Road to Well-Being
Mount Forgiveness

Highlands of
Spirituality _
Personal Meaning

Heights of Well-being

All About | Self-Assessment _ How To's | Resources

Personal Meaning
All About | Self-Assessment | How To's | Resources

Introduction to Spirituality and Meaning

The last topic on the Road to Well-being, spirituality and personal meaning, follows quite naturally from the previous discussion of forgiveness. Forgiveness is often an important part of what comes to mind when we think of spirituality. More and more people are turning to spirituality to find meaning in their lives. For a growing number of folks, the daily pressures and rapid pace of change in our world has made them wonder about the meaning of life and if something has been lost in all of our busyness. These individuals are asking the big existential questions that used to be reserved for the philosophers. Questions such as: “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of human life?” With all of this interest in meaning, researchers are now starting to ask questions about the connection between spirituality and well-being.

This section is going to look more closely at what the researchers have found. We have chosen to organise this topic by separating spirituality from meaning. It is true that for some people, meaning and spirituality are closely connected to one another and they would consider the two inseparable. But for others, finding meaning in life does not necessarily involve a spiritual connection. Consequently, we have decided to treat them separately. The focus of first section is on spirituality, and the second section looks at finding meaning in life.


All About

Spirituality and Religion

Although many people consider spirituality and religion, one and the same, it is possible and important to make a distinction between them.

Similarities — Spirituality and religion both focus on the sacred or divine (for example, divine being, higher power, God, Allah, or ultimate reality as perceived by the individual). Most people who are spiritual or religious also have a set of beliefs about the higher power or ultimate reality. In addition, there are usually specific practices that followers use to attain or enhance a sense of the sacred, or to experience an altered state of consciousness such as prayer or meditation.

Differences — The major difference is that religion is viewed as being linked to formal religious institutions, whereas spirituality does not depend upon a collective or organisational context (Pargament, 1997). In other words, I can be spiritual and go or not go to church, but generally I can’t be religious and not go. This is evident from the associations that we have to these terms. If we say that someone is deeply religious, we tend to assume that person regularly attends church (part of a formal institution). If we say that a person is very spiritual, we tend to assume that person has some strong beliefs and practices, but we would not necessarily assume that he/she attended church.

The distinction between spirituality and religion is important, because most of the research concerning the well-being benefits of spirituality has focused on religious beliefs and practices. Religious affiliation has been more researched due to the relative ease of finding large groups of people who engage in common practices and from whom data can be collected, and as a result we will focus on those research findings.

Well-Being and Religion

Did you know that research shows that religious practice can help to keep you healthy? It’s important to note that most of the research has focused on Christianity, although there is some evidence that other religious practices convey many of the same health benefits.

There have been some fairly large studies that found that people who attend church regularly tend to be healthier and live longer than non-regular church goers. For example, one study found that regular church attendees had a 25 to 30 percent greater chance of living longer than those who never, seldom, or rarely attended church services (McCullough et al., 2000). Although divine intervention has not been ruled out as an explanation for these findings(!), there are other possible explanations for the relationship between religious involvement and improved health. These are described below.

Possible Explanations for Relationship Between
Religiosity and Improved Health

Virtuous Behaviour — It is thought that the virtuous behaviours encouraged by churches help people to engage in healthy acts and behaviours (e.g., forgiveness). Likewise, religious organisations usually discourage people from participating in non-healthy and harmful behaviours like alcohol and drug use, sexual promiscuity, and crimes. However, researchers have a way of removing the effects these have by holding them constant. This means that they can determine if there is still a connection when the effects of virtuous behaviours have been removed. Guess what? They found that there are STILL health benefits present to church attendance. This means that there must be other factors responsible for the relationship between religious involvement and improved health.

Social Support — As discussed in the City of Social Connection, social support is very beneficial to well-being, and churches have a reputation for being a great source of social support. Therefore, it is quite possible that the support found by people who attend church regularly may explain, at least in part, why people who attend church appear to be healthier. There are fewer studies that have looked at this particular question, but those that have, report a connection between church attendance, social support, and health benefits.

Meaning and coherence — It is also theorized that regular religious involvement may go a long way in helping people to overcome their anxieties about life and death. It may help people to gain a sense of meaning and purpose in their current life and in a possible afterlife. In other words, peoples’ reasons for living may become more clearly defined or accepted in the context of religious or spiritual practice. This concept of meaning is further explored, separately, in the next section.

Self-Assessment _ How To's

Taking Stock — a worksheet to assess your current satisfaction with your spiritual beliefs and practices

If you feel that you would like to make a change in your spiritual or religious practices, use the Goal-Setting Sheet (as found in Port Hope) to set a goal for increasing participation.



George, L. K., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & McCullough (2000). Spirituality and Health: What we know, what we need to know. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 102 – 116.

Larson, D. B., Swyers, J. P., & McCullough, M. E. (1997). Scientific research on spirituality and health: A consensus report. Rockville, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research.

McCullough, M. W., Hoyt, W. T., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & Thoresen, C. (2000). Religious involvement and mortality: A meta-analytic review. Health Psychology, 19, 211 – 222.

Thoresen, C.E., Harris, A. H., & Oman, D. (2001). Spirituality, religion, and health: Evidence, issues, and concerns. In T. G. Plante & A. C. Sherman (Eds.), Faith and health: Psychological perspectives (pp. 15 – 52). New York: Guilford Press.

Other Resources

For a further academic review of research on health and religion/spirituality see:

Plante, T. G., & Sherman, A. C. (2001). Faith and health: Psychological Perspectives. New York: The Guilford Press.

The Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health is another source of information on the relationship between theology and health. It is a leading institution in the world for scholarship in this area:

Personal Meaning

All About

"What people actually need is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of them. What they need is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by them." (Frankl, 1963, p.166 – modified with inclusive language)

Have you noticed that as a society we can get caught up in “the rat-race”? Some would say that our focus on self, through competition, experimenting sexually, and striving to accumulate material things, is really misplaced. They would say that what we’re really striving for is a sense of meaning and purpose and that we are just going about it in the wrong way.

Researchers have started to look more closely at having a sense of meaning and how it is connected to our well-being. Studies have found that having material wealth beyond what is required to meet our basic needs is not associated with happiness. Of course, this is not a new idea; maybe someone in your life has even said to you, “Money can’t buy you love (or happiness)”. What is new is that we now have the research to prove it!

Researchers also have discovered a strong positive relationship between peoples’ mental and physical well-being and having meaning in life. Specifically, some studies have found that people who have a sense of life-purpose also report higher levels of well being and do not tend to struggle with issues like depression.

What does having a sense of meaning mean?

Meaning is difficult to define but it is generally thought to include three main components:

  1. finding purpose, value, and personal worth in one’s activities (pursuits of goals, focus outside the self),
  2. being able to fully appreciate emotional and sensory experiences (e.g., beauty, truth, love, joy, wonder), and
  3. striving to maintain a positive attitude in the face of suffering and loss.

You will notice that these three components of meaning are very similar to the behaviour circle that you learned about on the Plains of Optimism. It appears that activities that provide meaning almost always comprise Motivational/Behavioural (e.g., component #1 above), Emotional (e.g., component #2), and Cognitive (e.g., component #3).

Below you will find each of these components defined by Wong, a leading researcher in this area.

This is defined as… “…the pursuit of activities and life goals considered by the individual to be valuable and worthwhile. A meaningful life is never passive…there is a will to meaning – a forward thrust toward purposefulness and significant life goals.”

These are the “…feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment that flow from the pursuit of worthwhile activities and life goals.”

…an individually constructed way of thinking which “makes sense of life and endows it with purpose and significance. This cognitive system is developed in a particular cultural context, thus incorporating many of the beliefs, values, and assumptions shared by that culture”

(all three from Wong, 1998, p.406).

One aspect of meaning that seems to be an essential part of all three components is the need for connection to others. After having conducted research that looked at peoples’ sense of meaning in life, Wong concluded that:

“It requires that individuals have positive and mature attitudes toward life and self and that they lead a purposeful and productive life. There are limits to meaning-seeking if individuals are alienated from their community and the spiritual realm. Therefore, individuals need to get involved in and contribute to community. They also need religious [sic spiritual] faith that makes sense of the larger and difficult issues about life, suffering, and death” (Wong, 1998, p.118)

Victor Frankl, who wrote the opening quote to this section, managed not only to survive but to find meaning and purpose in his experience of being captured and held in a Nazi concentration camp. He survived this trauma and spent the remainder of his life sharing his wisdom through talking with others and writing about the importance of meaning in people’s lives. Frankl emphasized the importance of looking outside one-self. As you will read in the quotation below, Frankl believed that to find meaning, people need to shift the focus from being so caught up in themselves and their own needs to a more outward focus: more love, hope, compassion, and generosity directed toward others. This of course could include such things as working for a specific social cause, or engaging in tasks and pursuits that are outside of the self.

"A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how" (Frankl, 1963, p.127).

Frankl’s beliefs about meaning-finding have influenced the questions social science researchers have asked. Recent exploratory studies have found that people tend to agree that the following are common sources of meaning. However, as we stated earlier, the relative importance of what makes life meaningful varies from person to person. These are some common sources of meaning.

Sources of Meaning

Relationships — People find great satisfaction and personal meaning in supporting and being supported by others. This includes friendships as well as involvement in organisations or clubs whose work fosters community growth and development.

Intimacy — Meaning is achieved in the sharing of one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, desires, goals, triumphs, and failures, with a special person. It could be anyone; a lover, life-partner, friend, or relative, with whom you have a deep and meaningful connection.

Self-acceptance — Individuals are more likely to discover meaning if they are able to accept themselves for who they are. Self-acceptance comes from developing the ability to learn from past mistakes, to identify strengths and limitations, acknowledging areas of personal growth, and to working toward being the best we can be. It is much more difficult to find meaning in life when people focus on their perceived personal inadequacies.

Fairness/Respect — Being able to live and function in a place or nation where fairness and respect is valued and practiced is certainly helpful in the process of finding meaning. But as Frankl and many others have demonstrated, it is possible to achieve a sense of life-giving meaning even under the most oppressive conditions.

Achievement — The ability to pursue and achieve one’s own goals, both large life goals and even smaller projects, has been found to greatly contribute well-being.

Self-Transcendance — This goes back to what Frankl said about needing to move out of the self and toward others. People who report that a fairly high level of personal meaning in their lives believe that it is partly through their focus on causes, responsibilities, and pursuits outside themselves.

Religion — Belief in a higher power and developing a relationship with God or Allah or other omnipotent being is commonly found to be a strong source of personal meaning for people.

You may find the accompanying Personal Meaning Profile in the Self-Assessment section useful in helping you to determine in which of these areas you are currently finding meaning. This may also help you to identify areas that you may be neglecting.


Personal Meaning Profile — a questionnaire to help you discover your sources of meaning and a worksheet to help you explore why/how your #1 source of meaning gives you meaning

How To's

Miracle Questions — A worksheet to stretch your thinking from the mundane to the meaningful



Wong, T. P. P. (1998). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (Wong, P.P.T. & Fry, Prem S. eds.). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Wong, T. P. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (Wong, P.P.T. & Fry, Prem S. eds.). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.


Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, Simon and Schuster.
<< Mount Forgiveness   Heights of Well-Being >>