn’t it? Always more than we can entirely grasp. It is also like a resonance whereby the concrete world acquires a second dimension, or moves from black-and-white to full colour. How naturally the question of meaning leads to poetry, philosophy, and spirituality.
- Give at least two ways in which we can use the term “meaning” in a question
- Identify at least one theme that seems common across different meanings of “meaning”
- Describe how the human capacity for meaning may relate to a lack of pre-programmed instincts, as hypothesized by Huta
How is meaning distinct from subjective well-being? Data on two key categories of well-being
Most measures of meaning in life assess it either as a way of behaving (e.g., I have purpose, I have a framework for interpreting events, I care about the broader context, I believe the world is orderly and comprehensible), or as a blend of behaving and feeling (e.g., My life is meaningful). I have developed a measure of meaning specifically as a feeling (Huta & Ryan, 2010). This scale makes a number of contributions: it allows meaning to be studied in the same terms as other well-being experiences, including the three elements of Subjective Well-Being (SWB) – positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction; and it attempts to define what is meant by the feeling of meaning, by assessing three related concepts – a sense that one personally resonates with one’s activities and experiences (e.g., “full of significance,” “making a lot of sense to me”), a feeling that these activities and experiences have personal value (e.g., “dear to me,” “precious”), and a sense that one’s activities and experiences have broad implications for various aspects of oneself and the surrounding world (e.g., “playing an important role in some broader picture,” “they contribute to various aspects of myself”).
With this scale, I have been collecting data on how meaning experience relates to and differs from SWB. Here are some key observations (each a summary of between 1 and 8 studies). Meaning correlates around .5 with positive affect and life satisfaction, and around -.3 with negative affect, which I take as evidence that it clearly falls within the broader category of well-being experiences. However, meaning is highly distinct from SWB in a number of ways. Across 8 studies, factor analyses of various well-being scales have consistently shown a two-factor solution, where one factor consisted of meaning, self-connectedness, and elevation (awe, moral elevation, inspiration, transcendence), and the other factor consisted of life satisfaction, self-esteem, and low negative affect (interestingly, positive affect loaded equally on both factors). This indicates that meaning has a somewhat different “flavour” from SWB – it is less about positivity, pleasantness, and satisfaction, and more about connectedness, richness, depth, and value. Meaning, self-connectedness, and elevation are precisely the three outcomes that have related significantly more to a life of eudaimonia (authenticity, excellence and virtue, and personal growth) than a life of hedonia (seeking pleasure and comfort), and they might therefore be classified as “eudaimonia-related well-being.” In fact, I consider meaning to be the cornerstone of eudaimonia-related well-being, and believe that assessments of well-being should routinely include a Big Four: positive affect, negative affect, life satisfaction, and meaning.
Throughout my research, I have also been tracking the variables that are substantially more (or less) related to meaning than to all three elements of SWB. Compared to SWB, meaning has related: more to eudaimonia (but not hedonia), interdependent self-construal (but not independent self-construal), the character strength of honesty (while the strength of playfulness relates more to SWB), and having demanding parents (but not having responsive parents); more negatively to avoidant coping (but similarly to active coping); and much less negatively to major depression. Thus, the experience of meaning may arise from striving to be a good person, caring about others, having integrity, being responsible, and not avoiding life’s challenges – in a word, living a life of quality. My research also suggests, like others have, that people can hold on to meaning even in the face of suffering. When pleasant feelings are hard to come by, I expect that meaning becomes our best beacon for moving forward.
- Identify whether meaning is being discussed as a way of living, or as an outcome feeling/experience
- When discussing meaning as an experience, be able to cite three specific aspects of the concept, as identified by Huta, rather than simply asking “Does this feel meaningful?”
- Give at least one characteristic of the cluster of well-being experiences that meaning is a part of, and at least one characteristic of the cluster of experiences related to Subjective Well-Being
- Cite at least two variables that relate significantly more (or less) to meaning than to Subjective Well-Being