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MEANING IN LIFE: November 2020 -Volume 1, Issue 6

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

A bimonthly, 2-minute briefing on the latest in the science and practice of character strengths.

The search for meaning seems to be at an all-time high. People are trying to make sense of the turbulent times. Many are defining their purpose in a new way. In this issue, I highlight the sources of people’s meaning, review emerging research on meaning in life during the COVID-19 pandemic, and offer practical strategies for turning to character strengths pathways.


  • “I was taking hit after hit. Kids at home, new projects at work, a relationship breakup, and a financial squeeze. Stress after stress. My physical health started to take a hit too. So, I turned to discipline. I set up new routines of eating, exercise, and during leisure time, doing ‘something that mattered.’ I’ve kept it up for 4 months and feel much more connected to myself, others, and the world around me” (self-regulation).
  • “I look to my family. We are around each other a lot more these days. When work and school are done – no matter how long that takes – we turn to each other. We’ve been playing more board games together, hanging out outside, and eating together. Our care for each other is higher than ever” (love).
  • “I’ve been spending time reflecting on my life. I’m feeling a lot of sadness about my mistakes and shortcomings. I’m realizing I need to make some changes in my career direction. Although it has been painful, I am feeling a deeper purpose for my life direction” (perspective).
  • “I started a new strengths practice, actually. But it’s different from what you might expect. It is embedded in everything I do. With each person I encounter, each stressor I face, and each routine I do, I say ‘thank you, thank you’ in my mind at each experience” (gratitude).
  • “I’m investing myself in causes that are important to me. I’m educating people around me about mask-wearing, I’m doing peaceful protesting in my city, and I’ve joined a new environmental group” (fairness).
  • “I’m working more and working harder. I’ve gotten more done. It’s not the work I expected I’d be doing. But it has been rewarding. I can see how I’m making a real contribution” (perseverance).

Consider your own sources of meaning right now. What are the character strengths that can help you make the most of those sources? The diverse examples of meaning experiences here cut across each of the six virtues of the VIA Classification. This shows us all 24 strengths are possible! These examples reflect several of the common sources of meaning offered by Wong (1998), and demonstrate the connection between meaning sources and character strengths (Littman-Ovadia & Niemiec, 2017).


New studies on meaning in life during the COVID-19 pandemic have been conducted across the globe. Meaning is emerging as a particularly crucial construct for people to access.

In Poland, meaning in life, hope, and life satisfaction were related; increases in meaning and life satisfaction led to lower anxiety and less COVID stress (Trzebinkski et al., 2020). In China, a shift in priorities was demonstrated; the pursuit of meaning through wealth, social status, and religion decreased, and greater attention was placed on finding meaning through social responsibility, personal autonomy, and living a simpler life (Chen et al., 2020).

And, in Germany and Austria, meaning has been a key factor during the COVID-19 pandemic and was connected with less mental distress; meaning acted as a stress buffer because when meaning was high, there was a significantly lower connection between COVID stress and depression/anxiety. Also, when people experienced a crisis of meaning, the strength of self-control acted as a buffer for mental distress (Schnell & Krampe, 2020).

Make the research practical. These studies teach us that meaning is accessible, it helps us cope with stress, and that when we are high in meaning, we buffer some of the suffering from the pandemic. Here are two ways to use your strengths to access your meaning in life.

Turn to your curiosity, gratitude, or spirituality. Early research is finding a pattern that these 3 strengths connect highest with meaning in life (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005; Wagner et al., 2020). Make a daily strengths plan to ask new questions of your loved ones, express thanks for the good that’s happening amidst the difficult, and seek out what is sacred to you.

Use your signature strengths. Go through your top 5 (or more) strengths. How might you find more meaning in your life with your highest strength? Your #2? Your #3?




Chen, C., Zhang, Y., Xu, A., Chen, X., & Lin, J. (2020). Reconstruction of meaning in life: Meaning made during the pandemic of COVID-19. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 22(3), 173-184.

Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Meaning, mindfulness, and character strengths. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyany (Eds.), To thrive, to cope, to understand: Meaning in positive and existential psychology (pp. 383-405). New York: Springer.

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.

Schnell T., & Krampe H. (2020). Meaning in life and self-control buffer stress in times of COVID-19: Moderating and mediating effects with regard to mental distress. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.582352

Trzebiński, J., Cabański, M., & Czarnecka, J. Z. (2020) Reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic: The influence of meaning in life, life satisfaction, and assumptions on world orderliness and positivity. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 25(6-7), 544-557. DOI: 10.1080/15325024.2020.1765098

Wagner, L., Gander, F., Proyer, R. T., & Ruch, W. (2020). Character strengths and PERMA: Investigating the relationships of character strengths with a multidimensional framework of well-being. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 15, 307-328.

Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Spirituality, meaning, and successful aging. In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 359–394). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.