The Secret to Living a Meaningful Life
Mar 29, 2018

Lela Valdez
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 5 min.

Brian Little, one of the world’s leading experts on personality psychology, is renowned as a public speaker. If you watch his recent TED talk on personality, as millions of others have, you will see an engaging and witty orator holding his audience’s attention with aplomb. You’d probably conclude that Little is an extravert: he’s not only good at what he’s doing, but he seems to be revelling in the opportunity.

In fact, Little is a self-proclaimed introvert. After his talk you would quite likely find him seeking a few minutes of quiet refuge behind the locked door of a toilet cubicle. This is one of the “restorative niches” described in his 2014 book , which he uses to recover from the exhausting demands of acting extraverted.

Little can behave extraverted when he needs to, he explains, because he is enacting what he calls a “free trait”: behaving out of character in pursuit of a deeply meaningful “personal project”, which in this case is to engage and educate his students and others in the value of personality psychology. This isn’t a peculiar quirk of this Cambridge University professor. He believes that each one of us is able to act out of character when we are motivated by an important and meaningful personal goal.

Indeed, Little and his colleagues have spent many years studying how we can break free from the constraints of our more permanent personality traits, and live a happier life too.

To get a flavour of his research, take a few minutes to write down your own current personal projects – for instance, it might be losing weight, being a better pet owner, or writing a book. The list doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but as a guide, most people identify around 15 things.

Your traits describe who you are, your projects describe what you do, and they are eminently changeable

Now, spend a few moments reflecting on each one, in particular think about its importance and meaning to you; how much it is consistent with your personality and values; whether the project brings you joy or stress and frustration; the origins of the project; whether you share the project with anyone else; how much progress you’ve made; and how confident you are about ever completing it.

These questions tap into the five main dimensions measured by formal Personal Projects Analysis: meaning, manageability, connection (to others), negative emotions and positive emotions.

Now zoom in on the handful of projects that are the most meaningful and relevant to your values and identity. These are your core projects and they are especially likely to affect your happiness and well-being. This is an empowering finding, as Little explains in , because whereas your traits describe who you are, your projects describe what you do, and they are eminently changeable. Choose the right projects, and approach them in the right way, and you can make your life richer and more enjoyable.

How your projects affect you

You are especially likely to be happier if your personal projects feel attainable. In fact, Little has found that our confidence in achieving our projects is an even more important factor for our wellbeing than how much meaning a project has.

Put differently, there are few things worse than having a core personal project that feels unobtainable. In fact, findings show that when someone is engaged in a personal project that makes them stressed and miserable, this is an even more powerful drag on their wellbeing than other more obvious factors like poverty.

The perfect combination is to have one or more sustainable core projects that feel within reach and are also full of personal meaning, reflecting what matters to you in life.

Your projects are likely to be more sustainable and joyful if you are pursuing them for your own reasons

There are many other findings to bear in mind. Your projects are likely to be more sustainable and joyful if you are pursuing them for your own reasons, and not simply to please someone else, for instance, and romantic partners tend to be happier together if they share some of the same personal projects.

Perhaps most intriguingly, pursuing these personal projects allows you to break free from your personality traits, which can itself be rewarding: research shows that introverts like Little enjoy acting extraverted more than they think they will, for instance. Even so, Little warns that this can take a toll over time and that it is important to give yourself restorative niches — whether that’s an introvert’s moment alone after a public talk or an extravert’s party time after a day of quiet study.

Reframe your plans

Armed with this kind of knowledge, you can look back at your notes and perform a kind of personal project appraisal. Are there any projects that you’ve marked as lacking progress, or that you’ve identified as highly stressful and feeling impossible to achieve? If so, and if these projects have little meaning or importance, then perhaps you should consider dropping them.

Alternatively, if the stalled projects are necessary and important, you may have identified a key source of unhappiness in your life. When projects get “stuck” in this way, Little recommends various strategies for making progress, including reframing the project to make it more attainable. For example, you could reframe the goal of “Try to write a book” to become “Try to write for half an hour each day”. As an aside, other research has shown that something as simple as the way we phrase our personal goals can influence our chances of success: direct phrasing “Write for half an hour each day” is often more successful than more tentative aspirations such as “Try to write for half an hour each day”.

One strategy for unblocking projects where you’re making no progress is called ‘concept matching’

Another strategy Little recommends for blocked projects is to use “concept matching”, which involves looking for metaphorical parallels between the stalled project and a completely different domain for which you have expertise. For example, if your writing project has hit the buffers and you love football, you could create two lists, one describing aspects of the writing project, the other describing common elements involved in success in football. Then the trick is to look for parallels, which may unlock creative solutions to your stuck project. For instance, what would be your writing project equivalent to home support or pre-season training? Perhaps such questions could get you thinking about your working environment or courses you need to go on, potentially rejuvenating your project.

All of which paints an optimistic picture of our capacity for change. For Little, three forces govern our lives: our biogenic natures (whether we are physiologically extravert, introvert or whatever), our sociogenic natures (how we are raised, the culture we live in and the company we keep), and finally, our idiogenic or “third natures”, which are comprised of our personal projects and the free traits we express in pursuit of them.

Choose those projects carefully, and you may surprise yourself with what you can achieve. “Whereas contexts embed us, projects pull us forward into new possibilities,” he says. “And one of those possibilities is a better life and a happier life.”

By Christian Jarrett/BBC Future

Leave your comments / questions for this practitioner

To write a comment please
Category filter
Concern filter
Type filter

All categories

Wellness Coaching
$20 USD
50 & Beyond Health & Wellbeing Discovery Session

Join me for a comprehensive look into what it will take to stay physically and mentally strong as you move through the second half of your life.

We all want to age without the fear of suffering from a chronic illness and still have the energy and strength to live the life we want.

The number one reason people fail to stay healthy as they age is the inability to consistently follow the right habits and behaviours for health transformation.

Through working with 1000's of clients over the last 20 years, I have been able to develop a coaching program that not only looks at nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management but also how to develop the right mindset needed to succeed.

Having a plan is not as important as having the ability to implement it.

If you are someone who struggles to follow healthy habits consistently. Or you are someone who wants to learn more about what they need to do personally to avoid chronic illness. Then my 30-minute Discovery Session is ideal for you.

From the 30 minutes we spend together, we will go through in specific detail what it is you can do today when it comes to what to eat, how to get the most from exercise, how to develop a powerful sleep routine and how to build a healthy environment needed to live a healthy life.

And with over 20 years of coaching experience in the health & wellness industry, I have witnessed firsthand what it takes to consistently follow the right habits and behaviours for lasting change.

Expect to hear things that will challenge what you have always been told about nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management. As someone who is over 50 and is stronger, fitter and healthier than I was in my 20s, 30s, & 40s, I am well-placed to know what works and doesn't as we move through this period of our lives.

Chris Deavin
Cognitive Psychology
$99 USD
Check Your Vibes! Find out how much Positive and Negative energy you have!

The Energy Leadership™ Index (ELI) assessment is the proprietary, research-backed assessment tool, created by iPEC, that takes something abstract, like the way a person views the world, and turns it into something tangible—a metric that you can see and feel and even reevaluate in the future.

You’ve probably taken personality tests, like Myers Briggs, DiSC, and Enneagram, but this is different. And transformational.

The ELI is an attitudinal assessment tool that captures how an individual currently perceives and approaches work and life. This means that you learn to make change happen in real-time when you encounter a moment of self-doubt, fear, or frustration.

With the awareness and insights gained through the Energy Leadership Index debrief, you have the opportunity to reshape your attitudes and worldview and transform your life into the one you envision.

Our worldview is the result of a combination of many different aspects: our past experiences, level of consciousness, perception of situations. Each of us has a unique combination of all seven levels of energy which, in turn, creates your typical viewpoints, perceptions, and beliefs about life.

Learning about your energetic makeup can help you to reframe your perspective, shift your consciousness, and increase your energy level as a result. Discover your unique energetic makeup by taking an ELI Assessment!

This comes with an hour debrief - As an FYI the price is what it is because there is a price to me- I have to pay the institution for the assessment and the scoring. Then I'll walk you thorugh your results.

David Jacks
Life Coaching
$75 USD
mentorship session
Ignite the Light Within


Powerful! Find your recipe for happiness! Love the skin you're in. We will go deep right away to discover your inner passion, chart a course that aligns with your highest heart power.

Target audience

Adults who are ready to be happy and enjoy their lives. Adults who are depressed, feeling hopeless or lost.


You will feel energized and empowered to make the changes you want in your life.


I will use my intuitive skills as we talk and hone in on your desires. I will place high frequency sigils in your energy field to expand your future and encourage your inner power to come forth.

Other comments

Michele Zirkle
Life Coaching
$60 USD
coaching session
Design Your Life- Personal Development Session

When you aren't sure which way to turn or who to turn to for help in making decisions, I will help you come home to yourself and forge a plan to manifest your desires.
Whether it's everyday details that have you confused or it's major decisions you need to make, I will teach you how to make the decisions that are best for you.

Michele Zirkle

Related Articles

View All
Registered individuals enjoy all the possibilities of Core Spirit.