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Photo by Allie Smith

Demystifying Meaning And Finding Your Musts

October 13, 2015
By Jodie Richardson, PhD, Psychologist 




These are some of the things clients vocalize when they start therapy. I would argue that these are things that most people want, not just those who come to therapy. People inherently want to feel good about themselves and people need some way to measure their “goodness” as a person. So how does one go about doing this?

For the most part, in our society, we are sold on the idea from marketers, and yes even schools and parents, that we will feel good about ourselves when we succeed and when we have the things we want. This is true to some extent; it can bring happiness to have things we want and success can increase our self-worth. So why then are so many people still seeking, comparing, and competing even after they’ve had success or acquired things?

Because happiness and success are good, but not enough. My colleague Lisa recently sent me an article from The Atlantic entitled, There’s more to life than being happy by Emily Esfahani Smith. In a nutshell the article points out that happiness is a temporary feeling that is associated with getting what we want (e.g., a new car, a promotion) whereas meaning is an enduring state that is associated with being who we want (e.g., helping someone, hashing something out with our spouse). Overall the message is that happiness is not enduring and keeps us on a “hedonic treadmill” of needing to have more and more; there’s more to life than being happy and that more is meaning.

But many of us are confused about what will give our life meaning… many of us are searching for meaning through success, performance and achievement and maybe this is why we remain unsatisfied? Roy Baumeister (2002), social psychologist and professor at Florida State University, says that in modern western society people have difficulty finding meaning because of a lack of “consensually recognized values”, which he calls the “value gap” (p. 612). In his opinion, the rising emphasis on bettering the self in modern society can be viewed as a response to the value gap.

“Modern culture has elevated the self to the status of serving as a basic value”. Roy F. Baumeister

It seems that people are no longer developing a values system for themselves, but striving to be valuable when they achieve X, Y or Z. The problem with this “bettering the self” pursuit of meaning is that it is temporary and there are secondary negative consequences: 1) it’s hard to keep up with all the things we should be doing to better ourselves, which can cause a lot of stress, anxiety and overwhelm, and 2) it causes comparison and competition, which is not good for our social connections. So, once again we find ourselves on a treadmill, this time needing to do more and more…

So, do we give up on happiness and success? No, but maybe we need more?

Like the dessert or the cherry on top, happiness and success initially make us feel good, but this is temporary and it cannot sustain us. We cannot live on dessert; we need our fruits and vegetables to be strong and healthy. So what are the fruits and vegetables for our psychological well-being? I guess this thing Baumeister and others call meaning… but what does that really mean?

I didn’t really get this concept of meaning until recently and it is something that I continue to struggle with even after “getting it”. Growing up I was focused on how I should present myself to look good and what I should do to be liked. Looking back I realize that even while studying psychology, which delves into the inner workings of the human experience, I still didn’t “get it” because I was so focused outside of myself on what I should be learning and how I should be applying it to my clients and my research. But something subtle, yet important, changed for me over the years, so in a “putting myself out there” attempt to demystify this concept of meaning I’ll talk about two important “aha” moments in my life…

One was a class I took with a professor at McGill University named Richard Koestner in Human Motivation. The class was fascinating and I never minded getting up to be there for 8:30am, which at that time in my life was usually a drag. His teachings and research were fascinating to me; he taught us that human beings are more motivated by internal reasons like interest, pleasure and personal values than external reasons like social pressure or “shoulds”; he taught us how to set personal goals and how to create plans to achieve them without sapping our willpower resources. But honestly it was not so much the content of the class that inspired me but the teacher himself. Professor Koestner was honest, open, humble and kind and he did not take himself too seriously. He taught us through sharing personal examples from his life, through telling us about his goals, his failures, his successes, and his struggles with his personal values. And through his stories I could tell that he cared about his family, that he cared about this course, that he cared about his research and that he cared about his students, and that he cared about being active and learning… and I could feel that he was deeply connected to what he cared about, that it really mattered to him, and I felt connected to that through him… and that feeling, I think, was me feeling his sense of meaning.

“How do I let people feel my heart through what I put into the world and in some way feel their own hearts through that too?” Jonathan Fields, Good Life Project

I don’t think I caught on then, unfortunately meeting someone who is living a meaningful life isn’t a guarantee that you’ll “get it” yourself (I wish it could be more contagious) but I was inspired by Richard Koestner… I just thought that he was a special person, a one-of-a-kind good person.

I didn’t realize that we can all feel like good, meaningful people until another “aha” moment I had when I went to a conference on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (run by trainer, researcher and clinician Benjamin Schoendorff). At this conference what was surprising was that the focus was not so much on what we could do to help our clients but what we could do to help ourselves to be better people (and maybe thereby be better therapists). They asked us to observe our inner experiences (feelings, thoughts) and our outer experiences (actions) to see what was guiding our life and whether we were moving toward what is important to us or away from what is important to us. In ACT they use a really helpful matrix that looks like this: 

We were asked to fill out our personal matrix, on the one side naming those uncomfortable mental experiences that we don’t want to think or feel like:

“I’m not enough.”

“Someone thinks I’m bad.”

“I’m doing the wrong thing.”

And, on the other side, were we were asked to name our values or what is important to us, like…. hmmm… what are my values I thought?

And it took a while for me to come up with a list and that list has since been modified several times. But what I realized in that moment, big “aha”, was that most of my life was not based primarily on my personal values but on my fears; staying safe, trying to be perfect, trying not to be judged, trying not to ruffle feathers, and in doing that I wasn’t able to actually pursue some of the things that are important to me… and I think that many of you can probably relate to this?

So I thought about Richard Koestner and what I wanted to embody as a person and I thought about a few other people that I admired and I thought, well, I can choose to stay safe or I can choose to live a meaningful life, and living a meaningful life means pursuing things that are important even though discomfort and fear may, or more likely, will, come up as a consequence. For example, one of my values is learning and another is sharing knowledge but if I learn something new that seems really cool and want to share it with you, you may not agree with me, you make think I’m silly or you may think I have no business telling you anything at all, and thus to share something with you will leave me open to judgment. If I am guided by my fears I will probably think “she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say anyways” or “he’ll just think I’m stupid” and shut my mouth, but then I may miss out on a wonderful sharing and learning experience in which I get to connect with you. Another one of my values is fun but if I hear some music I like and want to dance, you may think I look silly or you may think I’m showing off or you may think I have no business dancing at all because I’m terrible, so dancing will leave me open to judgment. If, as I once was in the past, I am guided by my fears I will sit this one out saying “I don’t dance” but then I will miss out on a lot of fun!

Recently I was listening to an episode of Good Life Project, in which Elizabeth Gilbert, well-known author of “Eat Pray Love” and “Big Magic”, described how she talks to her fears when they come up and I thought it embodied very eloquently this ACT idea of doing something important to you, even though discomfort and fear are present (notice how she dialogues with her fear rather than fighting against it or giving in to it):

“Anything that I fight fights me back harder… that’s when my fear doubles down is when I try to attack it and so I’ve realized that the point for me is not to… I’m terrified all the time, but I walk next to my fear hand in hand, I’ve befriended it, and the first way that I befriended it was by recognizing what a magnificent force it is and how much I owed to it, I mean all of us who are alive as adults, we are alive because at some point in our life fear saved your life. There was some point in your life when fear said ‘the river current is way too strong today we’re not going kayaking’, ‘get out of that boat’, ‘don’t get in the car with that guy… it’s not safe’… so whenever I feel my fear arise instead of hating on it and being afraid of it the very first thing I say to it is ‘may I take this moment to thank you for everything that you have ever done for me’… then I say ‘but in this moment I need to let you know… I don’t really need your services right now because all I’m trying to do is write a poem, no one is going to die. So thank you so much I know you’re just trying to be my really super over-vigilant body guard but it’s ok… I am going to do it anyways because I need to do it.’”

Another good illustration (I thought) of pursuing meaning was this video about The Crossroads of Should and Must, sent to me by a client recently. 

At first the word must rubbed me the wrong way but then I realized that must is actually a pretty good word to describe meaning because she’s not talking about wants (which are more related to happiness) and she’s not talking about shoulds (which are more related to achievement), she’s talking about something deeper and more personal that someone feels they must do to feel good, fulfilled and satisfied.

So what I’ve learnt from all of this is that there is more to life than being happy and being successful and that more is meaning. And I don’t profess to be an expert on meaning (for that see Baumeister) or to be an expert on living a meaningful life, it’s hard and I struggle with it every day (and on some days forget to think about it at all). But, the freeing thing for me was realizing that there is something I can live by that allows me to get off that treadmill of needing to have more and more and needing to do more and more… and that is my personal values, or what is important to me. And, best of all, I don’t have to wait for it, it’s not something in the future, it’s something I can do today, right now to feel good. It’s not about being better, it’s about being who I want to be… and that brings a sense of stability and relief. Baumeister (2002) describes meaning as “one of humanity’s tools for imposing stability on life” (p.609) and that is how it feels. You can feel like a good person in a relatively stable way if you figure out what is important to you and are present in your life in the way that you want to be present in your life on a daily basis… and that is empowering.

So, what are your musts? When I was asked to identify in the ACT conference what is important to me I will admit it took a long time and felt like a foreign experience. But, wow, it was life changing. I realized what my personal values are and that has led to this blog post, this website and a whole new psychology venture for me. For now, I would like you to try to do this same exercise I have done (and is still under revision) so that you may benefit as much as I have. The best way to learn what is important to you is to think about the people who are living the way that you want to live. So, take a moment to think about your Richard Koestner, think about what he/she embodies that is important to you and put that on paper. Now, over the next week notice how often you are moving towards those values through your actions and revise your list as needed.

Some of the things most important to me are learning, sharing knowledge with others, connecting with people, hard work, empathy, honesty and authenticity. So what I decided to do was start a group with a few colleagues that I felt really embodied values and good living, people that I admire because they are humble, kind, honest, bright and have soooo much important stuff to share with me and you. We decided that we would use this blog to bring psychology and all that is cool about it, from cognitive behavior therapy to mindfulness to game psychology to neuropsychology and more… to help you understand some of the stuff that has helped us and our clients. Within each blog post we will highlight some important references so you can see the science behind what we are putting out there and we will also leave you with a little “to do” to put some of these important principles into action. So I hope you appreciate the good people and the good writings that we’re trying to bring to you. Check out “Our Picks” to see what other people are putting out there that we think is awesome and…  enjoy following.

“The meaningful life has purposes that guide actions from present and past into the future, lending it direction. It has values that enable us to judge what is good and bad; and, in particular, that allow us to justify our actions and strivings as good. It is marked by efficacy, in which our actions make a positive contribution towards realizing our goals and values. And it provides a basis for regarding ourselves in a positive light, as good and worthy people”.  Roy F. Baumeister, The Meanings of Life



Baumeister, R.F. (2013). The Meanings of Life, aeon.

Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In Handbook of positive psychology, (pp. 608-618). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., Aaker, J.L., and Garbinsky, E.N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 505-516.

Esfahani Smith, E. (2013). There’s More to Life Than Being HappyThe Atlantic.

Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

The Crossroads of Should and Must with Elle Luna.

Eizabeth Gilbert: The Creative Life, on Good Life Project.