And just what does *that* mean?

Meaning making - living into the questionAs I sit in my new office, in front of my relocated computer, trying to restore and impose order on my chaotic workspace, I find that I’m reading a lot of blogs and webpages about meaning. So, as a distraction from the bits of paper scattered around me, here are some of my thoughts about meaning.

One blog that I read recently talked about how “meaning” is one of the three (or four) pillars of happiness / well-being.  In his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman discusses meaning only briefly. In my MAPP courses this past year, meaning was presented as a case study told to us by a woman who left a high-paying, high-powered job without a safety net, in order to seek more meaning in her life and profession. In Seligman’s new book, meaning & purpose is one of his new four pillars (the others: positive emotions, including flow, positive relationships and positive accomplishment / achievement). Generally, there seems to be a lack of scientific psychological research around “meaning”. Certainly, it’s easy to understand that the concept is difficult to examine in a sterile lab environment. Thought: perhaps new research methods are needed, like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s experience sampling method?

There are differences in work paths – you will often see career coaching sites asking if you have a “job”, a “career” or a “calling” – the notion being that a “calling” is infused with meaning and you would do it for free. It’s not really work in the negative sense of the word: it is fulfilling from a basic needs level up to a spiritual meaningful level, and enJOYable.

People who say they have great “meaning” in their life may not be “happy” in the hedonic, present-oriented sense, but they do have deep engagement and life satisfaction. Yet they may have very low positive affect, which means that they don’t show positive emotions readily or extensively.

So really, when I read a recent blog indicating that the author had tried to make a life shift from seeking happiness to seeking meaning, I shouldn’t have been surprised to also read that this experiment was not working for him. He was trying to seek meaning, but wasn’t feeling any happier.

All of this “meaning” reading has made me wonder: what about the distinction between “meaning-seeking” and “meaning-making“?

In my coach training, we were taught that one of the foundational truths of human beings is that they are “meaning-making”. They are also creative and whole. But in being meaning-making, we go a step beyond meaning-seeking.

Being meaning-seeking implies that the meaning is “out there” somewhere, and we have to go find it. This is akin to the phrase “pursuit of happiness” – happiness lies out there somewhere, and we are entitled to pursue it. (Note that the phrase is not the “realization of happiness”, implying that happiness is a never-ending journey, but that’s another theme for another blog sometime…) We may forever seek meaning, not knowing if it exists or not. This, I suspect, is when individuals like that blog-writer become existentially depressed.

However, if you are “meaning-making”, then your mindset is radically different – more possible, more positive, more creative.

Another blog that I read today (yes, I read a lot of blogs!) encouraged readers to look at their hands – the idea being that whatever they were seeking (keys, love, time, etc) is really quite near. With that in mind, I invite you to try the following exercise:

  • Pick up an item at random. Hold it in your hand. It can be any item that you find around you.
  • Now, think of a question that has been bothering you. Something that’s been on your mind recently. Something that gets at your heart.
  • What if the item you just picked up held the answer to your question? What about that item sheds light on your question? What are the functions of that item? What does that mean for your question? How does that item feel in your hand? How does that item make you feel? Is it a future-oriented item or more oriented towards the past? Is it full of colour or more monochromatic? Is it a solitary item or part of a set? Who would you share that item with? Or would it be more private? What else occurs to you about your item?
  • And as you answer all of those questions about your item, what does that mean for your original question? What links arise for you?

I’m not pretending that this exercise will give you THE answer to your burning question, but it is an exercise in meaning-making. You have made meaning where none existed. And I’m willing to bet that you now have new insights that you didn’t have before.

Meaning-seeking is like waiting for someone else to pick up that object and tell you what it means for your question. You could wait a long time for that.

So happy meaning-making – and I’d love to hear what meaning you make of this post. Thank you.

Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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