Joel Vos

The topic of meaning has fascinated people for thousands of years, from the Old Greek philosophers to the modern cognitive laboratory experimenters. How do people make sense of their world? How do people experience meaning in life? Many answers have been provided over the years, many of which have been inspiring and helpful, but some have not been so fruitful, are limited or even damaging to people. How to separate the wheat from the chaff? Academics and practitioners have developed a plurality of valid methods to examine how individuals experience meaning and how to help people with meaning-centered concerns. In this lecture, I will propose an evidence-based approach to meaning. The term ‘evidence’ should be read in the broadest sense, with evidence coming from qualitative and quantitative empirical research, experiences from practitioners, and systematic philosophical investigations. I will present several systematic reviews on meaning, to give an overview and framework of our wide field.

Authors have looked at meaning at different interacting levels: some focus on how individuals make sense of specific life experiences (micro-meanings), others examine patterns across different life situations (meso-meanings), and others focus at overarching experiences of meaning in life (macro-meanings). At macro-level, authors have defined meaning as a package deal, combining motivation, values, understanding, situational commitment, worthiness of the self and self-regulation, and how we cope with life’s givens such as freedom and responsibility. In history, individuals have described macro-meaning in different ways, such as Aristotle’s hierarchical teleology, scepticism, modern functionalism and phenomenology. A systematic review of 107 studies shows that individuals find meaning in our era via material-hedonic, self-oriented, social, higher and existential-philosophical types of meanings. Individuals may not only have a ‘cold outside-approach’ to meaning by theoretically reflecting on meaning, but they can also experience the heat of meaning from within, which has been extensively studied in the field of positive psychology, with topics such as flow, mindfulness, peak experiences, happiness, life satisfaction and authenticity. Many empirical studies also show how individuals cope with change in specific life situations -for instance after a terrorist attack or physical disease- by negotiating the meaning of the specific situation with the larger meanings in life. Practitioners have used this expertise on meaning to help clients live a meaningful and satisfying life despite the changes and challenges of life. Over 28 different types of meaning-centered therapeutic approaches have emerged. Most fundamental clinical and aetiological assumptions of meaning-centered therapies have been empirically validated. Many meaning-centered practitioners seem to say and act relatively similar (which some call ‘competences’ or ‘skills’). Research has validated the effectiveness of most of these competences: assessment, meaning-specific, existential, relational-humanistic, experiential and phenomenological skills. Given the overlap with other therapeutic approaches, it may be argued that helping individuals to live a meaningful life is one of the most common aims and factors in effective therapies. Meaning-centered practices differ from other approaches by having an explicit, systematic focus on meaning. Meta-analyses of 60 clinical trials show that meaning-centered practices have large positive effects on the psychological well-being, quality of life and physical well-being of clients.

These reviews incidate that there is a coherent and well-validated framework of meaning and meaning-centered practices, which has been applied effectively in many different contexts. The strength of evidence may be compared with other widely spread therapies, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Therefore, we may want to be more ambitious, and develop a stronger agenda for the future: to promote meaning-centered practices to (national) health services, develop an educational agenda, support and publish meaning-centered research, and develop creative public engagement to share our expertise with those most in need of meaning-centered support. Our era of many social changes and crises seems to desperately need such a strong evidence-based meaning-centered agenda.