What is meaning?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on meaning. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

“A human being is not [a being] in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In other words, the search for meaning is hardwired into us.

Meaning is a concept that most of us probably grasp intuitively but can’t necessarily define or explain. What does it mean to have meaning in life? What possible meanings are open to us? How do we go about finding meaning, and what benefits can we expect when we do? We’ll discuss these questions and more this month.

The definition of meaning

When psychologists speak of meaning, many of them speak of believing in, belonging to, or serving something beyond the self. For example, we might find meaning in advocating for a cause, assisting in the progress of technology, or being a good mother.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, we search for meaning because we desire to somehow live on past death. Contributing to something larger than the self allows us to do that, in a small way. Meaning involves an interplay of self and world, where our strengths and interests align with something the world needs – a leader, say, or a creator or a caretaker.

Meaning is the sense we make of our lives, our attempt to take all the disparate triumphs, struggles, and winding roads and turn them into a coherent story or pattern. Ideally, in our minds, everything would fit and form a clear picture – but it doesn’t always work that way.

In this entertaining talk, University of Missouri professor Laura King explains five common myths about meaning. Do you hold any of these views?

Sources of meaning

In his philosophical tome Meanings of Life, Roy F. Baumeister explains that we tend to gravitate toward a handful of meanings that are offered to us by society:

Family and love: One steadfast source of meaning in life is the family; we can find fulfillment in the role of spouse or parent. Doing things “for my family” is seen as a noble goal.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recounts how he was able to forget about the pain and misery of a miles-long wintry march by contemplating his wife – who, at the time, might have been dead. To the tune of guards barking orders and torn shoes clopping, he talked with her in his mind, asked her questions, and saw her image “more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise”:

“I saw the truth…that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

Work: Work is another area of life we often peg meaning on, and it offers us a variety of opportunities to make a difference. If we focus on our impact at the office and beyond, we can see ourselves as supporting our colleagues and the organization, helping others, and contributing to society. Working can support our family, in the sense that it provides for them and models work ethic for our children. Work can also be a rich source of self-expression and personal growth if we choose a career that speaks to our deep passions and goals.

One of the things that distinguishes a “calling” from a job or career – the three orientations toward work that we discussed earlier – is how much meaning we derive from it. Work that we feel called toward is usually a rich source of meaning, whereas work that we do for the money or the achievement is usually less so.

The self: According to Baumeister, more and more these days, we find value and meaning inside ourselves: in self-expression and self-esteem. We believe in discovering our true selves and ignoring what society tells us we should be. We seek to become better versions of ourselves, to fulfill our potential, and to achieve happiness.

Bearing suffering: As we learned during our month on resilience, it’s not just the positive moments of life that hold the potential for meaning. Suffering, struggle, and stress have in them the seeds of new meaning, new purpose, and a new worldview.

Terri Cheney, who suffers from bipolar disorder, writes about the inspiration she found in Frankl’s book to bear her recent suffering:

Read “On Nothing Less Than the Meaning of Life”

According to Frankl, if we can’t find meaning through work, love, or beauty, we can still find meaning in suffering. “Fundamentally, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp,” he writes. “It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

Frankl tried to impart this message to his fellow prisoners on a particularly tough day, when everyone decided to go hungry instead of turning in a “thief” who stole some potatoes:

“I told my comrades (who lay motionless, although occasionally a sigh could be heard) that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and meaning.”

Religion: Besides bearing suffering, religion was another source of meaning still left to concentration camp prisoners – and they clung to it. As Frankl recounts, they got together to say prayers wherever possible, in the corner of a crowded hut or jostling together on a train.

Religion is one of the most potent sources of meaning in life, explains Baumeister, because it offers us so much we crave. It explains how the world works and what our place is in it; everything we do and everything that happens is “for a reason.” Religion gives us a code of ethics to live by and a reward for doing so. We become part of a community, which sets us apart from people of other religions or no religion at all.

The three values: In Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman defines a meaningful life as using your strengths in pursuit of wisdom, power, or goodness. Are you primarily oriented toward expanding knowledge, creating things and increasing society’s capabilities, or creating a more good and just world? Think of the professor, the engineer, and the social activist. This can be a helpful way to conceptualize meaning, and it can apply not just to work but to relationships and hobbies as well. 

In this TEDx talk, Colorado State University professor Michael Steger explains why meaning is a matter of life and death, and some examples of where people can find it:

How does meaning work?

According to Baumeister, meaning helps us make sense of our lives in four key ways. If these needs are satisfied, our life will feel meaningful:

  • Purpose: A meaningful life serves some positive future outcome, such as achieving a goal or becoming happy. Parenting can be meaningful because we are striving to raise happy, moral children, for example.
  • Value: A meaningful life has a solid moral foundation. Religion is a strong source of meaning in part because it gives us a code of ethics to follow.
  • Efficacy: A meaningful life makes us feel strong and in control of life, able to make a difference. Challenging work that builds our skills and features ever-increasing goals – typical of flow – provides efficacy and meaning.
  • Self-worth: A meaningful life gives us a positive view of ourselves. Being good at something – a good father, a good manager, a good Christian – can impart self-worth.


Purpose is just one part of meaning, but it’s often what we think of when we talk about a meaningful life: having an ultimate goal.

“Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self,” explains William Damon in The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life. It’s an answer to questions like: Why am I doing this? Why does it matter? Why is it important for me and the world? Why do I strive to accomplish this?

Susanna Halonen calls this your “why”: “Your why is the purpose you believe you want to fulfill in your life. It’s the reason behind everything you do, and it’s the thing that drives you into action. It’s something that’s completely unique to you and something you live your life by, regardless of what other people have to say,” she writes in Screw Finding Your Passion: It’s Within You, Let’s Unlock It.

According to Halonen, a purpose links past, present, and future. It explains where we came from, it allows us to enjoy the present, and it motivates us toward future goals. Someone working toward a career in baseball can take pleasure in the grueling practices today, remember their first mitt fondly, and have a reason to wake up at 6 am for training.

“Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become,” writes Frankl. “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.”

We may have several goals in different areas of life, and those goals may change and evolve over time, but they provide a compass and a map for navigating everyday experience.

Damon was particularly interested in young adults finding purpose, and he surveyed over 1,200 people between the ages of 12 and 26. Only a small percentage had a clear sense of where they were going in life, while the rest were unsure or markedly uninterested:

  • The purposeful (20%): These young people had found a direction and a goal in life and had devoted substantial attention and effort toward it.
  • The dreamers (25%): They may have had lofty goals or big ideas, but they hadn’t done much to actualize them (and may not be disciplined enough to do so).
  • The dabblers (31%): They had taken action toward a variety of possible goals but hadn’t committed to one.
  • The disengaged (25%): They didn’t have a purpose. Some were distressed by this, while others actively chose to ignore purpose and focus on simply having fun or getting by.

Happiness vs. meaning

Meaning is a fitting topic for our last month in the Year of Happy because it’s not just part of happiness but, in some ways, a different form of it. We strive to find meaning in much the same way that we strive to be happy, although the path to each is very different.

Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a study in 2013 of nearly 400 adults, comparing a happy life to a meaningful one. They discovered differences across a variety of experiences: 

  • Having good things happen to you: Satisfying our needs and wants seems to bring us happiness but not meaning. For example, people who were healthy or felt good tended to be happier but not necessarily have more meaning in their lives.
  • Having money: Money is also a harbinger of happiness but not meaning. People who can buy the things they want and need are happier but don’t necessarily have more meaning in life.
  • Living in the present: People who spend more time thinking about the present tend to be happier, while those who think more about the past and future are less happy – but rate their lives as more meaningful. This makes sense, given that purpose (which orients past, present, and future around a long-term goal) is a key part of meaning.
  • Being a giver: People who give more tend to have more meaningful lives. For example, people who spend more time helping others in need or taking care of children tend to have more meaning in life. People who value relationships more than achievement also have more meaningful lives. Interestingly, spending more time with friends is linked to more happiness while spending more time with loved ones is linked to more meaning in life – perhaps because our relationships with family involve more giving (and annoying relatives).
  • Feeling bad: The negatives in life are tied to less happiness, unsurprisingly, but also to more meaning. This is the case for people who had more negative events happen in their life, who were more stressed, who worried more, and who spent more time thinking about past challenges and struggles – they all tended to be less happy but rate their lives as more meaningful. Whether they saw life as easy or a struggle was reflected in their happiness levels, but it didn’t seem to affect their sense of meaning.
  • Focusing on the self: It’s not always easy to take a good look at ourselves, and people who spent more time thinking about personal identity were less happy. But they also had more meaning in life, suggesting that a meaningful life may require some level of self-reflection and self-knowledge.

Meaning and happiness don’t always diverge, of course. In Baumeister’s study, happiness was highly correlated with meaning, and some things – for example, having more positive events in life or feeling connected to others – were linked to both. Meaning is another path to fulfillment, one that works when things aren’t so rosy. And it can create a profound sense of fulfillment that makes us happy in the long run, too.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate meaning

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum