Meaning gained versus meaning lost: The effects of meaning salience on anxiety and depression during the Coronavirus pandemic

People that have meaningful lives generally experience less anxiety and depression. Meaning salience, or the awareness of the meaning in one’s life, is believed to partially explain this relationship. This study explored some of the finer points of meaning salience. We found that people who reflected on the meaning they had gained during the pandemic experienced lower momentary anxiety and higher life satisfaction than people who reflected on the meaning they had lost. These results suggest that meaning salience is not always positive, and that researchers and practitioners should consider how making positive meaning salient may be more beneficial than a general focus on meaning in life.

Mental health in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal examination of the ameliorating effect of meaning salience

During the COVID-19 pandemic, various restrictions forced people around the world to socially isolate. People were asked to stay at home and were largely unable to do many of the activities that they derived meaning from. Since meaning is often related to mental health, these restrictions were likely to decrease mental health. The current study aimed to examine these effects and also benefit individuals’ mental health by making their meaning salient. Our goal was to design an intervention that could counter the potential negative effects of social distancing. Participants were asked to focus on the meaning of their daily activities, or did not participate in any study-related activities during the week. Results suggested that the control group reported significantly greater anxiety, depression, and stress at the end of the week. In contrast, the experimental group reported less anxiety and trended toward less depression and stress at the end of that same week. In all, results suggest that simply focusing on one’s daily activities and the meaning found in them protected people from the otherwise detrimental effects of pandemic restrictions. This provides a promising and simple intervention that may assist both individuals and practitioners aiming to improve mental health, especially in challenging times.

Meaning, purpose, and job satisfaction: The importance of making meaning salient during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Finding meaning and purpose in one’s life facilitates several important work outcomes. A global pandemic that changes both the lives of employees and the way they work likely affects the relationships between workers’ meaning in life and work. Making meaning salient to employees, despite the circumstances, may strengthen and preserve these relationships. To examine this, we asked employed adults to complete a photo-taking task that either focused on objects of meaning, or objects that were blue (the control). The results suggested that meaning salience increased job satisfaction. In addition, it moderated the relationship between purpose (but not meaning) and job satisfaction. In all, this highlights the challenges of new working circumstances and the importance of continuously making meaning salient to employees.

The relationship between physical activity, health, and well-being: Type of exercise and self-connection as moderators

Most people understand that physical exercise has a beneficial impact on mental health and well-being, but little research has examined how different types of physical activity affect these outcomes. This study sought to provide a comprehensive understanding of the differential relationships between types of physical activity, and different aspects of health and well-being. In addition, we sought to understand the role of self-connection in these relationships. We examined three intensities of activity (walking, moderate, and vigorous) and three types of activity (team-based, community-based, and not team nor community-based) on self-reported health, anxiety, depression, affect, flourishing, job satisfaction, life satisfaction, and meaning in life. In addition, we examined self-connection as a possible moderator of these relationships. The results suggested that physical activity was inconsistently related to health and well-being, and that activity intensity and type were critical to understanding these relationships. In contrast, self-connection did reliably relate to health and well-being, and moderated the relationship between activity type and the presence of meaning. Future research should explore more specifically the impact of different forms of exercise, and continue to examine self-connection to determine how best to increase health and well-being through physical activity.

Improving Mindfulness through Self-Connection

The November 2021 issue of European Review of Applied Psychology is publishing a Connection Lab study that experimentally manipulated self-connection in an attempt to increase people’s mindfulness. A sample of 66 participants journaled for one week. Half of them discussed their days while the other half wrote about aspects of their day that related to self-connection. No significant difference in mindfulness emerged between groups after the week of journaling, but those who journaled about self-connection were significantly more mindful a month later. In contrast, no sustained or significant increase in mindfulness emerged in the control group. This interesting result suggests future research should explore further whether self-connection journaling may be a useful practice for increasing mindfulness longer-term.


Stress Mindset and Self-connection in Business School

In July 2020, Psychological Reports published our study of how stress mindset and self-connection relate to burnout and life-satisfaction among business school students. Our study found that viewing stress as debilitating was related to more personal and school-related burn out, while self-connection was related to less personal burnout and greater life-satisfaction. Stress mindset and self-connection also interacted to predict both personal and school burnout. The results suggest that promoting adaptive views of stress and becoming more self-connected may lead to a better student experience.

The Experience of Disconnection from Self

The Humanistic Psychologist published our qualitative examination of the experience of disconnection from self: the ways in which it emerges in daily life, and the emotional impact it has. We performed 20 semi-structured interviews of people who self-identified as self-connected, using thematic analysis to analyze the data. Analyses revealed that disconnection emerged consistent with the three components of self-connection, and confirmed that even those who are self-connected identify and experience self-disconnection. Participants described the experience of disconnection as resulting in several negative affective states, including sadness, fear, stress, confusion, anger, and darkness. The study highlights that disconnecting from the self manifests in specific ways that relate to self-connection, and often brings about experiences of negative affect. In all, these findings underscore the importance of understanding self-disconnection, indicate potential pathways for interventions aimed at improving people’s self-connection, and provide some examples of how people guard against disconnection that may help future research and practice.

Connection & Disconnection as Predictors of Mental Health and Well-Being

The International Journal of Wellbeing recently published our paper on the predictive relationships that connection and disconnection have with mental health and well-being. Our two studies had examined connection to self and others, and disconnection to self and others, in the context of their impact on measures of mental health and flourishing. Connection to others significantly predicted anxiety, depression, and flourishing. Similarly, those who experienced more disconnection from others had lower flourishing and life satisfaction while those experiencing more disconnection from themselves experienced lower life satisfaction. These results suggest utilizing different therapeutic avenues for increasing distinct types of mental health and well-being.

Self-Connection and Meaning in Life

In May 2020, the European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology published our research testing the relationship between positive affect, self-connection and meaning in life. Positive affect has established itself as a strong, robust correlate of meaning, but we wondered if self-connection might not play an important intermediary role by turning our attention inward. In two studies, we explored this question: first, asking participants to answer questions to measure all three constructs, and then in a second study experimentally manipulating participants’ focus on their own or another person’s values. We found that positive affect and meaning were not significantly related when self-connection was high – and that, when participants focused on their own values, positive affect was not related to meaning at all. Our findings suggest that it is self-connection, not positive affect, that reliably relates to increased meaning in life.

Self-Connection, Mindfulness & Meaning

The April 2020 issue of Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being published our study of the causal relationships between mindfulness, self-connection, and meaning. Our research found that mindfulness predicted an increase in the presence of meaning, and that self-connection (as measured by our Self-Connection Scale, or SCS) partially accounted for the effect on the presence of meaning, and moderated the effect on the search for meaning. Our SCS demonstrated good validity and reliability across time. The study demonstrates that self-connection, as measured by the SCS, has an important role in positive psychology, and that those low in self-connection are likely to benefit the most from increased mindfulness.

Mindfulness, Well-Being & Self-Connection

This research sought to better understand the effect of mindfulness on well-being by examining self-connection as a potential mediator. We measured self-connection, mindfulness and well-being using two distinct samples and two different operationalizations of well-being. In Study 1, we asked participants about their connection to themselves, mindfulness and flourishing. In Study 2, we surveyed a different sample, again measuring mindfulness and self-connection but this time operationalizing well-being as satisfaction with life. As expected, mindfulness predicted self-connection and well-being in both studies. Self-connection also predicted well-being and partially mediated the relationship between mindfulness and well-being. These results suggest that mindfulness bolsters self-connection, which in turn increases people’s well-being. Published January 2020 in Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, Volume 14, e5, and online by Cambridge University Press.

Barriers to Self-Connection

The International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology published one of our lab’s qualitative studies, which sought to understand barriers to obtaining an awareness of the self, acceptance of that self, and acting in alignment with the self – i.e., self-connection. Participants journaled about barriers to self-connection for fifteen minutes per day for five days. They reported both internal factors (e.g., feeling lost, negative self-judgment, a lack of motivation, avoidance, and prioritizing others) and external factors (e.g., time, work, ability to meet basic needs, and powerlessness) that blocked them from connection. This research highlights the importance of understanding what barriers exist to self-connection, and on developing interventions to help circumvent these barriers.

Journal Study

One of our research studies explored whether journaling about self-connection could impact participants’ level of mindfulness. During the course of a week, 66 participants wrote a daily journal entry. One group of them discussed their days, while the other group wrote about aspects of their day that related to self-connection. We found that the self-connection group experienced significantly higher levels of mindfulness one month later, and that the group that had merely journaled about their days saw no sustained or significant increase in mindfulness.

Developing a Measure of Self-Connection

An important step in our work, is a recent study aimed at developing a new measure of self-connection. This study of over 500 diverse adults tested a new measure of self-connection developed by Connection Lab. This will allow researchers, including us, to ask new and important questions about how self-connection plays a role in people’s well-being, resiliency, and relationships to others and the world around them. Results are being prepared for publication.

The Role of Values and Value Alignment in Connection and Life Meaning?

This brief online intervention study examined how reflecting on personal values and the degree to which one’s everyday life aligned with those values affected perceptions of self-connection as well as feeling as though one’s life has meaning and purpose.

Defining Connection: Pilot Studies

As a first step toward understanding people’s everyday experiences of connection, we wanted to explore how people understand authentic connection. How do people understand and describe their deepest connections… to themselves, to other people, and to the world around them?

We conducted a series of interviews with people who were identified by community members as deeply connected to themselves or others. Our focus included people who have deep, authentic connections to other people or to their community—not necessarily those who seem to know everyone, but those who have meaningful relationships, even if only with a handful of people or causes. It’s quality of connection we were after, not quantity.

We also conducted two online surveys to capture lay people’s understanding of connection.

The results from these three studies are being written up for publication, and a summary will appear on our website.