“What is the meaning of life?” Philosophers, religious leaders, scientists and even businessmen and construction workers have sought answers to this question. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.” This may be service to a religion, a cause, a family, or organization. Today we’ll focus on two common sources of meaning: one’s religion and career.
Why is it that religion has so often been an integral part of thriving civilizations? What purpose do they serve in the community? Does it really make people happy? Let’s look at the research.
There’s a term in psychology called subjective well-being, or SWB. SWB has three gears: the frequency of one’s happiness, the intensity of happiness, and meaning. In 1991, The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) surveyed 1,473 Christian respondents on the strength of their religious affiliation and other life components. The analysis revealed that religious affiliation was strongly associated with SWB (Reed, 1991).
Another study measured the relationship between religiosity and SWB in 101 college students and came to a similar conclusion. However, when meaning was factored out of SWB, there was no longer a significant correlation. So religion doesn’t make people happy directly. It gives people a purpose–a sense of meaning–and THAT in turn makes them happy (French & Joseph, 1999).
It can also offer us healing and solace in the wake of traumatic events. Christopher Peterson, a positive psychology pioneer, evaluated the effects of prayer, spiritual support and positive attitudes on the distress levels of college students after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Higher initial levels of distress were associated with those who used prayer to cope, but led to lower levels of distress after a period of three months (Ai , Tice, Peterson, & Huang, 2005).
There are other studies I could write about here, but I’ve run out of room. Just know that the evidence of religion as a source of meaning and thus happiness is overwhelming.
Is your career meaningful to you? If not, would you like it to be? Or perhaps you don’t yet know your life calling. Kosine, Steger and Duncan recommend a purpose-centered approach when considering and developing a career. They identify five strength-based practices:
- Form your identity: know who you are.
- Gain self-efficacy: believe in your abilities.
- Raise metacognition: Have an awareness of your own thinking processes.
- Consider how your career can serve the greater good.
Here are some free online resources on applying these principles:
- Christopher Peterson’s VIA Inventory of Strengths: This empirically validated survey will test 20 strengths and order them to fit your personality. An understanding of your strengths can help understand your identity and thought processes, believe in yourself and lead you to consider how your unique gifts can serve your community. You can go to https://www.viacharacter.org/Survey/Account/Register and take this survey free and it will tell you all your strengths in order for free. If you want tips on how to better use your strengths, you can purchase various reports for anywhere from $20-$50. There are also several courses and research articles available on the site for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper.
- The Career Interest Game: Not sure how to incorporate your strengths into an actual career? Check out https://career.missouri.edu/career-interest-game. This site categorizes a career personality into 6 different types based on strengths and suggests several careers for each type, with a description of the career responsibilities, average pay, growth rate, and education needed.
Ai, A. L., Tice, T. N., Peterson, C., & Huang, B. (2005). Prayers, Spiritual Support, and Positive Attitudes in Coping With the September 11 National Crisis. Journal Of Personality, 73(3), 763-791.
French, S., & Joseph, S. (1999). Religiosity and its association with happiness, purpose in life, and self-actualization. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 2(2), 117.
Reed, Kimberly (1991). Strength of Religious Affiliation and Life Satisfaction. Sociological Analysis, 52 (2), 205-210.