AMeaningOfLife.org offers models, tools, and resources to empower Optimal Living.
The models offer practical, memorable lenses on the most important—and well-researched—aspects of human well-being. While using the lenses, remember that a lens isn’t life itself; it’s one way of looking at life. There is no one-size fits all approach, which you probably know already!
Below you’ll find a simplified explanation of the three main models and how they interrelate. Our Glossary is another helpful resource to supplement this page. If you find yourself saying: “Wait, that’s a nebulous concept. What do they mean when they use that word?” please go there and check it out. You will also find links to the landing pages for each of these models below, which expand (with great depth) on the ideas introduced here.
Before reading through the models and examples below, please consider that no model currently exists that perfectly prescribes a universal recipe for optimal living. Our models strive to connect the threads of research that offer insight into the varied and subjective world of human well-being. As such, they are tools for cultivating greater well-being in your life. There can be caveats for every combination of variables described by these models. It is our hope that these lenses into well-being can empower you to foster greater meaning, joy, and flourishing in your life– and empower you to do so entirely in your own way!
“All models are wrong, but some are useful” – George E. P. Box
The Four Elements of Well-Being, The Four Cornerstones of Meaning, and The Bliss Map
These three models can potentially offer you actionable insights into the human experience of living well.
You can think of these models as representing various ways you are already finding and creating the joy and meaning you’re experiencing in your life– and, the models provide detail and clarity on ways you can do so even more!
Put another way, these basic models capture the vast majority of what you need to live and understand a ‘happy’ life.
- The 4 Elements of Well-Being – This model represents overall well-being, flourishing, or living well. Often, this is what people mean when they say ‘happiness.’
- The 4 Cornerstones of Meaning – Meaning, the most important element of well-being, stems from some combination of these experiences: Love, Expression, Service, and Discovery.
- The ‘Bliss Map’ – A conceptual tool for assessing how our engagement with “work” (how we are applying our effort in life) creates purpose in various amounts and combinations, and how that affects our experience.
Additionally, a collection of ‘Enablers’ offers skills and techniques that aid in all parts of every model. They are referred to frequently throughout the site, and many have entire sections written about them to help readers understand and practice these skills.
The 4 Elements of Well Being (“Happiness”)
Human well-being, colloquially ‘happiness,’ is composed of 4 general elements. These elements can describe experiences, ways of being/feeling, or types of activities. They are:
Each element has its own unique benefits and limitations for overall well-being.
You can learn all about the 4 Elements of Well-Being in our section titled ‘Happiness.’ You’ll also find pages on ‘Happiness’ Myths, Positive Psychology, and much more, along with resources and exercises.
Lauren is a Peace Corps volunteer who finds her work improving access to education systems in impoverished nations extremely meaningful. While she isn’t very good at her position, she still feels she is able to make an impact while she learns. She is driven and loves what she does- she is even considering volunteering for a second term. However, Lauren struggles with loneliness, as she is culturally isolated and not fully fluent in the local language. She also has very few simple comforts in her current life, such as food she enjoys or access to entertainment she prefers. Her body seems to disagree with the climate of the place she is stationed in, so she is often physically uncomfortable.*
Looking at her story through the ‘Happiness’ Lens, we can examine Lauren’s experience according to the Elements of Well being:
- Lauren is lacking Ephemeral Pleasures (comfort especially)
- She likely experiences Flow/Engagement in her work due to her passion for it.
- She utilizes Choice/Perspective to find joy and meaning despite her challenges.
- She is fulfilling her sense of Meaning and Purpose by doing something she believes in and values.
Compare the Elements of Well-Being to the horns and lead guitar track in the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper.” These instruments provide flavor and punctuation to the song. While beautiful independently, it does not provide the whole picture.
Lauren can use the ‘Happiness’ model to optimize her experience by focusing on increasing her experiences of Ephemeral Pleasures. However, without the perspective available from the other two models, you might miss that this is a low priority for her in light of her other needs being met.
*Note: Every day is different (ie, Lauren might have one really fantastic day followed by a lonely one) and there are elements of her experience that may be more impactful on her overall well-being at any given moment or time period (ie, one day the climate might deeply annoy her and the next not so much).
The 4 Cornerstones of Meaning
The Four Cornerstones model illustrates the domains of life from which meaningfulness arises: Love, Service, Discovery, and Expression. The Well-Being Element of Meaning is underrated in popular culture, and it is the most essential ingredient in the recipe for an optimal, well-lived life.
Rather than attempting to answer the question, “What is the meaning OF life?”—often the subject of philosophy and religion—the Cornerstones Model presents sources for cultivating meaning IN life. Thus, a more empirical approach can be taken without being partial to any particular spiritual tradition or existential philosophy. That being said, the models are still compatible with every spiritual (and non-spiritual) tradition. You can learn more about the distinction between “The meaning OF life” and “meaning IN life” here.
The more detailed Four Cornerstones model has multiple layers of symbolism. It includes spiritual influences on meaning, the impact of our relationships, cultural influences, stories we are told about how to live, the Enablers, and Hindrances. You’ll find more explanation of these details on our Main Model page. We also highly recommend watching the video from our home page below.
For each of the 4 cornerstones, you’ll find a section on the subject packed with information and resources (and more subsections!) to boost your understanding and capacity for meaning in life.
John is nearing retirement and wants to get through his last few years of work with as few hiccups as possible so he can relax and enjoy himself on the other side of his career. He doesn’t consider his job as a networking engineer to be particularly meaningful or even enjoyable, but it isn’t unenjoyable, it pays well, and he is decent at it. Most of the meaning in John’s life comes from having raised his children, whom he is extremely proud of in their young adulthood. While he doesn’t enjoy his work, he does find a great deal of pleasure in golfing, as well as cooking and drinking beer with his friends.
John would claim he is satisfied with his life and very ‘happy.’ He imagines he’ll be even happier once he has retired.
Using the Cornerstones Model to understand John’s well being, we can see that:
- He experiences meaning through Love in his relationships with his children.
- His Discovery is low at this point in his life as he is prioritizing ease.
- His Expression cornerstone is met somewhat through his love of cooking and golfing.
Think of the Cornerstones Model as the vocals of your song. Vocals often convey directly what is meaningful.
To optimize his well-being, John could introduce volunteer work into his life to increase his sense of meaning via the Service cornerstone. He could get back into the dating pool (after being single for six years after the divorce) and foster a loving connection with a new romantic partner to bolster the Love cornerstone. He could find meaning in learning something new (Discovery) and building up the skill for a greater sense of agency.
However, without the additional insight provided by the other models, you could miss that the Choice and Perspective Element of Wellbeing, as well as Purposefulness (informed by the Bliss map) could play huge roles in his overall well-being too.
The Bliss Map
The Bliss Map explores the nature of our ‘work,’ which could be our job, but includes any enduring endeavor. The effort invested into taking care of family, volunteering, pursuing a passion project, or learning are other examples of work.
The ultimate intersection of all portions of the Map leads to ‘Bliss.’ This means you’re doing work that:
- You love
- Are good at
- Are paid for
- Is needed by the world
The Bliss Map illustrates that we can have a variety of combinations of these components that are rewarding in different ways. We can have multiple types of work that meet different needs, or we can have work that meets the criteria of multiple sections of the Bliss Map. It is an excellent tool for assessing the role of work in your life by helping you visualize what your work is and is not adding to the picture.
It’s worth thinking of the quadrants as ‘dials’ instead of ‘switches.’ Rather than being diagnostic measures of the role of any single work as a whole, they are variable over time. There is an ebb and flow of each quadrant, and they offer frames to assess one day at work, a job itself, one’s ‘work/life balance,’ etc.
Along with its variability over time, the Bliss Map—like other models—may vary from person to person. For example, in the case that someone does not value or isn’t interested in having or pursuing wealth (“Paid for it”), Bliss for this individual could be achieved by the intersection of the remaining sections.
A fascinating and essential ingredient in Bliss (as well as Meaning) is having a sense of Purpose. See the Purpose section for an expansion on the science behind applying Meaning in your work life.
Rebecca is a champion chess player. She is extremely passionate about her work and often gets lost in flow whenever she trains or plays. While she doesn’t believe that chess is necessarily needed by or doing the world a great positive service, she donates a significant deal of her winnings to charities she believes in to channel her work into humanitarian efforts. Despite her success, skill, and contribution, Rebecca sometimes has a negative outlook on her daily experience. She feels trapped by her job due to her success (even if she enjoys it) and hates the travel and hotel stays involved in her work. Rebecca complains regularly.
Although Rebecca tends to be negative about her daily life, when asked if she is happy or what she would change, she claims she is happy overall and would not choose a different life, as she cannot imagine a life without her passion as a central focus.
Through the lens of the Bliss map, we can see that:
- Rebecca is doing work she loves, is good at, and paid for.
- Although she doesn’t feel the world needs chess, she contributes to organizations that do meet the world’s needs.
- Because of this combination of features, Rebecca is addressing each quadrant highlighted by the Bliss map.
…So why isn’t Rebecca fulfilled or joyful? Although she has achieved ‘Bliss’ in relation to her work, there are other aspects of well-being not covered in this lens. To optimize her well-being Rebecca could focus on the Well-Being Element of Choice and Perspective to gain a sense of ownership and freedom regarding how she has chosen to prioritize her passion over other preferences. She could introduce a Gratitude practice and possibly work to create more intimate relationships (such as a partner or friends) to increase her sense of meaning through the Love Cornerstone. Rebecca could learn more about herself by dabbling in Discovery and Expression, filling out her hobbies and interests beyond the world of chess.
Enablers – the Skills of Life
“Emotional Intelligence.” “Intentional Lifestyle.” “Smart Habits.” “Life Hacks.” “Conscious Living.” “Well-being Practices.” “Wellness Techniques.”
There is an ongoing rotation of phrases like these that you’ll read in the news and see in the titles of new bestselling books. It’s no wonder that these ideas sell: they can be practiced and strengthened, and they often offer benefits to many sides of well-being.
Enablers are the many skills, tools, and philosophies that enable optimal well-being. Of course, trends come and go. One day, Oprah praises a new health trend, and the next day there’s another article proclaiming Mindfulness as a cure for all of your woes.
There are wisdom and utility in many such skills. Some Enablers, like Clean Communication, can promote clarity and integrity in your use of words. Other optimizations, like how we handle Challenges or foster Habits, broadly affect every aspect of life and well-being.
The Enablers you’ll find on this site are some of the most effective and well-researched skills that you can practice to live life masterfully. You’ll find topics like Gratitude, Mindfulness, Perspective, Hope, and many more (you can see the full list HERE). Each topic is a chapter offering several pages, with resources along the way.
While each of the models offers a different approach to living well, using any single model alone cannot address the full potential we have for Well-Being. When we combine these models with weight given to specific areas we increase our likelihood of optimizing our Well-Being. Similar to the concepts of Eudaimonia or Flourishing in popular psychological or historical literature, Optimal Well-Being is a holistic and sustainable experience of joyfulness and fulfillment.
Optimal Wellbeing is characterized by a specific combination of features from the Elements of Well-Being model, as illustrated in the weighted version below. Meaning is given the most emphasis, followed largely by Perspective, complemented by Pleasure and Flow, and supported by the Enablers. Bliss and purpose in our work also fuels this state.
See our infographic on the Power of Meaning.
**Click the image to see the full version**
- Meaning is KEY – The core factor in a life well-lived is meaning, and this is most often experienced through the lens of positive relationships. The more Service, Expression, Discovery, and Love in your life, the better.
- Purposeful Work Drives Us – You need to get paid to meet your needs. As you apply your will and energy to something day-in, day-out, you will find Bliss when you’re also good at it, the world needs it, and you love the work itself.
- Pleasure and Flow are Great, Too – Everybody knows the satisfaction of enjoying music or a good movie, and the catharsis of losing yourself in a task. These elements of well-being are bountiful, especially in the 21st century. So live it up! However, be on guard: these experiences often oversell themselves in the moment. They can be addictive and distracting from the deeper, more essential aspects of well-being.
- Grow as a Person by Practicing Enablers – Like your perspective, the life skills you carry make you who you are, and strengthen your ability to flourish. You can always learn and grow. Creating better habits and communication, promoting more freedom and play, and cultivating hope—plus other enablers—will all enable you to live your best and most meaningful life.
- Perspective Affects Everything – The importance of Perspective and Choice is that it is inseparable from any experience. How we contextualize experiences can be the difference between torture and ecstasy. The more powerful one’s perspective—more awareness, agency, gratitude, responsibility, etc—the more equipped they are to live well.
So How Do the Models Interrelate?
The models work together in a complementary, interdependent way. Like a symphony, each section of the orchestra is valuable and beautiful independently while also contributing meaningfully to the whole. Every person’s story is like a unique song. Although often very different, every song can be deconstructed along similar lines just as the models can apply to everyone’s unique story. Enhancing the components of each model will increase one’s flourishing and joy, regardless of the specific individual.
Consider the models as different lenses through which to understand well-being. You could look through the lens of the Cornerstones Model to understand Meaning in your life, the Elements of Well-Being Lens to understand how you derive your experiences of joy and happiness, and the Bliss Map Lens to understand what life criteria your work meets. Each one describes a different dimension of well-being overall. A life doesn’t have to meet optimal criteria in every model to be ‘well-lived’ (this typically relates to Levels of Consideration). Rather, our lives are often unique combinations of factors that can be examined through each lens separately, and understood holistically through all the models together.
You are able to get the most well-rounded perspective on well-being in your life by examining it through each of the models together. The facets described by each model are not necessarily dependent on one another. They do not perfectly interrelate. They do, however, support one another, and using all of them together offers a very wholesome view of one’s life and well-being.
*Disclaimer: There is enormous nuance to each aspect of every model. While the following examples may seem extensive, these examples are caricatures: they offer rather short exposition in light of how multi-faceted each aspect is in real life.
Karly Seeks More of Something
Karly, a young woman, considers her life ‘fine,’ and would claim to be generally happy. Her career in real estate is stable, her pay is good, and she has plenty of friends and acquaintances. She is casually dating, and it’s going well. By most metrics, she’s “successful” and has what she wants. However, Karly feels as if there is something more to be experienced. In order to find out what, Karly can use the models to see areas of her life she could be more intentional about and thus increase her overall sense of fulfillment and well-being.
Elements of Well-Being: Karly can see that she has plenty of #1 (Ephemeral Pleasures) and #2 (Flow / Engagement). She goes out with friends, has her favorite TV series, and indulges in Ben and Jerry’s a couple of times a week. Her experience of flow is in sports, as she meets with her local softball team every week and feels like time stands still when she’s on the field. But she has never given much thought to her own Perspective (#3), and its role in her ‘happiness.’ Most importantly, her sense of Meaning (#4) is minimal.
Bliss Map: Looking at Karly’s work with the Bliss Map, she sees that she is good at her job and she is paid well for it. The problem seems to lie in the fact that she doesn’t love (or really even ‘like’) what she does. And although there is demand for the work, she doesn’t see how being a real estate agent is having a meaningful impact on people. She deducts that she is missing components of Purpose in her work.
Consider the whole song as a complex layering and interdependence of the different tracks. Just like a song, your life can be more intricately examined and understood by viewing it along different layers (ie. through different lenses) and understood best when you examine it through all of them together.
In the Bliss map, we can feel purposeful when what they do is needed by the world, we are skilled at it, and we love it. In more detail, Purpose is a goal-oriented, self-transcendent, and personally meaningful life aim. While her job does not need to be purposeful, Karly spends a significant amount of time there and would like to find out how to create more meaning in her work, and thus in her life.
Four Cornerstones: Karly sees that the meaning in her life mostly comes from the love she experiences in her relationships, the service that she offers in volunteering and helping others, and her sense of discovery from learning in sports. She sees how she could bolster Expression to increase her sense of meaning in life.
Karly remembers her time in high school when she was in the school’s jazz band. She remembers fondly how the Expression of musicianship filled her with joy, as if this was the who and why of her life. Karly recalls how Expression through music felt like a deep well of meaning, and there was even meaning in the act of Discovering herself as a musician, and the Service and Love experienced through her community of musicians at that time.
Now What? With the help of these 3 models, Karly can see that she could cultivate more meaning and purpose in her life. She understands that everything is deeply interwoven, and also acknowledges that the area of her life with the least meaning and satisfaction is her job, even though it is currently acceptable. She knows that she could go on the way she has and have a “good” life, yet she feels compelled to seek something more. When referencing the models, she sees that one way to do this is to cultivate more purpose in her work and find more ways to exercise the Expression cornerstone. Karly decides to spend time reassessing her career and come up with ways to either decrease the time she spends doing real estate in order to invest in other passions, or pursue other options in which she would have the opportunity to spend time doing something she finds meaningful.
Charles is a Busy Man
Charles is a determined man with a disciplined work ethic. He is driven to be successful and continue to learn and grow constantly. He worked hard through school and graduated with honors, having now become a successful businessman through serial entrepreneurship. His businesses all support causes he believes in and strive to make the world a better place. He is proud of the work he does.
His daily life is hectic as he strives to optimize every area of his life. He makes time to work out, prepare and eat healthy meals, and the rest of his time goes to working the long hours necessary to managing his multiple businesses. Although he is making a great deal of wealth, he has little time to enjoy it or invest in his personal relationships.
Elements of Well-Being: Charles has the resources to surround himself with Ephemeral Pleasures, but doesn’t take the time to appreciate them. It wouldn’t take much time to do so, rather it could be a shift in what he is paying attention to (Choice and Perspective). He meets his Flow and Engagement wellbeing during work, and has a strong sense of Meaning and Purpose through his businesses.
Four Cornerstones: Charles sees his Expression met through his work and his sense of Discovery also fulfilled by the challenges he faces there that lead to growth. Were he to de-emphasize work in his life he could diversify how he expresses himself and what he learns about by exploring some additional interests outside of business, perhaps in leisure activities such as sports, theatre, or cooking. He could even choose to work part time for fun and a small income while spending the rest of his time in other meaningful ways. Charles feels fulfilled in terms of Service due to the positive impact of his businesses. In terms of the Love cornerstone, Charles has several relationships he values, but in which he does not invest much time. Despite interacting with people all day, he feels somewhat lonely. He has some “work friends” amd “casual friends,” and his family is around, but not engaged. He could make more time in his life for his relationships and would likely feel greater well-being.
Bliss Map: Charles loves what he does, is good at, feels he is meeting a world need, and he is paid well. In terms of his work, Charles has ‘Bliss.’ However, Bliss in work is not the full picture, as we’ve demonstrated above. Without seeing that richness in his relationships and a sense of ease are absent because he prioritizes work over everything, we would miss that Charles could experience more joy through examining his priorities and adjusting accordingly.
Learn. Practice. Share.
It must be stated: these models aspire for the impossible. It is unlikely that psychologists (or anyone else) will ever model all of human well-being perfectly, prescribing optimal living for any one person.
“All models are wrong, but some are useful”. –George E. P. Box
We seek to be highly descriptive and highly practical, offering research-backed information and tools for readers to engage with as they see fit. There is a wide variety of combinations of these models that reflect different flavors of meaning and well-being in different people’s lives.
These people would likely apply each of the models in very different ways.
When engaging with the site, consider it like taking a course on wisdom, life skills, and emotional intelligence from a well-informed friend. Follow the citations in the text and the links, books, and videos on respective Resources pages to explore topics further. As you read, implement your learning by using the Practice and Exercises Printouts found throughout each section, and gauge your progress as you learn by taking assessments.
Remember as well that this site, like life itself, is a growing and changing project. We are always seeking feedback and new information. If you have anything you’d like to share, get in touch with us.