THE BLOG
08/06/2012 10:06 am ET | Updated Oct 06, 2012

The Study of 'Meaning' in Contemporary Academia

Last month I joined over 300 others for four days in Toronto at a conference called "A Positive Global Vision of Healing and Flourishing through Meaning."

The "meaning conference" is organized by the International Network on Personal Meaning and has been scheduled every two years since 2000; thus this was the "Seventh Biennial Meaning Conference." Among past conference themes were "Freedom, Responsibility and Justice," and "Living Well And Dying Well: New Frontiers Of Positive Psychology, Therapy And Spiritual Care."

Despite the fact that this event was as infected by the PowerPoint virus as any other academic conference these days, the content was quite intriguing and invigorating.

"Meaning" had been expunged from mainstream scholarship for some time. Those attempts -- to take it out of research -- have been, in fact, counter-productive: meaning is very much at the center of the human experience. Meaning is important to us: most people (all people?) attempt to make sense of their lives. The many attempts to understand human behavior that don't take our capacity to make meaning into account are constantly rejected in practice by the way people actually live and thrive.

In the Conference sponsors' own words:

"The impact of meaning on health and human behavior is pervasive -- ranging from happiness, health, stress resistance, addiction recovery, to death acceptance. Yet, research in these areas has been very limited; the potential for growth is tremendous.

"Locus of control, optimism and personal meaning constitute the triad of positive psychology. The first two areas have already received a great deal of research attention. The third area is beginning to emerge as a major research area.

"This is high time for researchers interested in the transforming power of personal meaning to network with each other and spur each other on in developing this new research enterprise."

You are exhorted, "[i]f you share this vision," to "register in Directory of Meaning Researchers... Let's catch the wave together and see where it leads us."

If you read carefully thus far, you've noted a couple of references to "positive psychology," probably the hottest area of psychology just now and certainly a controversial one. The meaning conferees and researchers, for the most part, recognize as intellectual predecessors the existential psychologists and logotherapists (a field grown from the work of Victor Frankl, best known for Man's Search for Meaning). But, as pointed out by many presenters, the makers-of-meaning-making narratives are imbued with a philosophical as well as psychological tradition, tracing their roots back millennia, mentioning with great respect the elders, most prominently Aristotle.

The constructs of meaning making (or "what makes life worth living," put another way) surmise that:

  • Research (as well as anecdotal observation) shows that people who see their lives as meaningful, and are able to live in a way they find meaningful, have better outcomes for health and happiness
  • Meaning is harder to come by in the modern (and post-modern) age
  • There are still ways, despite the travail, to find meaning, though there is intense debate in this realm: Is meaning discovered, constructed or something in-between? Does everything have meaning or are some things in life essentially meaningless?
  • There is no more noble pursuit than using the (social) science of psychology, therapeutically and academically, to help people and nations achieve meaningful existences.

Dr. Paul P. T. Wong, the guiding force behind all of the meaning conferences, states the conceptual framework cogently in the Introduction to his edited book, The Human Quest For Meaning:

"After hundreds of years in the wilderness of philosophical and religious discourse, the concept of personal meaning has emerged as a serious candidate for scientific research and clinical applications. The diversity of paradigms, the range of conceptual models, and the wealth of implications for practice, as evidenced in this volume, attest to an amazing surge of interest in meaning seeking. There is now a critical mass of empirical evidence and a convergence of expert opinions that personal meaning is important not only for survival but also for health and well-being."

I think it would be fair to say that there is both a respectful camaraderie and an uneasy detente among the varied toilers in this field. The remarkable diversity of approaches to studying meaning also leads to a remarkable unevenness of the efforts. They range from the highly academic (such as quantitative studies on the effects of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation) through serious essays on the meaning of life and death; from metaphysical and/or maudlin journeys in spirituality (a newly-emerged, prominent meme of meaning: even a well-known atheist positive psychologist admitted he now considered the spiritual realm) to collections of both consequential and (sorry) inconsequential poems. A lot of emphasis is given to the experiences of "ordinary people" finding meaning in their lives and showing how important it is and how much things improve with constructed (discovered?) meaning.

My personal goal in attending was to comprehend a context for Saybrook University in this brave new world of meaning/positive psychology. Though our College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies is the singular site for the study of "humanistic/existential psychology," we have few connecting points to the positive psychology movement. There are reasons for this -- ones that will be the subject for a future piece.

For me, those days in Toronto were well spent; a greater emphasis on studying meaning is a net positive, whatever humanistic psychology's reservations about positive psychology. My time since had been taken up with ruminating on what I learned, both from the perspective of my own meaning making and for market research for the University.

It's all good, save for the overload of PowerPoint slides. I'm drowning here!

Mark Schulman, PhD, currently serves as president of Saybrook University, a premier graduate institution for humanistic studies in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, leadership, and human science. He is the former president of Goddard College (Vermont), and president and professor of humanities at Antioch University Southern California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He has published extensively on progressive and emancipatory education, distance learning, technology and culture.