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M is for Meaning

Last term, as part of our introductory series on Martin Seligman’s well-being model often referred to by the mnemonic- PERMA, we discussed Relationships, Positive Emotions, and in the last Messenger, we focused on the role of Engagement (Flow). Together we looked at ways to cultivate moments where we are fully immersed in what we’re doing and how we can use our strengths to maximise our opportunity to experience this much sought after state. We also looked at the importance of practicing present moment skills in the context of Flow. In this, the 4th article of the series, we take another step around the PERMA wheel to focus on Meaning.

Meaning and what a meaningful life entails is different for everyone; however when people are asked to describe what gives their lives meaning, there are two themes that often emerge: having a purpose (i.e. a sense of direction) and having a sense of community (i.e. giving to others). For some of us our purpose is linked to our family, our partner, or other relationships. For others it may be a hobby or interest, a cause, or, for those fortunate enough, the work that we do. A purpose, or mission if you like, can serve as a framework from which we set goals for ourselves and take action. It can also serve as a compass, guiding our decision making and providing a sense of direction when life’s challenges present.

Having a sense of meaning and a sense that we are a part of or are contributing to something that is greater than ourselves is associated with increased positive emotions, hope, life satisfaction, confidence, and resilience. It also builds relationships, is a protective factor against health problems, depression and anxiety, and has a positive impact on others. Volunteering, an activity that often provides meaning and directly gives to others, has been linked with increased life satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, physical health, and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

The following are offered as activities that you or other members of your family may choose to undertake as part of exploring Meaning- the 4th factor of well-being.   

Hints and Tips:

Read through the following list of values and select the 5 that are most important to you. Allow these values to guide your next decision or action.


  • Birthday party speech. Picture yourself at your birthday party 10 years from now. Your best friend is giving a speech and they are describing the sort of person you are. Consider what you would like your friend to say about you. What is it that you’d want them to talk about? Which strengths or values would you like them to highlight? Whatever you’d like them to say, seek opportunities to put those things into action in a big or small way.
  • Choose one of the following ways to help someone that aligns with your values (or choose your own), commit to doing one of them tomorrow, savour any positive emotions experienced whilst you’re carrying out the good deed and any gratitude you receive: 
  • Give someone a compliment 
  • Recommend a good book, movie, podcast, or show that you’ve enjoyed 
  • Take the time to really listen to someone 
  • Give someone a hug 
  • Make someone a cup of tea or coffee 
  • Do a chore for a family member 
  • Leave a nice note for a friend or family member 
  • Make breakfast in bed for a spouse or family member 
  • Call a relative for a chat 
  • Make a donation to charity 
  • Contact someone who might be lonely 
  • Call a friend and ask them how they’re doing. Lend a listening ear. 
  • Donate clean and working unused goods to a local charity or op-shop 
  • Wave to people as you walk down the street. 
  • Send someone a card and tell them the reasons you’re grateful for them 
  • Ask your family about considering regular financial donations or sponsorship 
  • Cook someone a special meal.
  • Listen to the Music for Wellbeing: Meaning playlist (see details in the Further Reading/Listening section).
  • Over the next week, take photos of things that make your life feel meaningful or full of purpose. If you can’t take photos of these things because they’re not nearby, you could take screenshots from the internet. See if you can have ten photos by the end of the week. At the end of the week, take time to look at and reflect on each one. Take each photo as a reminder of what’s important to you and let it guide your choices. For each photo, write down a response to the following questions:
  • Get involved in a cause or an organisation that’s consistent with your values. 
  • Review your strengths through the VIA character strengths survey and seek out opportunities which enable you to implement them. 
    • “What does this photo represent?”
    • “Why is this important and meaningful to me?”

Wishing you all the best in your on-going pursuit of well-being for yourself and those you care for. 

Further Reading/Listening

Institute of Positive Education

Music for Wellbeing: Meaning available through the ABC Listen App presented by Greta Bradman

Seligman, M.E.P (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York City, NY: Atria Books

University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness resources
Wellbeing and Resilience Centre (Western Australia)

HENRY BELL
Educational and Developmental Psychologist