Meaning refers to belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. Activities can lack positive emotion but have meaning, such as caring for loved ones who are ill.

Our journey toward meaning tends to move through phases: we first focus on survival or pleasure, then acceptance into a group, then self-actualization, then some integration of the self and world. Meaning is a constant interplay between differentiating yourself from others (looking inward) and unifying with others (looking outward).

Meaning is like the ultimate goal or purpose of life, and it’s strengthened when we have intermediary goals that are harmonious and contribute to it. It’s important that we choose our own meaning, rather than accepting what other people or society believes is meaningful. Often, we can derive meaning from a personally traumatic experience that incites us to work to right some wrong or fight some disease.

Up to 25% of Americans don’t have meaning in what they do daily. To increase meaning at work, we should try to work on full tasks rather than small parts of tasks, use more of our talents and skills, and see the impact we’re having on others.


Meaning helps us feel engaged because we feel we have a purpose and we are prepared to expand effort to work toward it. The result is a sense of harmony that’s conducive to the flow experience.

Sources: Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow; Terry Paulson, The Optimism Advantage

Who studies it

Roy Baumeister, Jane Dutton (meaning of work), Adam Grant (meaningful work), Todd Kashdan, Laura King, Amy Wrzesniewski (meaning of work)


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (2004)

Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (2009)

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