Director, Graduate Program in Counselling Psychology
Trinity Western University
Presented at the Roundtable on Meaning Research in the World Congress
of Logotherapy in Dallas, June, 1997
The time for
meaning seeking may have finally arrived. After hundreds of years
of wandering in the wilderness of philosophical and religious
discourse, personal meaning has emerged as a serious candidate
for scientific research and clinical practice" (Wong & Fry, in
The above is the opening statement in an edited book The human
quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical
applications, which includes contributions from leading figures
in logotherapy (i.e., J. Fabry & E. Lukas) and psychology (i.e.,
S. Maddi & E. Klinger). It may be considered a sequel to Frankl’s
(1963) Man’s search for meaning, because it covers current developments,
which can be traced to Dr. Frankl’s groundbreaking work.
Given the pivotal role of personal meaning in adaptation and
health (Wong, 1992; Wong & Fry, in press), Frankl’s concepts should
have dominated the research literature of mainstream psychology.
But this has not happened. This paper examines some of the reasons
for this failure and proposes some solutions.
Logotherapy emphasizes the noetic dimension and
advocates a holistic approach of treating each individual as more
than the sum of his/her parts. This basic tenet is seen by many
within the logotherapy circle as inherently and diametrically
opposed to the reductionism of scientific research. This anti-science
attitude is at least partially responsible for the lack of research
on logotherapy. According to Hutzell and Hutzell (1997), co-editor
of the International Forum for Logotherapy, only about 10% of
the publications in the Forum have been empirical papers.
Dr. Crumbaugh’s research (Crumbaugh, 1977; Crumbaugh
& Maholick, 1969) has laid the foundation for empirical studies
on meaning and purpose in life. At the recent Eleventh World Congress
on Logotherapy (1997), he again argued for an integration between
reductionism and the noetic dimension. Hutzell and Hutzell (1997)
echoed a similar sentiment and made it very clear that when logotherapists
work with clients, they say "no" to reductionism, but when they
do scientific research, they say "yes" to reductionism.
The recent emergence of the phenomenological approach
to research has expanded the scientific method and made it unnecessary
to maintain an anti-reductionistic stance. In other words, psychological
research no longer needs to model after the physical sciences
and there is increasing acceptance by the psychology community
of the holistic, phenomenological approach to studying individuals.
Authoritarianism constitutes yet another hindrance
to scientific research. The annals of history have made it abundantly
clear that deference to human authority or ideology is a kiss
of death for scientists. By its very nature, science recognizes
only one authority — empirical facts obtained according to a set
of rules and verified by other scientists. Any scientific theory
is only as good as the last empirical test of its validity.
History has also made it clear that any school of
thoughts built solely on the authority and personality of its
founder can not survive for long, no matter how hard the followers
try to immortalize its founder and pledge allegiance to his/her
teachings. The only schools that survive are those which have
the built-in capacity to incorporate new empirical findings and
The best way to remember and honor the life and
work of Dr. Frankl is not to cast his ideas in stone, but to move
forward in same creative and courageous spirit that has made Dr.
Frankl a towering figure of the 20th century. For logotherapy
to become a dominant player in the next century, it needs to encourage
bold innovations and embrace all individuals interested in meaning-oriented
research and applications. There are encouraging signs that logotherapy
is experiencing both renewal and expansion. The Eleventh World
Congress on Logotherapy in Dallas (1997) attests to the vitality
and diversity of new ideas.
Need for Multidisciplinary Research
One new feature of the Eleventh World Congress on
Logotherapy is the inclusion of the first Roundtable on Personal
meaning (RMR). A number of researchers and clinicians participated
in this Roundtable discussion. The main purpose of organizing
the RMR is to gather together researchers from different disciplines
and with different theoretical stripes in order to promote systematic
multidisciplinary and multi-national research on personal meaning.
At this junction in time, the need is greater than
ever to study meaning as a pathway to personal and social well-being.
Rapid social changes, the loss of shared values, fear of an uncertain
future and the increasing incidents of social and mental disorders,
all cry out for touchstones to live by. It is hoped that the RMR
can serve as an impetus to the movement towards meaningful and
One of the challenges to promote such a research
effort is to develop a common frame of reference and a set of
constructs acceptable to researchers from different disciplines.
The following represents my attempt to take up this challenge.
Meaning Seeking as an Integrative
Meaning research has been hampered
by the lack of clearly defined and widely accepted constructs.
Several related constructs have been employed in meaning research,
such as meaning of life, meaning in life, purpose in life, meaningfulness,
personal meaning, values, life tasks, life goals, etc. Vernacular
terms, such as meaning of life, carry the baggage of past philosophical
debates regarding its very existence. What we need is an operationally
defined psychological construct with a minimum of surplus meanings.
I propose that meaning seeking may serve as an integrative construct
for the following reasons:
- Meaning seeking is a psychological construct, because it involves
motivational, cognitive and behavioral processes.
- Meaning seeking implies motivational needs for both provisional
and ultimate meaning; it also implicates purposeful, goal-directed
actions, which can be directly observed.
- Meaning seeking involves specific tasks, projects and goals,
which are highly valued.
- Meaning seeking includes the cognitive process of construing
- Meaning seeking can be measured behaviorally and psychometrically.
In short, the construct of meaning seeking not only incorporates
related constructs, but also lends itself readily to scientific
analysis. As an action-oriented psychological construct, meaning
seeking may be more helpful to researchers than the more philosophical
construct of meaning of life. Furthermore, the Personal Meaning
Profile (PMP) (Wong, in press, a) indicates both the level of
meaningfulness in one’s life, as well as the different domains
of meaning seeking.
Is there a Roadmap for Meaning Seeking?
Dr. Frankl has always emphasized individual uniqueness in the
quest for meaning. He believes that for each individual in each
situation, there is only one special meaning of the moment. However,
it should also be pointed out the uniqueness of individuals does
not mean that there are no general principles of meaning seeking.
In fact, Frankl (1963) proposed three general avenues of meaning:
creative, experiential and attitudinal values.
Throughout his writings, Dr. Frankl also emphasized the cardinal
importance of self-transcendence as the foundation for meaningful
living. In her keynote speech at this conference, Lukas (1997)
highlighted the attitude of acceptance as one of the key ingredients
of meaningful living. Khatami (1997) emphasized the attributes
of the authentic self, which include being part of a community
and commitment to relationship. Dr. Fabry (1988) also wrote about
the guideposts to meaningful living. These leaders of logotherapy
have suggested that in spite of individuals’ idiosyncratic ways
of seeking and finding meaning, there are indeed time-proven pathways
There is no disagreement that individuals may have very different
views of what makes life meaningful because of their unique personal
histories and cultural experiences. In a post-modern society,
everything is relative and "self" has become the measure of all
things; therefore, any reference to general principles or universal
values is suspect. However, in scientific research, it is necessary
to work with empirical laws and generalized structures. After
all, scientific knowledge is built on objective, empirical research
and it is organized according to general principles.
My own research on lay people’s implicit theories of ideally
meaningful life (Wong, in press, a) has demonstrated that a general
structure of meaning can be extracted from subjective, idiosyncratic
responses. This line of research has revealed a prototypical structure
of meaning seeking, which consists of eight factors: Religion,
Achievement, Relationship, Intimacy, Self-transcendence, Self-acceptance,
Fair-treatment and Fulfillment.
Except for Fair-treatment, all other factors have been shown
to be components of meaningful existence (e.g., Wong & Fry, in
press). It is worth noting that this research has provided empirical
evidence for the importance of Self-transcendence and Self-acceptance.
Both factors are considered as essential to meaningful living.
Fair-treatment refers to social justice and equal opportunity.
When individuals feel that they are discriminated against or oppressed
by society, their sense of self-esteem and personal meaning is
likely to be undermined. This dimension suggests that society
has a responsibility to provide a level playing field for individuals
in their quest for meaning and fulfillment.
The Fulfillment factor has been excluded from the PMP so that
the PMP can be used to predict well-being without the confound
of feelings of fulfillment. The PMP measures individual ratings
on the remaining seven dimensions of prototypical meaning. The
higher these ratings, the more individuals approximate the ideally
Research on the PMP has shown that ratings on these factors are
significantly correlated with criteria meaning measures, as shown
in Table 1. In other words, the more individuals approximate the
prototypical structure; the more they experience meaning and purpose
in their lives. Results also show that PMP scores are positively
related to well-being measures.
Table 1. Correlations between the PMP and criterion measures
(n = 326) All ps < .001
In addition, Wong (in press, a) has reported that meaning seeking,
as measured by the PMP, is a more effective inner resource against
depression than optimism and other cognitive moderators. More
recent research has also shown that meaning seeking is a very
effective buffer against work stress (Giesbrecht, 1997). Existing
evidence suggests that people are more likely to find meaning
if they are engaged in cognitive and behavioral activities in
the seven domains specified by the prototypical meaning structure.
Together, these findings lend credence to the notion of a blueprint
for meaningful living.
Practical Implications for Having a Roadmap
for Meaning Seeking
The concept of having a roadmap for meaning seeking has important
implications for research and intervention. Firstly, although
individuals are free to decide what is meaningful for them, misguided
ambitions and faulty values may influence their choices. For example,
if people make pleasure seeking and money-making the overriding
reasons for their existence, they are likely to experience disillusion
and meaninglessness and no amount of "chicken soup for the soul"
is going to help.
The PMP tells us where we are more likely to find meaning and
fulfillment. One of the most common questions asked is "How can
I find meaning in my life?" or "How can I make my life meaningful?"
As therapists, we do not tell people what to do, but we can expose
them to the opportunities for meaning and facilitate their quest
for meaning. The roadmap, according to the PMP, can be a useful
tool for dialogue and exploration with our clients.
At the Tenth World Congress on Logotherapy, I (Wong, 1995) proposed
that Dr. Frankl’s three avenues of meaning could be combined with
the seven domains to generate 21 pathways of seeking and finding
meaning. Thus, the roadmap provided by the PMP helps broaden the
opportunities for meaning.
Secondly, the roadmap also enables us to predict whether a particular
culture or society suffers from existential crisis. If society
as a whole is preoccupied with materialism and hedonism, we can
predict that the incident rates of existential neurosis, alienation
and despair for that society would be significantly higher than
societies which value prototypical meanings. Such findings would
justify the need to promote the seven sources of meaning.
Thirdly, if cross-cultural research demonstrates a universal
meaning structure, it would suggest that the seven prototypical
factors of meaning may stem from the noetical dimension shared
by all humanity. It would also suggest that the prototypical meaning
structure is an essential component of mental life.
What are the Categories of Meaning Research?
To facilitate multidisciplinary meaning research, we need to
take stock of what has been done. Studies on meaning seeking can
be grouped into the following categories:
- Psychometric studies — these are concerned with the development
of reliable and valid instruments that measure different aspects
of meaning seeking.
- Demonstrative studies — these are correctional studies, which
demonstrate the association between meaning seeking with outcome
- Clinical studies — these studies are designed to document
the beneficial effects of logotherapy and meaning-centered interventions.
- Experimental studies — these studies involve experimental
manipulation of some aspects of meaning seeking and compare
its effects with control groups.
- Developmental studies — these are longitudinal studies looking
at the formation and development of meaning seeking as a function
of life span development.
- Psychobiological studies — these studies investigate the impact
of meaning seeking on biological systems, such as the immunological
and endocrine responses to stress.
- Cross-cultural studies — these studies focus on cultural differences
in the preconditions, functions and outcomes of meaning seeking.
Most of the published research belongs to the first three categories.
The last four categories can benefit most from multi-disciplinary
and multi-cultural studies. It is hoped that the RMR can contribute
to long-range systematic research in all the above areas.
What are the Major Research Questions for Meaning
There are so many missing pieces in the puzzle that many years
of concerted research effort is needed in order to gain a basic
understanding of the nature and impact of meaning seeking. Here
is just a sample of the research questions that are worth pursuing:
- Are there cultural differences in meaning seeking?
- To what extent do different types of meaning seeking contribute
to mental and physical health?
- To what extent do the different processes (i.e., cognitive,
motivational, etc.) of meaning seeking contribute to well being.
- What are the underlying mechanisms whereby meaning seeking
impacts the psychobiological systems of resistance to stress
- Does meaning seeking contribute to recovery from addiction,
trauma and other diseases?
- What kinds of intervention are effective in promoting meaning
- How effective is meaning-centered counseling in helping people
deal with end of life issue and bereavement?
- Does meaning-centered intervention free adolescent girls from
their preoccupation with body image and popularity and help
them develop a healthier lifestyle?
- Does meaning-centered intervention free adolescent boys from
their preoccupation with sex and sensation seeking and help
them develop a healthier lifestyle?
- Does meaning-centered intervention promote successful aging?
- Is meaning-centered intervention effective in dealing with
depression and anxiety?
- Is meaning-centered intervention effective in preventing crimes
and other social ills?
- Does meaning-centered research improve international understanding?
- Does meaning-centered intervention enhance social harmony
and world peace?
The main theme that runs through the above research problems
is that meaning seeking is a major pathway to personal health
and social well-being. We need to put together a strong international,
multidisciplinary research team to investigate the processes of
meaning seeking and the mechanisms whereby meaning impacts health
The Link between Research and Application
Recently, I (Wong, in press, b) described my cognitive-behavioral
approach to logotherapy. This particular approach is based on
my research on implicit theories and meaning seeking.
Most clients seek therapy because they feel overwhelmed by life’s
problems, they feel trapped by their current situations and they
are worried about their future. Meaning seeking provides the inner
resources they need to cope with the demands of daily living as
well as the hope and roadmap they need for their future. To put
it briefly, meaning-centered counseling facilitates the following
developments in clients:
- a deeper and more positive understanding of themselves and
their life situations.
- meaningful activities which serve as inner resources for daily
living and a buffer against stress and depression.
- realistic and meaningful life goals resulting in a purpose
for their lives and hope for the future.
In short, my own research on meaning seeking and my practice
of meaning-centered counseling have demonstrated the value of
the scientist-practitioner model for therapy. A cognitive-behavioral
emphasis based on the construct of meaning seeking will facilitate
research and application. I believe that a rigorously established
scientific base can greatly strengthen both the appeal and impact
of logotherapy. I also believe that other paradigms of meaning-centered
research and intervention can equally contribute to our understanding
of the beneficial roles of personal meaning.
It is my hope that we can indeed invite researchers and practitioners
from various disciplines and different countries to develop a
long-term research agenda and strategy. Our shared vision and
common goal is to study the wide-ranging effects of meaning seeking
and apply these findings to promote individual well-being, community
health and world peace.
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