Why Meaning?

We all want to be ‘happy.’

But what does that mean, exactly?
There is a problem with our existing approaches to happiness.
We want to smile, laugh, and enjoy the moment. We want to be deeply engaged. We want serenity.
And we want it all to matter. We want to consider our life, as a whole, and feel satisfied with it. We want it to feel valuable.
This element in particular is what this page, and this whole website, is about.
The feeling of life satisfaction and value we’re talking about is a sense of meaning, and the joy that results from it.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out our Infographic on the Power of Meaning.
**Click to see the full version.**

The problem with our general view of ‘happiness’ is it generalizes these many types of ‘happiness’ as one thing.

More specifically, it overstates the psychological value of pleasure and understates the value of JOY.

This page will present a generalized picture of the importance of meaning in life.
If you are more scientifically inclined, please check out The Science of Meaning, in which we highlight recent research, explore useful terms and scales, and more.

A Timeless Misconception

The word ‘happiness’ is often used as a catch-all for the supreme measure of a virtuous, ‘successful’, well-lived life.
In truth, here is the Oxford Dictionary’s definition:
Happiness (n) – 1. The state of being happy.
Where ‘happy’ is defined:
Happy (adj) – 1. Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
Now we can start to see the problem: ‘Happiness’ actually refers to the more fleeting, changeable state of feeling content.
But what about all the rest? What about feeling love for your spouse? What about those reasons to wake up in the morning, like living for our values and believing in something? What about that sense of satisfaction from helping a friend, creating art, growing one’s identity, or being in a relationship?
We’re talking about ‘Happiness’ vs ‘Joy’

“There’s more to life than being happy” – A TED talk by Emily Esfahani Smith

The importance of this distinction persists. We even have a whole page to explore it further. Though this crucial separation is still scarcely in our public lexicon, it’s nothing new. When Aristotle philosophized about ‘happiness’ he was talking about Eudaimonia. This original Greek word — which focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning — has since been confused with Hedonism. Now, Eudaimonic over Hedonic happiness is a central topic for philosophy and psychology.
With today’s research in the bountifully blossoming field of Positive Psychology, we see these ever-important distinctions being categorized further.

Philosophers like Aristotle and scientists of present-day psychology both converge on a central idea:

Meaning is the key to a well-lived life.

This distinction may be one of the most important offerings we provide on this site. A sense of meaning is NOT the same as colloquial ‘happiness’. In fact, happiness (feeling ‘good’) without meaning can be a hindrance to an optimal life, and may even be bad for your health.
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided […] If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need. While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. […] Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.” (Baumeister 2013)
And this is referring to only one cornerstone of meaning (Service). We need all 4 to live our best lives.
The purpose of this website — along with highlighting this distinction — is to distill and refine the details of meaningful living. We provide our readers with models for understanding and equipping meaning, skills and tools for enabling an optimal life, and so much more.
For this page, we’ll highlight some reasons WHY meaning is so important, and provide a collection of links, videos, and books that explore the subject of meaning further.
If you’re interested in a even more in-depth look at the Science of Meaning, Click Here. On that page we present a landscape of the studies and finding that are propelling meaning to the forefront of psychological research.

Organized religion is on the decline in America, especially for younger people. The 2018 American Family Survey, conducted by Deseret News in Utah, found that “for millennials and GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all.” This may not be problematic in itself, but for centuries, religion served as a driving purpose for many people. When nothing fills this vacuum, the effect can be a negative one. A study published earlier this year in JAMA Network Openfound that people without a strong life purpose—defined as a sense of feeling rooted in your life and taking actions toward meaningful goals—were more than twice as likely to die between the years of the study (2006 to 2010) compared with people who had one, even after controlling for things like gender, race, wealth, and education level. Speaking to NPR, Celeste Leigh Pearce, one of the authors of the study, said, “I approached this [study] with a very skeptical eye, [but] I just find it so convincing that I’m developing a whole research program around it.” Alan Rozanski, a cardiology professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City, says that purpose is “the deepest driver of well-being there is.” — from Outside’s articleWe’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of it is Nonsense.

Note: “Purpose” is often used to mean the same thing as “Meaning.” But in reality, purpose is part of meaning. Living a meaningful life means that you probably have a sense of purpose, and meaning can still come from other things, like a sense of significance or coherence.

Meaning Matters

Meaning in life is related to higher social integration, better health, higher everyday competence, high psychological well-being, and lower depressive symptoms. (Steger 2013)

It’s no wonder that sayings like these are so common:

  • “Follow your heart”
  • “Be the change you wish to see in the world”
  • “The purpose of life is a life of purpose”
  • “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In his best-selling book, Daniel Pink declares purpose as one of the three keys to motivation, together with Autonomy and Mastery.

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

An assertion here is that a ‘rich’ life is not simply a life of ephemeral pleasures.
This has been shown in research. Wealthy people are more likely to report themselves as happy and comfortable, but unless they also carry a sense of meaning, their Life Satisfaction tends to be lower. Even when a sense of purpose brings anxiety (for example, caring for a child) it makes us more likely to be open-minded and interested about the world around us.” (Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008)

Purpose at Work

It’s a simple fact: most of us will spend a vast time of our lives at work.
For this one, short life, we may end up spending surprising time behind a desk or computer screen, managing transactions, or populating spreadsheets.

With that said, there is a MASSIVE difference between work that is ‘just a job’ and work that gives us a reason to wake up in the morning and feel fulfilled before sleeping.

In his book, The Purpose Revolution, John Izzo shows evidence that employees who are focused on purpose perform better on almost every metric that leaders care about: engagement, commitment, service, productivity…they even call in sick less.
His book is one example of the trend in employers to hire people driven by a sense of purpose. And the reasoning is sound.
Purposeful companies do better in their market. In this case, what’s better for individuals is also better for company culture, and even productivity.

From SAP’s article “Why Companies of the Future Need Purpose

If you’re wondering how to choose the best, most purposeful work, check out our Bliss Map.

Meaning IN Life vs. Meaning OF Life

A central premise of this site is the non-exclusivity of meaning IN life and meaning OF life.
Let’s explain:

Meaning OF Life – This concept is the notion that existence has an inherent, overarching meaning. Generally this approach is one of faith and spirituality. Various religious traditions (which we summarize HERE) assert an idea of a cosmic law or order of meaning, as created by a deity or otherwise. It’s the idea of ‘meaning’ as a thing outside of us. Part of the fabric of reality itself, meaning is of life, per the inclinations of a god/gods/cosmic order.

Meaning IN Life – Simply the experience of meaning. In this sense, meaning is a sensation that an individual can partake in by living and acting in according with their values.

Intuitive, right? And now that we know the difference, we can see something crucial: it isn’t between one or the other.
Religious people can still experience meaning IN life, perhaps contextualized by the ‘OF’ worldview of their faith. Likewise, Atheists/Agnostics can experience meaning IN life, without belief in an ‘OF’.

Learn the in’s and out’s of happiness, including the 4 types, the common myths, and more.

Our informative overview of the “OF” worldviews. You’ll find an article for each of the world’s major religions.

Did you know?
Actively religious people are:

  • more likely than their less-religious peers to describe themselves as “very happy”
  • more likely to join non-religious organizations like charities or clubs.
  • more likely to vote

*From a Pew research study in 2014.

Despite rising rates of non-faith worldviews, especially in Western countries, the world remains religious by majority. Most of human society champions some form of “OF” worldview to meaning.
On a large, cultural scale, this predominant attention to meaning “OF” life worldviews may be overshadowing our attention to meaning “IN” life.
And the experience of meaning is accessible to everyone.

A study conducted by Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, found that among both patients and personnel in his Vienna clinic, about 80 percent believed that human beings needed a reason for living, and around 60 percent felt they had someone or something in their lives worth dying for. (Frankl 2000)

With that being said, our focus throughout this site is on meaning IN life.

Following the mountain of scientific evidence of the value of meaning and purpose in any form, our goal is to bring it further into the spotlight. Empowering our readers to live their best possible lives, we encourage joyful, meaningful living that is compatible with any worldview.

The 4 Cornerstones of Meaning

In Our Model for meaning IN life, we break down its primary sources as an interplay of 4 simple, memorable, powerful elements:

Discovery / Exploration

Challenging oneself, engaging in play and experiencing awe, even exploring the world…they all translate to personal growth, the essence of this cornerstone.
Growth is often an arduous process. Echoing the difference between happiness and joy, it can even be downright unpleasant. Yet, it is nevertheless fundamental to meaning in life.
Carol Ryff identifies Personal Growth as one of the ‘6 factors for psychological well-being’. She describes it as encapsulated with this statement:
“I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.” (6 – Ryff 1989)
She also describes a ‘high scorer’ in Personal Growth this way:
“Has a feeling of continued development; sees self as growing and expanding; is open to new experiences; has sense of realizing his or her potential; sees improvement in self and behavior over time; is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness”(30 – Ryff 2014)
Among her six factors are also self-acceptance (see our section on Self-Love), autonomy (see our section on Freedom), and environmental mastery. Each contains elements of this cornerstone.
Martin Seligman, often regarded as the founder of Positive Psychology, heralded the development of personal virtues, saying the good life is one in which we “use signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” (from Authentic Happiness)
Similarly, the Sources of Meaning Scale (23 – Schnell 2009) identifies a dimension of Self-actualization: “Employing, challenging, and fostering one’s capacities”.

Expression

When we use our capacities, especially when from our sense of identity, we create meaning. Often in an interplay with Discovery and Exploration, Expression is an outward effort.
This is our sense of impact on the world. Meaningful experiences are often of this type: when we feel reason behind what we do. That feeling when you say something you truly believe in, or when you share a poem that unveils an authentic part of you…this is expression as a source of meaning.
It can feel like self-transcendence (and sort of a combination of presence, service, love, and expression).
Do you have a hobby? What do you enjoy about it? What makes you feel alive, engaging your curiosity and sense of self? What gives you a vessel for creative thinking and sharing? This is expression.

Service

When we act in accordance with our values, it often means serving a “greater good” or a “higher cause”. This pillar to meaning in life can take many forms, from watering your neighbors plants during their vacation, to devoting one’s life to environmentalism.
Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford researcher in Positive Psychology said, regarding one of her studies with colleagues:
“Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker.” (1 – Baumeister 2013)
When we serve, we can especially see the operating difference between happiness and joy. For example, caring for a sick relative may not be a pleasurable endeavor, and yet it can fill our life with meaning, increasing our overall life-satisfaction and sense of well-being.

Love

A skill, an experience, a sense of life being shared…often interwoven with the other 3 cornerstones.
In a study by Routledge et al in 2018, 404 participants answered openly to this prompt “We are interested in identifying the different ways people find a sense of personal meaning in life. Using the space below, for the next few minutes, please describe what makes your life feel meaningful.”
The research derived 13 primary themes in their responses: social relationships, parenting, personal goals/self-improvement, religion, spirituality, helping others, legacy, pursuit of knowledge, hobbies, travel, career, nature, and no meaning/uncertainty.
Notably, social relationships stood out as the most prominent source of meaning in life for all participants.

Some of these other sources of meaning have parallel sections on this website:

Parenting → Service, Love
Personal Goals → Discovery, Adulting, Freedom
Religion → Spiritual Traditions of the World
Helping Others → Service
Career → Bliss Map
Nature → Awe

Love, whether in the form of friendship, romantic partnership, or any other type, is like the fuel for how we relate in the world. Usually, this takes the form of human relationships.
People who feel connected to and supported by others report greater meaning than those who feel disconnected, ostracized, or lonely. (31 – Lambert 2013) Experimental studies confirm this link by demonstrating that experiences of social exclusion decrease meaning (32 – Stillman 2009) whereas experiences that engender feelings of social support increase meaning. (33 – Routledge 2011)
Especially with love, relationships can fill our life with meaning. Through relationships, we can experience the full breadth of the other 3 cornerstones as well. Hence, in our model, people are the ‘branches‘ that tend to frame our experience of meaning.

Love is vast and illusive. Our section on the subject covers a LOT of ground, and contains sections in their own right. The following are some highlights of what you’ll find within that cornerstone on the site. You can click the buttons to skip straight there.

This section is like a manual for one of the most valuable (and misunderstood) interpersonal skills out there.

Learn in detail how and why to love yourself. From your physical health to your general self-esteem, there is room to grow!

What does it mean to really truly be there in the moment? What’s the value of it? Can I train it?

Learn the skill that has captured Microsoft CEO’s, Intentional Communities, and leaders around the world. ‘Nonviolent Communication’ is the art of listening and speaking with empathy.

The ancient Greeks had 6 different words for love. Here, we’ll learn many more, and why the distinctions are important.

Make makes valuable friendships? This section is devoted to one of the most important forms of relationships out there.

Here are all the ins and outs: Dating PLUS, Commitment, Gottman theory, and Couple Rituals.

Enablers

By now, hopefully, you’re convinced about the power of meaning. The research is pretty convincing: Meaning in life is priceless.
Well, now we know for sure. And, maybe you already knew. To know is one thing, and to act is something else entirely.
So what do we do with knowledge?
If life is best lived with meaning and purpose, what to we do? While enlivening the cornerstones, is there more I can do? How about the simple day-to-day things like how to think and communicate? I know love is important, and how do I navigate a relationship skillfully while in a conflict? How do I minimize suffering? How do I communicate effectively?
This site is full of breakdowns, how-to’s, and resources for the skills of life. Whether it’s mindfulness, gratitude, challenge, or even adulting, we have you covered on a wide range of topics. Learn life skills and get better at living every day, bit by bit.

Books

These books are about the power of meaning and in life. By reading them, you’ll develop further insight into the value of meaning for well-being, the latest research in positive psychology, and more.

Perhaps the landmark book of Positive Psychology.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “mee-high cheek-sent-mee-high”) presents key research on engagement and optimal experiences. When, along with this, life is full of meaning, one experiences a ‘Unified Flow State’.

This book has taken the world by storm. Quickly becoming a best-seller, this book takes a journalistic approach to the subject by examining many stories and interviewing authors and scientists.

An easy read on the subject, affirming and strengthening many of the aspect of purpose-driven living.


Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Auschwitz, explores the human capacity for purpose and perspective in this historic book.


We are each our own therapist, after all. The approach of this book is applicable for anyone reading for themselves.

A well-written romp about meaning and its power to change people in remarkable ways.

This is a comprehensive look at meaning in the world; how it’s experienced differently by cultures and individuals. Perfect for if you’re interested in meaning as a scholarly subject in and of itself.

An examination of meaning by examine meaning along five dimensions: the architecture of meaning, responding to uncertainty, meaning from retrospection, compensating for meaning violations, and restoring meaning: physiological and neurocognitive mechanisms.

Why have people from different cultures and eras formulated myths and stories with similar structures? What does this similarity tell us about the mind, morality, and structure of the world itself?

Related Pages

The Science of Meaning

Here is the nitty gritty. This page is for you if you’re interested in the less-layman, more scientifically-inclined breakdown of meaning, including a helpful tour of some of the best research models and findings in positive psychology.

Logotherapy

This page is a fun case study for how meaning is being applied in therapy. Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, originated this form of therapy, which focuses on meaning as people’s primary motivator.

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