We’ve considered four of the five elements of well-being as outlined in Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish—Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationship, and Accomplishment. Today, I’ll cover the final element in PERMA, the M for Meaning.
Meaning is the sense of belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are. There is clearly an element of shared experience and participation, so meaning impinges on relationship; there is a subjective positive feeling when we experience something that is meaningful, impinging on positive emotion. But unlike these other two PERMA elements, meaning must stand the test of retrospectivity: If some experience was meaningful in the moment when we might also have experienced positive emotion and relationship, for that experience to truly contribute to long-term well-being, the meaning aspect itself must sustain. How can partner dancing—which by its very nature of changing partners with every song (in most venues) is ephemeral, and mostly non-consequential in the large scheme of things—how can dance bring meaning to one’s life, thereby contributing this aspect of well-being?
This is a tricky one because there is no general case of a passive experience when it comes to meaning. There are many experiences in life that will, in most people, induce positive emotion. Being in flow – the signal of engagement – often takes us by surprise. Accomplishment takes deliberate effort and perseverance; true relationship, arguably the same, although it sometimes sneaks up on us.
Meaning is different. Meaning comes from within ourselves, I think, and is founded in one’s intention. Consider a situation that might engender a meaningless connection. If, for example, a dancer’s intention in the dance community is to boost his/her own ego, dance becomes meaningless in Seligman’s sense. Or rather, it becomes purely instrumental: a means to accomplish a particular, self-gratifying end. One can imagine other, analogous self-serving intentions with a similar effect (and the headlines are rife with examples, lately). Ironically, for such individuals, dance promotes the opposite of well-being, especially if those intentions end up being frustrated in one way or another.
For dance to be meaningful, one’s participation in dance ideally comes from an open heart, a sense of contributing to others’ well-being, whether that is embodied in individual partners, or in a dance community as a larger whole. It is not only being part of the dance community, but serving the dance community for reasons that go beyond one’s personal benefit. In general, people live a life of meaning when they possess a generosity of spirit. If one thinks of one’s involvement in dance from that same perspective—generosity of spirit—it is possible to elevate what is essentially an ephemeral social activity to such an extent that it becomes meaningful.
It means welcoming the newbie to a particular dance scene, helping the beginner to have the best dance of their evening, or even of their dance career to date. It means organizing, contributing, providing, setting up, and taking down. It means inviting the “wallflower,” aka shy person, to dance. For many, it means modifying your personal actions and interactions so that you begin to see yourself as a dancer in a larger context and participate accordingly.
Dance can be truly meaningful and thus contribute to your well-being over the long term. It happens when you realize your place in relation to others, and how you can touch their lives in a positive way, especially when we…
See you on the dance floor.