Making Sense of Meaning
A practical guide to a hairy question
Meaning can be a big topic. If you were to paint it as a picture, you’d probably end up with an image of the cosmos — a cloud of stars twisting into the deep realms of space.
Most people would agree that meaning, whatever it is, is important. But many people have trouble defining meaning and, above all, finding meaning in their everyday lives.
This is not an insignificant issue. A 2013 survey of more than 12,000 people found that 50% lack a level of meaning and significance at work. Since meaning contributes to engagement, productivity, happiness, health and well-being, it’s in the interest of organizations large and small to help their people to embody a greater sense of meaning in their lives.
This essay claims that meaning is not an impossible ideal. It’s not just a business buzzword. And it’s not a luxury problem limited to first world anxieties. As David Brooks explains, “there is no income level at which people are not desperate for meaning.”
This essay provides a practical approach to meaning. First, we’ll take a look at the importance of meaning and its benefits. Then we’ll dive into the building blocks of meaning. Finally, we’ll end up with a consolidated statement of meaning, that can help to bring more meaning to the way we work, the way we lead and the way we live.
Reason and control
Every person has a longing for why — an unequivocal reason or explanation for why we’re here. Life is short, and life will end. To justify and make sense of our presence on Earth and to overcome our denial of death, we have a subconscious urge to leave a lasting legacy and to become the “hero” in the story of our own lives. We all seek these hero projects to justify our existence — to, after the fact, explain why we were here. In a funny sort of way, “it is death that provides life with all its meaning,” as psychologist M. Scott Peck wrote.
This works on the macro level of life, but it also cascades down into our day-to-day activities. The more meaningful an action feels, the more that action will feel worthwhile doing, and the more it will keep our attention. As stated by Dan Pink, an action or a job “that’s not inherently interesting can become more meaningful, and therefore more engaging, if it’s part of a larger purpose.”
On the other hand, if we have a nagging sensation that an action is meaningless, then we’re likely to divert our attention from it and even stop doing it. Meaning helps us to focus our attention and motivation on worthwhile activities, and helps us to maintain control of our lives and avoid dead-ends.
Psychologist Irvin Yalom summarizes our need for meaning as a way of explaining our existence and providing us with a sense of control:
“If death is inevitable … then what enduring meaning can there be in life? … We are meaning-seeking creatures. Biologically, our nervous systems are organized in such a way that the brain automatically clusters incoming stimuli into configurations. Meaning also provides a sense of mastery: feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them.”
Some people argue that meaning is nothing more than a “psychological defense against the incomprehensibility of this life and the inevitability of our own death”. But despite the negative framing of this cosmic coping mechanism, meaning is also a key contributor to happiness and well-being.
Many academics have proposed formulas or equations for what makes a happy life. Although the formulas and definitions differ, meaning is considered a building block for happiness. For example:
- Well-being = Positive emotions + relationships + meaning + accomplishment + engagement
- Vital engagement = Enjoyed absorption (flow) + subjective significance (meaning)
- Happiness = Biological set point + conditions of living + voluntary choices and actions (faith, family, community and meaningful work)
Studies have shown that happiness and meaningfulness are “substantially and positively intercorrelated” and that “a meaningful life contributes to being happy and being happy may also contribute to finding life more meaningful.” However, it is important to note that a meaningful life does not necessarily imply a happy life, and a happy life does not necessarily imply a meaningful life.
Summary of meaning’s benefits
So meaningfulness seems pretty important. Meaning helps us to justify our existence. Meaning helps us to be motivated and retain a sense of control of our lives. And meaning helps us to be happy.
But what is meaning? And what does it consist of?
Components and characteristics of meaning
Meaning is a conscious choice
“It is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it.” — Hunter S. Thompson
The first and most important characteristic of meaning is that it is inherently subjective. My wedding will be very meaningful to me, while it will be less meaningful to you. (That is, unless you happen to be my future wife, in which case I hope that you find our future wedding to be equally meaningful.)
The reason that meaning is subjective is because it is dependent on what we have decided our own “hero project” to be. As Viktor Frankl declares in his timeless classic Man’s Search for Meaning, “at any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.”
Two crucial insights are buried into Frankl’s piece of wisdom. First, that we decide what is meaningful. Second, that we have the ability to do so at any moment. Frankl describes this as “the last of the human freedoms” — you can take everything from a person except this. Anything and everything can be meaningful — it depends on our own attitude, our awareness of what our hero project is, and our desire to find meaning in every action.
As the writer John Gardner expressed:
“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
Meaning emerges through vertical coherence
“…when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony” — Mahatma Gandhi
So meaning is our own choice. But before we can harness that choice, we need to know what we choose to be meaningful. We must create our own internal scorecard for determining what is meaningful and what is not. And to do that, we need to know what meaning means.
Reverting to the definition of the word “meaning” itself is a helpful starting point. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, there are three definitions of meaning:
- The first definition denotes the significance of something, i.e. “what is the meaning of life”? We’ll call this purpose.
- The second definition signifies intent, i.e. “he means well”. We’ll call this resolution.
- The third definition refers to dictionary definitions, i.e. “ambivalent means seeing two sides of the same coin”. We’ll call this harmony.
By pure logic, something will be more meaningful if it checks all three boxes of meaning’s definitions: purpose + resolution = harmony. If we 1) have defined a purpose and 2) we act in accordance with that purpose through intent and resolution, then 3) we will bring harmony to ourselves and maximize meaning.
As Csikszentmihalyi highlights, “creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions”.
What does “integration of one’s actions” mean more specifically? We can rephrase the previous labels in the following way:
- Purpose = long-term direction of life
- Resolution/intent = short-term goals
It follows that meaning and harmony can be found if our long-term goals are aligned with our short-term goals.
This is called vertical coherence and, according to psychologists Ken Sheldon and Tim Kasser, people who are happy and mentally healthy have a higher degree of vertical coherence in their lives. Their short-term goals advance them towards their long-term direction.
If our daily actions don’t bring us closer to our long-term direction, then we will experience something called dysergy, the opposite of synergy. This emotional distress occurs when one’s goals are impeded by conflicting demands of one’s time or effort.
The more our day-to-day actions are aligned with our long-term goals, the more integrity and coherence we’ll feel, and the more meaning we will experience. A helpful start is to ask yourself a question posed by marketing legend Zig Ziglar: “Will reaching this goal bring me closer to or further from my major objective in life?”
Meaning is pointing — action and impact
“I never worry about action, but only about inaction” — Winston Churchill
Meaning is not something that is handed down in neatly wrapped gift from above. It is not an answer to a question, in which the riddle of life is immediately solved.
As previously stated, meaning demands not only a purpose but intent — it demands action. It is through our interactions with the world around us that meaning is created. In fact, it is precisely those actions which give life its meaning. “Meaning ensues from meaningful activity,” as Irvin Yalom suggests.
We can illustrate the basics in the following way. You (the dot marked A) carry out an action (the arrow), that has an impact on the receiver (marked B).
Imagine that there was no arrow between A and B. Then there would be no impact on B, and therefore no explanation for A’s existence in the context of B. Without A affecting B somehow, A would effectively be meaningless for B.
So, it is in the arrow itself in which A’s meaning resides. In that sense, meaning is pointing.
The more arrows that emerge from something, and the stronger the impact of those arrows, the greater its meaning. The greater our impact and contribution of our arrows on the receiver, the greater our own sense of meaning becomes. Extrapolating to the extreme, then the least meaningful life is one in which nothing depends, and “the most meaningful life is the one on which everything depends”, as Kevin Simler asserts.
Adapted from Kevin Simler
The determination of what is meaningful depends on the sender and the receiver. Take the example of a boy who waters a dying plant. The boy’s act of watering will be very meaningful for the plant, because the impact of the act itself has such a strong effect on the plant’s survival.
By extension, if the boy waters not only one dying plant but all ten plants that are on the brink of death in his home, then he has performed more meaningful activities than if had not done so.
This means that meaning is not entirely subjective. Of course what we choose to focus on and how we choose to interpret meaning will be an individual proposition, but there is also an objective dimension in which certain acts have more meaning and impact than others. The watering of a dying plant is very meaningful for the plant. We would all agree to that. We don’t need to choose to see it that way — it just is.
Meaning is pointing — giving, serving, and connection
“…being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” — Viktor Frankl
Now, an underlying assumption of the “meaning is pointing” metaphor is that meaning demands a impact on someone or something else. It is not enough to act — we must act in a way which serves others and improves their lives somehow. In a recent survey of more than 2 million people, it was the people with jobs dedicated to service, e.g. teachers, surgeons, clergy, psychiatrists, and educational directors, that reported experiencing the most meaning in their careers.
Ultimately, we cannot be heroes of our own existence if we’re not heroes for someone else. “Meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people,” says Roy Baumeister, the world’s leading researcher on meaning. It is in our influence of the external world in which meaning resides. And by pure extrapolation this becomes a numbers game too — the more people we affect and the greater our effect on them, the greater the meaning.
But it is not only a question of quantity— the more we value and care for the people on the receiving end of our actions, the more meaning we will experience. Most people consider interacting with one’s family and friends as very meaningful (which helps explain why we invest so much time and energy with them, despite the fact that these interactions are often stress-induced affairs devoid of happiness itself). Although the number of people within our closest circles is small, the meaning of our interactions with them is enhanced because of the strength of our emotional bonds (…and through exercises of compassion and gratefulness we can enhance the strength of our care and connection for others).
It is in the context of connection with others that we create and enhance meaning. Jonathan Haidt describes how we can take inspiration from the animal world to forge our own hives of meaning:
“Like bees: our lives only make full sense as members of a larger hive, or as cells in a larger body. Yet in our modern way of living we’ve busted out of the hive and flown out on our own, each one of us free to live as we please. Is it any wonder so many people ask ‘what’s the point?’ or ‘what is the meaning of life?’ Most of us need to be part of a hive in some way, ideally a hive that has a clearly noble purpose. Religion, teaching, science, political campaigns…. these are some of the hives people seek to merge themselves into. The self is often a problem … find ways to lose yours”
Meaning is expressing oneself
“Alienating yourself from your inclinations can only lead to pain and disappointment in the long run, and a sense that you have wasted something unique.” — Robert Greene
Paradoxically, we cannot focus exclusively on others when choosing what meaningful actions to take. We must also consider the notion of expressing one’s true self, one’s unique disposition. In the quest to overcome the denial of death through our “hero project,” we need to feel that it is our own hero project. That I am worthy. That I exist for some sort of reason.
Roy Baumeister says that “activities that express the self are an important source of meaning.” There are many ways to accommodate this need for self-worth and extension of self. We can summarize them as creative expression — when you follow a “deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject” and “the deep desire that stirs you from within” to “express and embody [y]our deepest values.”
In his masterful book on mastery, Robert Greene explains how creativity and self-expression drive connection, and in turn create meaning in our lives:
“We are all in search of feeling more connected to reality — to other people, the times we live in, the natural world, our character, and our own uniqueness … the most satisfying and powerful way to feel this connection is through creative activity. Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming … In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.”
Meaning is created on a path of struggles and challenges
“… it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning … It is only because of problems that we grow” — M. Scott Peck
In the discussion so far, meaning has not been held up as an end-goal in itself. That’s because meaning is something we must choose to experience in every waking moment. While we can, and should, have a long-term direction, these future-oriented destinations do not provide a sense of meaning on their own. It is on the path towards them and on the journey itself when we experience meaning. In a mind-bending sort of way, meaning is therefore experienced across time.
If meaning is given during the journey, then meaning is given through action on that journey. Leo Tolstoy discovered as much when reflecting on life. “I understood that if I wish to understand life and its meaning, I must not live the life of a parasite, but must live a real life, and — taking the meaning given to live by real humanity and merging myself in that life — verify it.”
Living and merging oneself in “real life” means taking on the challenges and obstacles that life throws at us. The more challenging the actions required of us, the more meaningful the journey becomes. Viktor Frankl explains:
“Often it is … an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself … The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
Now, if we must overcome challenges in order to experience meaning, then per definition meaning will be enhanced by motion, movement and growth. If we stand still and don’t progress on our journey towards meaning, then we, by default, won’t experience it.
In Paul Kalanithi’s haunting book on his experience of dying, he paints a vivid snapshot of the importance of progress in living a meaningful life. He writes how he debated on his deathbed whether to have a child — one that he would not have the chance to see grow up:
“Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our families gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living instead of dying.”
We are now armed with several components that contribute to our sense of meaning:
- Meaning is a conscious choice
- Meaning emerges through vertical coherence — when we align our short-term actions with our long-term direction
- Meaning comes from actions that impact the world around us, and that we can see our contribution to
- Meaning comes from actions that impact and influence others who we care about
- Meaning comes from the expression of self
- Meaning emerges on a path of challenges, growth and progression
And the more often we do these things, the more meaning we will experience.
Taken to its extreme, our lives will become more meaningful if we don’t just pursue them once in a while or whenever it’s convenient. A fully meaningful life is defined by consistent exertion of meaningful activities.
To excel in meaningfulness — to become masters of meaning — we must turn it into a way of life. This means maintaining a set of ingrained habits and routines. We must go from practicing meaning once in awhile, to cultivating a meaningful practice. As George Leonard lays out, “for one who is on the master’s journey, … the word [practice] is best conceived as a noun, not as something you do, but something you have, something you are.” And it’s the small things that count. “The real measure of our lives may ultimately be in the small choices we make in each and every moment,” say Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.
While we can do our best to structure our lives in meaningful ways, there will always be a demand to tweak and adjust our routines and actions based on how the world unfolds around us. The world is not fixed, so a certain degree of course correction is required. We can’t just design our lives — we need to continuously redesign them as well.
So, let’s add a couple of final points to our list of components for meaning:
- Meaning is increased if we develop habits and routines of meaningful activities
- Meaning is increased if we continuously redesign our way of life to maximize meaning
If we consolidate all of the components of meaning into a single statement, it would be something along the lines of the following — a condensed recipe for a meaningful life:
A fully meaningful life is created through the design and continuous redesign of a way of life where our actions create impact for others who we care for and value, in a way which is 1) aligned with our desired direction, 2) allows us to fully express ourselves and 3) pits us against challenges we’re forced to overcome.
We’re all struggling to find meaning. And for those that succeed in cultivating greater meaning in their lives, a whole host of benefits will follow.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Ready?
There is no meaning.
“What?!” you howl. “I’ve read this whole essay on meaning and now you tell me that there isn’t any friggin’ meaning?!”
The fact is that, potential religious beliefs aside, there is no inherent meaning to our existence. We are all a collection of atoms and molecules that have through millions of years converged into supposedly intelligent creatures. To provide ourselves with a sense of control, mastery, values and happiness, we’re all searching for “meaning and certainty in a universe that has neither.”
But this doesn’t mean that you can’t create meaning. In fact, both the beauty and the curse of the human experience is that it is within your, and only your, control as to what meaning you choose to create. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi insists: “It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning.”
Recall that meaning is a conscious choice. A conscious choice that you choose to make. We are all the masters of the meaning of our own existence.
That is an incredibly daunting thought. But it’s an incredibly empowering one, too.
In the words of entrepreneur and pseudo-philosopher Derek Sivers:
“Life is (just) life. It doesn’t mean anything. Erase any meaning you put into past events. Erase any meaning that’s holding you back. Erase those times where people said that this means that. None of it is real. Life has no inherent meaning. Nothing has inherent meaning. Life is a blank slate. You’re free to project any meaning that serves you. You’re free to do with it, anything you want.”
So find the meaning that serves you — by designing and continuously redesigning a daily practice where your actions create impact for others who you care for in a way in which is aligned with your desired direction, forces you to grow by regularly pitting you against challenges, and allows you to express your true self.
- Roy Baumeister, Meanings of Life (book and article)
- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
- Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled
- Sarah Perry, Meaning and Pointing
- Kevin Simler, A Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning
- Derek Sivers, The Meaning of Life
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