Positive Living in Difficult Times

Meaningful education and education for meaning

Pninit Russo-Netzer, PhD
University of Haifa

The search for meaning has been considered “the primary motivational force in man” (Frankl, 1969, p. 121) and constitutes a healthy, natural, and engaging process that is often characterized by an openness to ideas about life (Steger et  al., 2008). Recent integrative conceptualization offers a conception of meaning in life that includes three central dimensions: comprehension (i.e., a sense of coherence and the capacity to make sense), purpose (i.e., a sense of being directed and motivated), and significance (i.e., a sense of value and mattering in the world) (George & Park, 2016; Martela & Steger, 2016; Steger, 2012). Yet, given that developmental aspects are not sufficiently nuanced in the current conceptualization and definitions of meaning, it is still unclear how these processes develop and take place in the natural environment of childhood and adolescence. While there are mounting research findings that underscore the importance of meaning, the majority of these studies have focused on adults. Although the need to find meaning in life is a fundamental and universal motivation in human existence (e.g., Frankl, 1959), its manifestation may vary across cultures and life stages. During childhood, as language develops, one of the first questions children ask is “why?”—in order to comprehend themselves and the world around them. However, the abstract and multifaceted nature of the construct of meaning in life challenges its explicit expression in general, and in particular among children and adolescents. Thus, although occupied with questions of meaning, they may not always know how to express it, which may leave a gap in the understanding of their experiences and in constructing tailored and applicable interventions.

Existing assessment tools that measure meaning in life may fail to reflect the nuances and level of understanding of children at the concrete-operational stage of development (7–12 years) (Piaget, 1952). Yet, the multitude of developmental changes in various life domains (e.g., psychosocial, cognitive, and physiological) during childhood and adolescence emphasize their importance as sensitive and critical periods of both opportunities and risks (Steinberg, 2013). In the last few decades, a few studies have challenged the assumption that a sense of meaning in life can only be achieved by adults or older adolescents, by demonstrating that children can viably articulate the meaning of their lives. For example, De Volger and Ebersole (1983) found that eighth-graders’ descriptions of the sources of their meaning in life seemed substantively similar to those reported by college students. A decade later, Taylor and Ebersole (1993) asked younger elementary-school children what was most important to them and found that most of the first graders were able to express a personal life meaning, especially in the context of their relationships, activities, and habits. These works suggest that an adapted developmental language and sensitivity are needed when approaching the topic of meaning in life among children and adolescents. A recent study provides evidence for the effect of meaning in life on the well-being of 1,957 elementary-school children, ages 9–12, through the development and validation of the Meaning in Life in Children Questionnaire (MIL-CQ), a new measure to assess the presence and sources of meaning in the lives of children. It is based on Viktor Frankl’s concept of the “meaning triangle” (Frankl, 1959), which claims that children’s sources of meaning revolve around three main dimensions: (1) Creativity—what individuals give to the world in terms of their creations, or children’s capability to contribute and make a difference in their surroundings; (2) Experience—what the individual takes from the world in terms of experiences and encounters, or a sense of inspiration and connection to the world around them (e.g., nature, art, relationships) and to meaningful relationships; and (3) Attitude or taking a stand—the manner in which children approach unavoidable challenges in life. Using this scale, it was found that children’s level of meaning in life was positively associated with their life satisfaction and positive affectivity (i.e., higher positive emotions and lower negative emotions) and negatively associated with social and emotional difficulties (Shoshani & Russo-Netzer, 2017). These dimensions provide three distinct applicable pathways for cultivating meaning in life among children in particular and a fertile ground for healthy development in general.

Later on in the developmental phases, adolescence introduces a fertile period in the search for and exploration of personal identity, purpose, coherence, and significance, but it also presents unique challenges. Adolescence reflects a critical and formative stage of life characterized by the development of interests, values, long-term goals, and social affiliations that serve as the foundation for more mature identity formation (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). During this developmental period, individuals have a broader level of choice in life experiences and more capability to ask abstract questions regarding their sources of meaning and personal identity than they do in previous developmental stages. The gradual development in connectivity in adolescent’s brain underlies processes such as increased ability for self-regulation (Casey, 2015) and decreased impulsivity (Vink et al., 2014), along with a strong need for exploration and intense reward-sensitivity. Such disposition may result in increased sensation-seeking and risk-taking, on the one hand, but also in positive outcomes such as cooperation and prosocial behavior, on the other hand, depending on exposure and experience in their social environment (e.g., Van Duijvenvoorde et al., 2016). Expanding on Erikson’s theory, Marcia (1966) described identity formation during adolescence as involving the dimensions of exploration (active search and questioning) and commitment (extent of choice), suggesting four identity statuses: Foreclosure, which refers to commitment to an identity without exploration; identity confusion/diffusion of neither exploration nor commitment to any identities; moratorium, which reflects a state in which youth are actively exploring options but have not yet made commitments; and identity achievement, which refers to making commitments and discovering one’s purpose following successful exploration of different identity options. Current models of identity formation (e.g., Crocetti et al., 2012; Luyckx et al., 2006) have expanded identity exploration and commitment to a larger set of identity processes, to include an identity formation cycle (exploration in breadth and commitment making), an identity evaluation cycle (exploration in depth and identification with commitment), and ruminative exploration (i.e., a maladaptive type of exploration, characterized by indecisiveness and delayed identity formation). Recent studies have identified that a sense of purpose among youth is shaped along such processes of exploration and commitment, corresponding with the identity statuses of foreclosed, confusion/diffusion, moratorium, and achievement (e.g., Burrow & Hill, 2011; Burrow et al., 2010). Convergent research demonstrates the links between meaning and purpose in life and indicators of optimal functioning, such as life satisfaction (e.g., Bronk, 2011), healthier life strategies and choices (e.g., Halama, 2000), health (Nielsen & Hansson, 2007), psychological well-being (Rathi & Rastogi, 2007), and reduced drug abuse (e.g., Addad & Himi, 2008), suggesting their importance as protective factors for youth development (Brassai et al., 2011). When commitment to prosocial and self-transcendent goals that go beyond personal needs is rewarded and emphasized during adolescence, this commitment may have positive outcomes later in development, such as an increased sense of agency to make a difference in the world (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2005). For example, it has been suggested that a sense of purpose among youth has four defining characteristics: dedicated commitment, personal meaningfulness, goal-directedness, and a vision bigger than personal self, such as serving others (e.g., Bronk, 2011). As such, the interplay between personal identity and meaning in life is reflected in the contribution of exploration of values and interests to the formation of future goals and life meaning, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, having a sense of meaning (i.e., establishing coherence, purpose, and significance regarding one’s life) supports the consolidation of identity commitments and involvement (e.g., Negru-Subtirica et al., 2016). For example, a recent study in this area (Russo-Netzer & Shoshani, 2020) found that adolescents’ authentic inner compass (AIC; having self-directed values, aspirations, interests, and goals that are experienced as authentic) is related to their ability to intentionally seek out activities and contexts and make choices that are conducive to experiencing meaning and positivity, which in turn predicts increased well-being, greater life satisfaction, and fewer maladaptive symptoms. Having an AIC was also found to contribute to a decrease in emotional and behavioral problems. Such findings carry valuable implications for future studies as well as interventions. Promoting awareness of value systems, meaning, and active commitment among children and adolescents appears to be especially important in light of the unique challenges of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA; Horney et al., 2010) world of our times. In such contexts, a coherent AIC may assist adolescents in making choices, plans, and decisions aligned with their needs and values rather than conforming to external social pressures (Assor et al., 2020). Along these lines, it was found that adolescents who engaged in higher levels of meaningful exploration (i.e., active engagement in searching for and experimenting with meaningful choices in central life domains) were more likely to report higher purpose commitment as they got older (Burrow et al., 2010). However, experimenting with various options that shape the adolescent’s future identity, values, and beliefs may also provoke feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety (e.g., Erikson, 1968). This may intensify existential frustration and emptiness, in particular given evidence showing that many students do not experience meaning in schools (Reber, 2019). Such an existential vacuum may be reflected, for example, in risk-taking behaviors, emptiness, substance use, aggression, alienation, and symptomatology of depression (e.g., Curry & Youngblade, 2006; Frankl, 1978). For example, in a large study surveying 1,200 young people over a period of five years, Damon (2008) found that a majority of youths are struggling to find direction in life—what he described as being “directionless drifters.” Today, more than a decade later, these processes are shaped in the new, even parallel, setting of the digital world. Adolescents today are faced with the need to navigate “online” arenas as well as the ones they have traditionally experienced “offline” (Wood, 2019). Educational systems, thus, should play a key role in providing a safe, caring, and validating environment for meaning exploration and commitment processes.

In sum, given its importance as a driving force for healthy development and a wellspring of well-being and mental health, meaning warrants specific attention in and of itself in the educational setting. The question of meaning is a crucial one not only in the short term, in the sense of educational-pedagogical practice, but also in the long term, with the goal of preparing students for the uncertain and volatile life of the 21st century.


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