OHS Canada Magazine

Need free fuel for mental energy? Find meaning

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January 16, 2023
By Bill Howatt

Human Resources Bill Howatt Mental Health

A person reaching for a gas pump. Photo: Adobe Stock

Not many free things can positively impact our mental health and outlook more than discovering meaning. A universal quest in our short time on Earth is to find meaning that defines our sense of value and worth. During my 30 years of clinical practice, I often observed clients who struggled to cope with the demands of life and stress had little meaning and purpose.

Martin Seligman reports from his applied and academic research of the “M” in his PERMA model (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments) that a person with meaning has a purpose and sense of belonging when they focus on something bigger than themselves.

He found that supporting or servicing something greater than oneself predicted a person’s ability to deal with significant life challenges and adversity. For example, a parent can be a powerful healing factor by doing whatever it takes to help a sick child.

We define what gives us meaning

Many things can give us meaning. Meaning is found when we look beyond our self-interest and choose what gives us a sense of purpose. Many micro-decisions, like becoming a parent, choosing a career, supporting social or political causes and community activities, and spiritual influences, volunteering, learning, and extra-curricular activities, provide opportunities to find meaning.

We can find meaning intentionally or accidentally. From a positive psychology perspective, naming an action and acknowledging what meaning we get can strengthen the conviction. Our values (what we believe is most important to us) often influence our meaning and what we want to move towards. Research has found that having a clearly-defined purpose that puts us on track to discovering our meaning is good for mental health and contributes to a longer life with more satisfaction and fewer health challenges and illnesses.


Tips for finding meaning

When it comes to meaning, servicing and supporting others is not work. It is an opportunity to receive the abundant positive energy that can fuel us through challenging moments.

  • Be clear on what matters most to you and your core personal values. If you are not clear on how to discover your core personal values, that is OK. It requires doing some preparation work and reflection. One option is to sit with a mental health professional trained in positive psychology to guide you toward discover and define your core personal values. You may not know how you formed them or if they are what you want.
  • Pick a cause that you think matters. One path to discovering meaning is through volunteering in an area of interest. For example, helping people in need through the Red Cross or other public agency can give you meaning. You will know it because the reward will be greater than the sacrifice of time and effort.
  • Discover a passion. Passions often lead to activities and actions that connect you to like-minded people. The rewards are great when a passion becomes a calling and provides meaning to help others learn, grow, and live a good life.
  • Associate with people you want to be like. We are often the sum of the five or 10 people we spend the most time around. If we have people in our lives who have no meaning or purpose and are unhappy, our risk of following this path is greater. If we want to find meaning and live our best life possible, being around people living the life we aspire to can provide energy and ideas to find meaning.

We thrive when we have a sense of purpose and meaning. Sadly, many wealthy and successful people are neither happy nor satisfied with their lives. One contributing factor can be feeling unfulfilled and empty because of a lack of meaning. It is essential to understand actions regarding mental fitness.

What we choose to do matters as it can charge our mental battery for navigating the ups and downs of life. Finding meaning begins with curiosity and the intention to move toward it. It is never too late.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.


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