The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

To Mean, or Not To Mean

Meaning's a unique expression of flourishing, but what's it mean?

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"The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less."
-Vaclav Havel

Every generation seems to have the perception that it occupies the absolute pit of human concern for morality and meaning.  I guess it could be true that our species has been tummbling down a slippery mudslide into perversion and depravity.  I'm not really sure when we were any better, though.  Heck, even the Old Testament laments the sorry state of the human soul.  Can't you imagine the scene, Adam laying into the kids, while Eve studies her empty glass of lemonade... "Jeesh, Cain, your generation's got no respect!"

For the sake of argument, let's say that the esteemed Vaclav Havel is right and we are bothered less and less by the question of meaning in our lives...is that bad?  Several decades of research have been conducted on this question, and the evidence is strong.  Not having meaning is not good.  For example, people who feel their lives are meaningless are more depressed, are more likely to abuse substances, and think about killing themselves more often.  Criminals and disruptive students share a tendency to think their lives are less meaningful than the typical person.

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Although psychological research has taught us that the things we know about psychological anguish and distress don't always apply to psychological exuberance and happiness, the upside of meaning is pretty bright.  If your life feels meaningful, you're much more likely to feel pleasing emotions like love, joy, and vitality.  On top of that, you're more likely to be satisfied with your life, and more accepting and satisfied with yourself. In addition, you're more likely to feel like you have an active hand in shaping your own life, and are likely looking forward to a bright future.

In short, you're probably doing well in your pursuit of happiness.

As I've written before, psychologists are not looking to test the big question of whether there is such a thing as "The Meaning of Life."  We're after the answers people develop about the meaning of their own lives.

So when people give us their answers, what are they telling us about?  Your handy dictionary offers a couple of clues.  The first definition of the verb "to mean" hones in on how we use meaning to talk about how we're supposed to interpret something.  So, when I ask, "What does this road sign mean?" I'm asking what information I'm supposed to get from it.  When I start driving the wrong way into a parking garage and hear my tires explode on the roll of spikes guarding the entrance, I clearly have interpreted the wrong thing.  This definition of meaning gets at the sense people make of the things around them.

The second definition focuses on how we use meaning to talk about the intention behind something.  When I ask, "What is the meaning of this roll of spikes?" I am hoping to find out why anyone would create such a thing.  I want to know what its purpose is.

Most psychologists define meaning in life along these lines, too.  By studying meaning in life, we're trying to understand the sense that people make of their lives and the missions that drive them to act purposefully in the world.

No other psychological variable captures these qualities.  Meaning is a unique expression of what makes us human, and what makes us great when we're at our best.  The data from four decades of research are clear, meaning matters.  Without meaning, our experience erodes, our lives hollow out, and we're tossed upon life's whims.  I hope the choice is clear - it is better to mean.

It's my own purpose to explore the landscape of the meanings people create for themselves, and to better understand when and why those meanings help them achieve their own greatness and cultivate a better world.  I'd like to hear about your experiences with meaning.  If you're interested, please visit my webpage and follow the link to participate in research.

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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