Make it meaningful

I came across Aaron Antonovsky whilst working on a presentation discussing resilience.

Antonovsky was an Israeli American sociologist and academician whose work concerned the relationship between stress, health and well-being. One key thing he discussed in his work was what makes some people more resilient than others to the stressors one encounters in daily life. He coined the term salutogenesis, made up of the Latin salus = health and the Greek genesis = origin, that focused on what makes you healthy, rather than what makes you ill.

A key concept that Antonovsky employed was the importance of a sense of coherence in a person. This is influenced by three factors:

  • Comprehensibility: a belief that things happen in an orderly and predictable fashion and a sense that you can understand events in your life and reasonably predict what will happen in the future.
  • Manageability: a belief that you have the skills or ability, the support, the help, or the resources necessary to take care of things, and that things are manageable and within your control.
  • Meaningfulness: a belief that things in life are interesting and a source of satisfaction, that things are really worthwhile and that there is good reason or purpose to care about what happens.

I was really struck by this.

It reminded me, for instance, of the way in which culture became very important in the Warsaw ghetto during the war, a situation in which people were facing horrific deprivations and the omnipresent fear of Nazi terror and in which you might assume that people would have been busy simply surviving to bother with culture. Yet this was not the case: for instance, there were clandestine schools and classes set up. Going to and from class in various apartments and basements, students had to hide their books under their clothing. People also organised concerts, lectures, theatrical productions, cabarets, and art contests in the ghetto – despite the hardships of daily life.

Ultimately culture is a means of expressing humanity – and creates a sense of purpose or, to use Antonovsky’s term, meaningfulness.

The more you think about it, you realise that indeed, comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness are a powerful trio – and can be applied to many walks of life.

In a professional context, for example, it is essential that I comprehend what I am doing. By this, I do not just mean a superficial, shallow understanding, but rather a more profound understanding, that I have the intellectual tools to comprehend what is going on around me and can identify the correct solutions.

My work needs to be manageable. There is nothing worse than feeling constantly out of one’s comfort zone or ill-equipped for a task, be it literally, lacking tools or techniques, or in a metaphorical sense, lacking training or expertise. Or a permanent sense of having no control over what is going on around oneself, with every step along the way feeling like rolling dice.

But I think the crucial point of Antonovsky’s three points is meaningfulness. A sense of purpose is essential, as the example of the Warsaw ghetto above illustrates in a very unambiguous fashion, offering a direction and motivation.

I believe that if we can bear these three points in mind when considering a work environment or a team and are able to implement small changes to increase the one or the other, we have made a significant contribution towards a happier, safer workplace.