Well-being is an important and popular topic; indeed, I have previously written about various ways to promote well-being—purchasing experiences vs. things, nurturing character strengths, not thinking of time as money, etc.
Another way to achieve well-being is to engage in meaningful activities. In today’s post, I review an article published in the November-December 2020 issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology, in which Hooker and colleagues discuss the importance of meaningful activities for mental health and psychological well-being.
Hedonism and eudaimonia
Before discussing the study, let me quickly describe two common paths to psychological well-being: Living a happy life and living a meaningful life.
- Happy life: A pleasurable life of safety, security, and comfort.
- Meaningful life: A life of self-actualization and pursuit of worthy goals.
Happiness, joy, and satisfaction of desires, according to philosophers called hedonists, promote well-being and the good life. Hedonists believe what makes life worth living is pleasure (e.g., food, drink, sex).
In contrast, those who believe in the second concept of well-being (eudaimonia), claim the path to the good life involves satisfaction of psychological needs (especially autonomy, competence, and relatedness), unlocking and realizing one’s potential, and the pursuit of worthy goals. These philosophers claim virtuous activity (e.g., cultivating self-control, courage, generosity) and self-actualization (being the best you can be) are what make life worth living.
For this second group, much remains unanswered regarding how we can live a meaningful life. For instance, should we volunteer every day in order to feel our lives are meaningful? Or is it possible to derive meaning from routine daily activities? And how does engaging in meaningful activities affect other outcomes, like happiness and mood?
To answer these questions, let us turn to the study by Hooker et al.
Meaning and well-being: Methods and sample
Sample characteristics: 160 individuals (123 females); average age of 43 years; 74% White; 52% married; 81% employed full time; 84% with an income of at least $40,000 a year; 88% with a college degree.
Participants were randomly assigned to a self-monitoring or control group and completed daily surveys for 28 days. Those in the self-monitoring group answered questions regarding physical activity, positive mood, and meaning salience (i.e., the frequency of thinking about purpose and meaning). Those in the control group did not answer questions about their mood or meaning salience. During eight random days, everyone was also asked to recall the previous day’s activities.
A key measure was the Meaningful Activities Checklist (rating the meaningfulness of 46 common activities, like eating, sleeping, and working), which was completed at the beginning of the study and during the 24-hour activity recall. Other measures used were related to meaning in life, meaning salience, life satisfaction, purpose in life, subjective vitality, depressive symptoms, and mood.
Meaning and well-being: Results
The results showed engaging in meaningful activities was associated with greater meaning salience, positive mood, life satisfaction, purpose in life, and vitality.
Of the 46 activities assessed, the following were rated the 10 most meaningful activities (see Table 1):
- Spending time with loved ones
- Supporting family members’ or friends’ goals and interests
- Caring for children and other family members
- Helping others
- Persevered at a valued goal even in the face of obstacles
- Expressed my gratitude either verbally or in writing
- Listened carefully to another’s point of view
Numbers 1, 3, and 10 were also on the list of most frequent activities the participants had performed during the study.
The average meaningfulness of the above 10 activities ranged from 3.5 (socializing with loved ones) to 2.9 (sleep), with 0 indicating the activity was meaningless and 4 indicating it was extremely meaningful.
To compare, the meaningfulness scores of some other common activities were: Working (2.7), general socializing (2.6), eating (2.4), exercising (2.4), getting dressed or showering (1.9), watching TV or listening to the radio (1.7), and driving (1.3).
It may be difficult to explain why some of the above activities were seen as meaningful at all. For instance, why was sleep meaningful? One possibility is that sleep, being a part of the daily routine, brings with it a sense of regularity, predictability, and comfort, especially after a day filled with unpredictable stressors. However, this is just speculation.
The findings of the reviewed study agree with past research in different populations (e.g., older individuals), on the potential importance of meaningful activities for mental health.
So, to promote well-being, it might be helpful to encourage people to explore and engage in meaningful activities and incorporate them into their daily lives. These activities should be ones that express a person’s central values or promote mastery and empowerment.
In other words, if spending time with loved ones, helping others, or taking a course on a subject of interest are important to you, then set aside the time to do them. Or do them more often.
It may also be helpful to try to discover meaning in routine activities—even if these activities appear meaningless at first.
For instance, consider the act of making dinner. From one perspective, it is a repetitive chore. But from another perspective, it is a meaningful and valuable way of caring for loved ones or oneself.
Similarly, daily activities could be framed as helpful in cultivating a variety of virtues: self-control, courage, generosity, self-confidence, friendliness, gratitude, patience, self-respect, humility, honesty, open-mindedness, industry, persistence, or compassion.
With practice and a conscious attempt to link commonly performed activities to valued virtues, one’s daily activities can become enriched with meaning and significance. This way, even when we cannot engage in meaningful activities of our choosing, we still experience meaning in our lives.
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