Landscape of Meaning

This site offers a number of models for human well-being.

Each model is a metaphorical and visual tool for understanding the most practical, essential aspects of a life well-lived. Based on modern research, our models aim to distill the crucial ingredients of a ‘happy’ life into memorable pieces.

If you haven’t already, check out the Model of Well-Being page. There, you’ll find the bird’s eye view of our main models, one of which is the 4 Cornerstones in the Landscape below.

Meaning, In Detail

The most important—and most detailed—model you’ll find on this site is explained thoroughly below. It follows the core subject of the site, and the core ingredient for a life well-lived: Meaning.

If you haven’t already, watch the video below, then read on for the full explanation of meaning’s crucial role in our well-being.

Aside from the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of meaning, the ‘why’ is compelling too. And there is a page for that. Take a glimpse at the growing body of research confirming the power of meaning in human lives on the Why Meaning page.

So let’s break it down.

The 4 Cornerstones of Meaning

The foremost offering of this visual model is that Meaning In Life stems from 4 ‘Cornerstones.’ Each one, often in combination, is a spring from which we drink the ‘stuff of life’—the experience of meaning, purpose, mattering, cohesion, & coherence. (Meaning and purpose are in fact different. Check out the section on Purpose.)

You’ll find elaboration on each of the 4 Cornerstones within their respective pages. In some, you’ll find subjects within subjects. Within Love, for example, you’ll find pages on Self-Love, Forgiveness, and Compassionate along with the ins-and-outs of Dating, Friendship, and Long-Term Relationships.

Meaning is key. And, let’s look at some of the other metaphors in this visual.

Meaning OF vs Meaning IN Life

Looking at the landscape in the image, there is a division between the ground and the sky. This represents the boundary between ‘OF’ and ‘IN.’ 

The ground/landscape, where we stand in the graphic, represents real, lived experience. It is what happens to us and by us. It is what we experience IN life.

And, our lived experience is informed by ideas, faith, and philosophy. In the graphic, the sky represents one’s ‘meaning OF’ beliefs. A person’s religious, spiritual, or non-spiritual outlook often carries assertions about the nature OF existence, ascribing meaning as an inherent aspect of reality itself.

This site doesn’t advocate any particular spiritual tradition.

However, as reflected in the landscape of meaning, we do advocate for the ever-important distinction between “of” and “in.” The experience of meaning IN life is the focus of this site. You can read about this distinction in more detail here:

Stars In Our Eyes: Spiritual (and Non) Traditions

Imagine that there is an order to everything…that nothing happens quite by chance…that you are alive for a reason, and that reason fits into a cosmic design that permeates all existence, even beyond the existence you can see and feel.

Does this sound familiar? In fact, the vast majority of people would agree. As of 2020, about 84% of the world population was religious, and many of the remaining non-religious percentages consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious (Nons).

Image: Carrie Osgood, based on 2010 figures.

The ‘Of’ element.

Like points of light in the ‘sky’ of existential ideas, spiritual traditions offer perspective on the very nature of existence. Enabled by individual faith and bolstered by collective practices rich in diversity, these ‘stars’ take many forms and are a staple in human culture and most people’s lives.

This starry sky of spiritual and non-spiritual traditions represents human perspectives on the meaning ‘OF’ life. They are concerned with meaning not only as a lived, psychological phenomenon, but as an aspect of reality itself. These traditions are any that make assertions about meaning as an aspect of reality itself. From this lens, when asked the question “What is the meaning OF life?”, many traditions offer their own unique answers: to ‘praise God,’ to ‘become enlightened,’ or simply to ‘obey god’, to name a few.

For the purpose of this metaphorical model, and this website as a whole, these orientations/beliefs (and their ‘OF’ context) can impact, but are distinct from, one’s experience of meaning IN life. While worth consideration, this website doesn’t advocate for any particular tradition.

The theories and models found throughout these pages are concerned with meaning ‘IN’ life: the psychological experience of meaning as an element of human well-being. The offerings on the site are compatible with all spiritual orientations.

And to supplement our psychological approach to meaning in life, you’ll find a brief page on each of the world’s major spiritual and non-spiritual traditions on this site. Each one takes an open and curious look at the major tenets of the tradition, offering book recommendations, videos, and links to more info across the web.

The “Ghost” Person

In addition to a collection of cells—about as many human as there are bacterial—a person is a collection of stories. Our beliefs, ideas, and experiences swirl together in complex ways, and yet they give us something to grasp, like our sense of identity or our love and behavior toward a child. This complex mixture is also a mixture of influences: family, time period, friends, etc.

Many of the stories we hold carry parts from both sides of the “OF/IN” boundary. And however amorphous, such stories can still be deeply impactful, strongly influencing our experience of meaning.

The ghost person represents any one of us. Notice that the person in the graphic sits between both the ground and the sky.

Life is a vastly complex mixture of objective reality and ideology, nature and nurture, ‘real’ and ‘real to me.’

This ‘ghost person’ represents our lived experience and where it sits among its many influences. While it may be impossible to differentiate each and every influence and how they interact to create one’s “life,” it can be helpful to us to remember the sources of these influences and to train our awareness of the interplay between objective/circumstantial vs. subjective/ideological.

There is an extensive collection of pages on the subject of stories, reality, and lived experience. Called Your Storied Life, it approaches ontology, objective vs. subjective reality, narrative identity, and more from a psychological lens. You can check it out here:

If this subject interests you, make sure to also check out the Mirrors and Lenses pages of our Discovery section.

Ideas, Values, and Wisdom: from Stars to Mist

Among the ‘sky’ of ideology, our ‘stars’ of traditions are not alone. What about the little ideas that we read, think, or agree with, but don’t always stick with us? Looking at the image again, notice the gradient of color. This ‘mist’ represents the many small grains of ideas, values, and wisdom that we are exposed to throughout life.

The mist is the inspirational quotes we read on a friend’s wall, or the ‘29 tips to live a happy life’ we consume in our favorite blog. It is people waxing philosophic. It is elders offering their experience of the road they’ve traveled thus far. They can be wrapped up in humor or edicts or musings, and be on bumper stickers, wall hangings, Pinterest images, memes, speeches, or thoughtful essays. What they are NOT is a codified tradition like the ones in the ‘stars.’

Like mist, we are exposed to these small vaporous droplets frequently. And they may get us damp, but they do not necessarily quench our thirst for meaning and joy.

Some Inspiring Quotes

“Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines.” – Robert H. Schiuller

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan

Videos Like ‘Shots of Awe’

The Words of Alan Watts

If you’re interested in more elaboration and a LOAD of examples, check out our Mist page in the mood section. Like the other mood pages, it’s a collection of resources from around the web to get you into the mood for thinking about life—full of fun quotes and little grains of wisdom.

People: the Branches Framing Life

We, humans, are social animals.

You may have heard that uttered before as an adage. And it couldn’t be more true.

Children as young as six years old can spontaneously find ways to collaborate to maintain a shared, limited resource.

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.” – Aristotle

We have a tendency to anthropomorphize, even when looking at simple animated shapes.

Even higher-brain experiences, like meaning in life, have strong roots in social factors. There is no shortage of studies showing social relationships to be the most frequent source of meaning in life.³ ⁴ ⁵ ⁶

So why isn’t ‘Relationships’ one of our Cornerstones? Relationships are vast, diverse, and rich with implications on our well-being.

It is not just from relationships, but through relationships that we receive many of life’s nectars of well-being.

For this reason, the landscape of meaning (how it is lived and perceived) is framed by branches representing the social aspect of life.

People, past and current, give us the context into how we will find meaning in life. Having deep connections like friends, family, or community, gives us a platform to understand and act purposefully. The cornerstones are the channel by which people become meaningful, such as through helping us discover ourselves, or by being a conduit for love.

Consider some of these meaningful experiences:

Love

My wife and I exchanged gifts for our anniversary.
We just had our first date and I feel butterflies!
I would take a bullet for you…we’re bff’s.

Service

Let’s bake cookies for the neighbors.
You helped me up at soccer practice, and it reminded me why I really do this sport.
Taking care of grandma is hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Discovery

Having these conversations with you helps me figure out who I am and what I care about.
College offered so many different experiences, and that richness forged some of my strongest friendships.
Being a therapist gives back not only because I help people, but because I learn about my own life through my clients.

Expression

Thank you for listening to me. I always feel so understood when we talk.
Jamming with my friends is about more than just playing. It’s a conversation with our deepest selves.
I make this art knowing that other people will see it. Without that, I don’t know why I would do it.

My closest friends are some of the most meaningful parts of my life. They teach me about myself every day, and we always help each other grow. (Discovery & Service) We always know that we have each others’ backs, and it feels good knowing that you have somebody like that nearby. (Love & Service) Plus, we like the same activities, and do them together all the time! (Expression)

Looking closer, we can see a lively metaphor in these “branches.” The thickness of the branches is like the depth of the connection. Your family may be more trunk-like, while a workmate might be more of a small branch. The deeper/thicker a branch or connection, the more meaning they foster in our lives.

The fruit and the flowers on the branches represent the nourishment provided by positive relationships.

The branches that are not alive represent past relationships. Though not currently blossoming, the branches are still there, affecting the way we frame and understand life.

Want to read more about people and relationships as a source of meaning and well-being? Check out this page:

And you’ll find a variety of subjects throughout the site that will empower your relationships in incredible ways. Here are just a few:

Enablers: Skills for Meaning and Joy

There are skills that we foster throughout our lives to enable more flourishing and joy. These skills enable the cornerstones of meaning, one’s relationships, and even other such skills.

Each of these ‘Enablers’ is a skill or aspect of life that we can practice and strengthen. Each of the enablers has far-reaching effects on our well-being. They help us to be ‘better’ people—fuller, wiser, more intentional, and vibrant versions of ourselves—through consideration and practice.

There are many such Enablers. Some of them are as popular as they are powerful, like Mindfulness or Gratitude. Others are common yet commonly misunderstood, like Money and Hope. Some, when practiced, are like gaining uncommon superpowers of communication and personal freedom, like Compassionate Communication and 100% Responsibility.

Each of the Enablers linked above is its own respective subject with a collection of pages offering insights, resources, and practice. And there are many more.

As you read through Enablers, you enter a life-long journey in practicing and implementing wisdom. These life skills offer satisfying paths of personal growth and mastery.

You can find a full list of our Enabler sections here:

Citations:

  1. Debats, D. L. (1999). Sources of Meaning: An Investigation of Significant Commitments in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 39(4), 30–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167899394003
  2. Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Lambert, N. M., Crescioni, A. W., Dewall, C. N., & Fincham, F. D. (2009). Alone and Without Purpose: Life Loses Meaning Following Social Exclusion. Journal of experimental social psychology, 45(4), 686–694. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2009.03.007
  3. Stavrova, Olga & Luhmann, Maike. (2015). Social connectedness as a source and consequence of meaning in life. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 10.1080/17439760.2015.1117127.
  4. Maeve B. O’Donnell, Christof N. Bentele, Hannah B. Grossman, Yunying Le, Hoon Jang & Michael F. Steger (2014) You, me, and meaning: an integrative review of connections between relationships and meaning in life, Journal of Psychology in Africa, 24:1, 44-50, DOI: 10.1080/14330237.2014.904097