We all want to be ‘happy.’
And, importantly, 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 ingredient of meaning in life (yes, that’s IN, not OF) is what gives us a sense of a deep, joyful, well-lived life. And it’s what this page, and much of this website, is about.
Check out the infographic!
Why is meaning in life so important for well-being? Click the snippet below to see the full size infographic.
Measure your Meaning Factors
Our Assessment Center has the most detailed, comprehensive scientific assessments of well-being anywhere on the web.
You can measure 50 different factors of well-being and find your Strengths, Capabilities, and Growth Zones.
This page will offer an overview of the importance of meaning in life. If this interests you, it’s recommended to check out the above infographic. And, this site is scattered with information and resources on meaningful living, so have a look around.
If you are more scientifically inclined, you can check out The Science of Meaning, which highlights even more research, explores useful terms and scales, and more.
A Timeless Misconception
Where ‘happy’ is defined:
Happy (adj) – 1. Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
“There’s more to life than being happy” – A TED talk by Emily Esfahani Smith
More specifically, our colloquial concept of ‘happiness’ overstates the psychological value of pleasure and understates the value of deeply enriching, meaningful experiences.
This misconception is like a curse on our collective lexicon, affecting our understanding of our own well-being. And it’s nothing new.
Aristotle asserted that an optimal life was one of Eudaimonia. This Greek concept — which focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines well-being in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning — is distinct from Hedonic happiness.
“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)
See Through the Fog. Do the Work.
The purpose of this website—along with highlighting this distinction—is to distill and refine the details of optimal living. We provide our readers with models, exercises, self-assessment, and more, spanning dozens of topics from the Cornerstones of Meaning to the many other skills that enable better living.
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 an even more in-depth look at the Science of Meaning, click here. On that page, we present a handful of the studies that are propelling meaning to the forefront of psychological research.
You can get a full breakdown of the broken concept of ‘happiness,’ the 4 Elements of well-being, and Happiness vs. Joy in the ‘happiness’ section. If you read through those pages, you’ll find exercises and resources along the way to boost your well-being.
Happiness We Chase
Happiness As Enough
The above videos are from the section on Happiness as a Hindrance. In that section, it’s examined in great detail how ‘happiness’ itself, can—and in today’s world often does—create a life hindered from deeper meaning and joy.
Check out that section here:
Meaning Matters. Now More Than Ever.
The world is more peaceful, prosperous, and materially abundant than ever before.
But are we living our best lives? Has humanity’s psychological well-being leaped forward like its revolutions in technology and industry?
Well, no. We are living during a crisis of meaning. Depression and suicide rates are at an all-time high, use of antidepressants has multiplied by factors in just a few decades, and it’s very likely that you know someone who has everything they ‘need’ to be happy, yet is languishing. Maybe that person is you.
Meanwhile, leaders still measure the success of society in terms of GDP.
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 Open found 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 article “We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of it is Nonsense.“
Familiar spiritual traditions—historically providing a cultural framework for one’s sense of meaning and purpose—are declining like never before. Pew’s 2022 research found that more than 30% of Americans are now religious “nones” (atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”). This is a mammoth shift. Just two generations before, that number was less than 10%.
And this is just the start of cultural indicators of today’s crisis of meaning.
Some would say that the true benefits of religion come from community. Sadly, many aspects of this communal living have been on the decline for decades as well.
This site’s sections on Media and Attention, Busyness, and Social Comparison tackle just a few other challenging aspects of our brave new world’s effects on one’s meaning and purpose.
Note: “Purpose” is often used to mean the same thing as “Meaning.” But it is helpful to think of them as distinct. Check out the Purpose section for an incredibly thorough look at Purpose, with ample practice and exercises to boot.
Meaning Is Wealth
Now, in the familiar, transient moments of reading inspirational quotes, we can taste the truth of what we crave like honey:
- “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.”
Meaning is what we need right now. Meaning in life is related to higher social integration, better health, higher everyday competence, high psychological well-being, and lower depressive symptoms. (Steger 2013)
Again, a ‘rich’ life is not simply a life of ephemeral pleasures. And 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)
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.”
In his TED talk, David Brooks lays out a relatable vision of life with and without meaning, while presenting some of the cultural myths that keep us stuck.
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.
We spend a huge chunk of our lives at work: typically between 80,000 – 150,000
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.
Purpose is at the intersection of meaning and work. It’s no wonder that purposeful work is more productive. But it isn’t just about productivity.
Injecting our work with impactful meaning is what works in the long run. Seeing work as only a means to economic or reputational ends (perhaps all too common in the highly capitalistic global economy of the 21st century) is neither a good recipe for productive work nor for a well-lived life.
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.
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 accordance 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’.
An overview Model of Well-Being and how it relates to other models throughout the site.
An 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, the focus throughout this site is on meaning IN life. We don’t advocate for any particular spiritual (or non) tradition.
The 4 Cornerstones of Meaning
Discovery / Exploration
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.
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”.
“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)
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.
Love is vast and elusive. Our section on the subject covers a LOT of ground, and contains sections in their own right. Each of the following is its own respective section, with pages of reading, exercises, and resources.
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!
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.
Love Highlight: Friendship
As stated, relationships are vital. And friendship is one of the most important forms of relationship we may find in life.
So, what makes valuable friendships? How does one make new friends as an adult? What even is friendship, really?
Relationship has many benefits, as the following infographic demonstrates. Visit the section to learn all about Friendship, including exercises and practices of all kinds.
*You can find more original infographics from across this site here, along with original art from various subjects.
*click for the full infographic*
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?
These books are about the power of meaning in life specifically. By reading them, you’ll develop further insight into the value of meaning for well-being, the latest research in positive psychology, and more.
If you want to see this site’s collection of top, most-recommended books across human well-being in general, check it out:
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’.
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.
- Happiness Greatest Hits – A collection of articles on the subject of happiness from the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. Notice the prominence of meaning.
- The Pursuit of Meaning, Not Happiness, Is What Makes Life Incredibly Better – A simple overview article of meaning vs. happiness.
- Why You Should Prioritize Meaning in Your Everyday Life – Can simple, everyday actions make life more meaningful? Awesome article from Greater Good Science Center.
- Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? – A scientific controversy about the relationship between meaning and happiness raises fundamental questions about how to live a good life.
- Getting Over Happiness: Why Meaningfulness Is A Better Life Purpose – Another take, with a focus on meaning in organizations.
- On The Power of Meaning: A Conversation With Author Emily Esfahani Smith – A look from her book, The Power of Meaning.
- Choose Meaning Over Happiness – Another quick and trendy article.
- The Happiness Ruse – How did feeling good become a matter of relentless, competitive work; a never-to-be-attained goal which makes us miserable?
- Key Scientific Papers of Positive Psychology – This list, containing a collection of key paper from Pos. Psych., serves as a great overview for the field, and quickly shows the importance of meaning.
- How a Sense of Purpose in Life Improves Your Health – A more meaningful life is likely to be healthier as well. Here’s why.
- Does Your Life Have Purpose? – A decent, well-outlined look at purpose and health.
- Meaning in life and physical health: systematic review and meta-analysis – A scientific overview, as of 2017, of meaning’s effect on health.
- You’re More Likely to Exercise if You Have a Sense of Purpose – A telling correlation is addressed in this article from Time magazine.
- We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of It Is Nonsense. – A long, multi-faceted, and insightful article dispelling the myths of well-being while highlighting the important parts.
Below is a handful of videos on the subject of meaning/purpose and its importance in life.
You can find a collection of the best videos from around the web—on the subject of ‘happiness’ / well-being in general—in our Top Resources.
Jennifer Aaker: Power of Purpose
A visual video explaining research on the benefits of purpose.
Richard Leider: How to unlock the power of purpose
Imagine a pill that would aid cognitive decline, help prevent macroscopic stroke, aid sleep, and add 7 years to your life. How much would you pay for it? Would you take it?
Happiness is NOT the Meaning of Life
Alan Watts shares a monologue about the deeper aspects of life, accompanied by illustration.
Why You Should Strive for a Meaningful Life, Not a Happy One
“In this video we argue that the pursuit of happiness is a futile endeavor, and that we should aim to live a meaningful life instead.”
What Makes Life Meaningful: Michael Steger at TEDxCSU
Steger has spent more than a decade researching people’s ability to find meaning in their lives and the benefits of living a meaningful life. In his talk, he asks the question “What Makes Life Meaningful?” and shares what psychological science can tell us about the answer.
Stoicism as a philosophy for an ordinary life
How to change your life for the better by practicing ancient Greco-Roman philosophy as a way of life.