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Well-being is an important and popular topic; indeed, I have already written about various ways of promoting well-being: buying experiences for objects, developing strengths of character, not seeing time as money, etc.
Another way to achieve wellness 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 pathways to psychological well-being: Experiencing a a happy life and live a a life with meaning.
- A happy life: A pleasant life of safety, security and comfort.
- A life with meaning: A life of personal growth and the pursuit of worthy goals.
Happiness, joy and the satisfaction of desires, according to philosophers called hedonists, promote well-being and the sweetness of life. Hedonists believe that what makes life worth living is pleasure (eg, food, drink, sex).
On the other hand, those who believe in the second concept of well-being (eudaimonia), claim that the path to a good life involves the satisfaction of psychological needs (especially autonomy, competence and kinship), liberation and achievement of its potential and the pursuit of worthy goals. These philosophers claim that virtuous activity (e.g. cultivating self-control, courage, generosity) and self-actualization (being the best you can be) are what makes life worth living.
For this second group, much remains unanswered about how we can live meaningful lives. For example, should we volunteer every day to feel that our life has meaning? Or is it possible to make sense of the routine daily activities? And how does participating in meaningful activities affect other outcomes, like happiness and mood?
To answer these questions, let us return to the study by Hooker et al.
Meaning and well-being: methods and sample
Characteristics of the sample: 160 individuals (123 women); average age of 43; 74 percent white; 52 percent married; 81 percent employed full time; 84% with an income of at least $ 40,000 per year; 88 percent with a college degree.
Participants were randomly assigned to a self-monitoring or control group and completed daily surveys for 28 days. People in the self-monitoring group answered questions about physical activity, positive mood, and salience meaning (i.e. frequency of reflection on purpose and meaning). People in the control group did not answer questions about their mood or importance. During eight random days, everyone was also invited to recall the activities of the day before.
A key measure was the Significant Activities Checklist (assessing the meaning of 46 common activities, such as eating, sleeping, and working), which was completed at the start of the study and during the 24-hour activity recall. Other measures used were related to meaning of life, salience, life satisfaction, life purpose, subjective vitality, depressive symptoms, and mood.
Meaning and well-being: results
Results showed that participation in meaningful activities was associated with increased meaning, positive mood, life satisfaction, life purpose, and vitality.
Of the 46 activities assessed, the following were ranked among the 10 most significant activities (see Table 1):
- Spend time with loved ones
- Support the goals and interests of family members or friends
- Caring for children and other family members
- Help others
- Education / learning / school
- Persevere in a valued goal even in the face of obstacles
- Expressed my gratitude orally or in writing
- Listened intently to another’s point of view
The numbers 1, 3 and 10 were also on the list of the most frequent activities that participants performed during the study.
The mean significance of the 10 activities above ranged from 3.5 (socializing with loved ones) to 2.9 (sleep), with 0 indicating that the activity was meaningless and 4 indicating that it was extremely significant.
For comparison, the significance scores for some other common activities were: working (2.7), socializing in general (2.6), eating (2.4), exercising (2.4), exercising (2.4), dressing or taking a shower (1.9), watching television or listening to the radio (1.7) and driving (1.3).
It can be difficult to explain why some of the above activities were considered significant. For example, why did sleep make sense? One possibility is that sleep, being part of the daily routine, brings a sense of regularity, predictability, and comfort, especially after a day filled with unpredictable stressors. However, this is only speculation.
Source: Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Hooker et al., 2020)
To take with
The results of the reviewed study are consistent with previous research in different populations (eg, the elderly), on the potential importance of meaningful mental health activities.
Thus, to promote well-being, it can be helpful to encourage people to explore and engage in meaningful activities and to integrate them into their daily lives. These activities should be those which express a person’s core values or promote mastery and empowerment.
In other words, if spending time with loved ones, helping others, or taking a class on a topic that interests you is important to you, then set aside time to do it. Or do them more often.
It may also be helpful to try to to discover meaning in routine activities, even if these activities seem meaningless at first.
For example, consider the act of preparing dinner. From a certain point of view, it’s a repetitive chore. But from another point of view, it is a meaningful and valuable way to take care of loved ones or oneself.
Likewise, daily activities could be presented as useful for cultivating a variety of virtues: self-control, courage, generosity, self-confidence, kindness, gratitude, patience, self-respect, humility, honesty, open-mindedness, industry. , perseverance, or compassion.
With practice and a conscious attempt to relate day-to-day activities to valued virtues, daily activities can be enriched with meaning and significance. This way, even when we cannot engage in meaningful activities of our own choosing, we still feel meaning in our lives.
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