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FULLY DIGITAL - NO PUBLIC : PhD Defence Jacky van de Goor | Wonderful Life - The power of sharing and reflecting on meaningful moments

Wonderful Life - The power of sharing and reflecting on meaningful moments

Due to the COVID-19 crisis measures the PhD defence of Jacky van de Goor will take place online. 

The PhD defence can be followed by a live stream.

Jacky van de Goor is a PhD student in the research group Psychology, Health & Technology (PGT). Her supervisor is prof.dr. G.J. Westerhof from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS).

Meaning: a basic human need, fundamental to health and wellbeing. A fundament however, that is more and more at stake in the dynamics of an accelerating and increasingly self-centered society. This thesis contributes to building this fundament by giving insight in the way a sense of meaning in life may be enhanced. It explores meaning through the personal, lived experience of meaningful moments: memories of specific events in life that are felt to be of great value and significance. The study investigates the way these moments work and the way recollecting and sharing meaningful moments may contribute to enhancing a sense of meaning in life.
Chapter one is an introduction to meaning and meaningful moments. It introduces the Wonderful Life Question as a novel way to elicit meaning moments: What if there is an afterlife. There, all your memories will be erased, except for one. Which memory do you choose to take with you to eternity? This question, derived from the Japanese movie After Life, has proven to immediately induce a process of scanning life and focusing on the most essential, salient moments, without directing to a specific type of moment. To investigate the emergence of meaning from the memories elicited by this question, a narrative approach was chosen throughout this thesis. Narrative is considered the mode par excellence by which people construct meaning and identity, and narrative psychology accepts that people make sense of events and give meaning to life through the stories they exchange. Taking a narrative approach means employing this meaning-constructing quality of narratives to investigate the emergence of meaning.

Chapter two presents a study aimed at characterizing and categorizing meaningful moments. It describes an investigation of one hundred narratives of meaningful moments from a variety of people, chosen in answer to the Wonderful Life Question. The emotions of wonder, inherently related to the experience of meaning, were used as a lens in this study, and the dimensions of context and intentionality, retrieved from the literature on these emotions, were employed to make a distinction within the dataset. In this way, an overview was developed that colors in the overall picture of meaningful moments and divides the landscape of meaningful moments into five categories with clearly distinguished characteristics: opening up to life, facing the precarity of life, celebrations, countering the negative, and familiar routines. The categorization highlights that meaning is not restricted to happy moments in life, thereby empirically supporting the second wave positive psychology movement, that counters the dominant focus on mere positive experiences, and highlights the potential of difficult moments to enrich life and stimulate personal growth. Alongside this, the study sheds light on the meaning potential of familiar routines: small, recurring moments of ordinary life have that as of yet been least recognized for their quality to enhance a sense of meaning in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Finally, regarding the overview as a whole, it may be seen to support the premise that any moment in life is potentially meaningful.

But how do these moments become meaningful? The study in chapter three aims to answer this question by investigating the mechanisms involved in the construction of meaning. It focuses on meaning as a mindset, a mindset of wonder: an intentional focus, a passion of inquiry to see the extraordinary within the ordinary and taken-for-granted. In this study, familiar routines were chosen as the object of investigation because of their paradoxical relation to meaning: they may be a rich source of meaning, enhancing a sense of connectedness to life, but may just as well become habitual and lose meaning. The chapter describes a narrative investigation of a set of thirteen memories of familiar routines chosen in answer to the Wonderful Life Question. The heuristic devices of evaluations and storyline breach were employed to gain insight in the way these moments are constructed to be meaningful. Contrasts were found to play a crucial role. Findings point to the contrast between instrumental acts and their higher purpose, and to the awareness of opposing values or states of being emerging either simultaneously or subsequently in the routinely moment. Finally, contrasts may arise by zooming out from the moment to another period of time, to another setting or aspect of life in which the value experienced in the moment is absent. The mindset of wonder and these meaning constructing mechanisms have received surprisingly little attention so far, and are a promising field for further study on the development of a meaning orientation towards life.

Chapter four presents a study on the emergence of meaning from meaningful moments over time, addressing meaning as a process. Out of a preexistent set of narratives of meaningful moments, chosen in answer to the Wonderful Life Question, a purposeful sample of nine moments was chosen to represent each of the five types of meaningful moments identified in the study in chapter two. Narrative interviews were conducted about the way these moments were experienced to be meaningful and affected life; a holistic content analysis lead to the development of an integrated framework in which several main themes in the process of meaning emergence are brought together. The study shows how meaning discovery may lead to meaning creation, which in turn may lead to retrospective meaning discovery. The framework integrates the concepts of coherence, purpose, significance and self-transcendence, and empirically illustrates the way these work together to bring about a sense of meaning and significance in life. In regard to coherence, findings suggest that meaning discovery starts with and thrives on the emotions of wonder, while the understanding of this meaning tends to unfold over time. In relation to purpose, the study points to letting go as an important precondition to meaning: an open, vulnerable and appreciative attitude. Purpose therefore is paradoxical, as it involves both focus and direction as well as the willingness to detach from proven paths and patterns, gaining deeper understanding on the way. As a whole, the developed framework leads to a deeper understanding of meaning as a continuing process in life.

In chapter five, meaning is approached from an interactional perspective. The presented study investigates the way a sense of meaning is brought about in the process of sharing meaningful moments with others. The chapter describes a case study of a group counseling intervention in which eight participants, all professionals in the field of mental health care, took part and shared their meaningful moment, chosen in answer to the Wonderful Life Question. Martin Buber’s philosophy of meeting as the essence of meaning was operationalized to gain insight in the way the different elements of the intervention contribute to the emergence of meaning. Two focus groups were conducted in which participants reflected on their experience of meaning throughout the intervention, after which a thematic analysis was performed. Results show the way sharing meaningful moments may lead to authentic encounters and a sense of meaning that is physically felt. Findings highlight the value of working with vivid narratives and the role of silence in seeing the other and being seen in a genuine way. The study particularly points out the value the Wonderful Life Question. By sharing memories chosen in answer to this question, participants not only experience a stronger connection to themselves and to the other participants, but also to humanity and the larger whole of life: a self-transcendent experience that may have a transforming impact. Overall, the study exemplifies Buber’s philosophy of meeting, a real-time shift from self-orientation towards the awareness of relatedness, in the process of sharing meaningful moments.

The results of this dissertation are brought together in four key findings. In sum, the thesis gives insight in (1) different categories of meaningful moments, in (2) the mechanisms of the mindset of wonder as a crucial aspect of the meaning orientation towards life, in (3) meaning as a personal process of discovery and creation, and in (4) meaning as an interactive process of meeting through sharing meaningful moments. Meaning being fundamental to our health and wellbeing, these findings may contribute to building this fundament and enhancing a sense of meaning in life. Overseeing the dissertation, it is the open, appreciative and accepting attitude of wonder, letting go and connectedness that runs as a thread through the findings and the stories people share of their meaningful moments. Findings that call for wonder next to comprehension and coherence, for surrender and letting go alongside purpose and performance, and for authentic meeting besides a mere functional way of relating. The question arises if ratio and understanding, results and control, autonomy and self-efficacy are not overvalued in their role to enhance a sense of wellbeing - in research as well as society. The thesis pleads for a shift in thinking and acting towards a mindset of wonder: an open mindset, in which we see ourselves not as solitary beings, but as part of a larger whole. It is this mindset that enables the discovery meaning in all kinds of situations, as well as the creation of meaning that serves this larger whole and thereby, ourselves. For meaning is more than a mental healthcare issue, but is to be part of the fabric of everyday life.