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The 3 Types of Meaning—and 10 Ways to Build Them

The latest science offers insights to bring meaning to the next level.

DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

Meaning in life: the holy grail for ultimate personal well-being. It can feel like a weighty topic—too heavy, hard to grasp—or something for the philosophers and spiritual gurus to handle. But there are new insights for the rest of us to learn from and grow in our personal fulfillment.

New science has broken "the meaning of meaning" into three main types. This is the result of bringing together the key elements of meaning as discussed by philosophers, theologians, researchers, and other experts over the centuries (Martela & Steger, 2016). The three types of meaning that emerged are coherence, significance, and purpose. I explain each of these and offer some practical steps you can take forward via personal examples, questions to dig deeper, and activities with your VIA strengths.

1. Coherence

This is the thinking-oriented level of meaning. It is about making sense of things.

When I attempt to make sense of my life, I turn to how I view the world and the people in it. My default is to see people as inherently good and doing the best they can. Of course this does not always apply; there are people that make horrifying choices but these are a small minority in comparison. My strength of hope helps me make sense of things and see a brighter future, as well as a sense that I can positively contribute to the world in some way. This is important for my "sense-making" when I’m stressed, see terrible things happening on the news, or feeling trapped by pessimistic people around me. Hope is one of my internal, thinking-oriented strengths that keeps me from breaking apart—much like a parachute that finally opens up preventing us from crashing on the ground and breaking into many pieces. This is one of the ways I try to make sense of things and in turn, this elevates my experience of life meaning.

Questions to explore coherence

  • Do you understand the meaning of your life? How do you make sense of your life?
  • As you look at the life you have lived so far, how do you make sense of the good things? Why have they occurred?
  • When bad things happen to you or others, how do you explain them? Is there a way to make sense of why these things happen?

Use your strengths to build coherence

  • Use character strengths such as your strength of perspective to help you step back and take in the wider view of your life so you don’t get lost in the downpour of the details and stressors.
  • Use your judgment/critical thinking to analyze your beliefs about the world and the people in it and your curiosity to question and explore your life meaning and your sense-making.
  • Your strength of spirituality can help you make sense of your life by connecting you with what is most sacred and special to you.

Build coherence for your character strengths

  • This means to make sense of your strengths. This is important because research shows most people are not aware of their best qualities. If I ask you to pause right now and name your top 7 strengths of character, could you do it? Could you then make sense of these top 7 strengths by explaining in detail how they help you and are important to you? This is the descriptive work required of coherence. It involves describing what is best in you. As you deepen you coherence for your character strengths you are developing a sense of who you are (your core identity).

2. Significance
This is the feeling-oriented level of meaning. It is about feeling that you matter and that life matters. It means to not only sense and know the value of your life but to feel that appreciation for yourself, others, and the world in a deep way.

As a parent one of my all-time favorite quotes is, “To the world you might just be one person but to one person you might just be the world.” I feel this with each of my 3 children—I can never fully know how important I am to them, and I can never fully know how important they are to me. There’s a mutuality that fosters deep feelings of completeness and wholeness. It is a deep mattering, or meaning, that can be felt. This is significance.

Questions to explore significance

  • What makes your life worth living?
  • As the title of this blog on Psychology Today asks you: What matters most?
  • How does it feel to be living this one life that you have?
  • How do you contribute to the world in a way that feels meaningful?

Use your strengths to build significance

  • Turn to your heart-based character strengths. Consider situations in which you have deeply expressed your strengths of love, gratitude, kindness, and forgiveness. Reflect on how you’ve used these strengths strongly in a positive way in one or two of your closest relationships. This is likely part of your life meaning.

Build significance for your character strengths

  • Of your strengths, which character strengths matter most in your life? I think of myself as having 7 or 8 signature strengths (core strengths) but that there are two or three of these that really drive everything I do. For example, my hope and love underlie the majority of my actions at home and work; they are the cause of my actions. These two matter most to me.
  • Which can you feel in your body as most powerful and important for you? Is it the warming of gratitude in your heart, the tingling sensations of appreciation of beauty, or the energy of zest?
  • Think about your life as a whole—past, present, future. Consider the importance of your character strengths within this bigger picture view.

3. Purpose

This is the behavior-oriented level of meaning. It is about having important life goals and working to achieve them.

Questions to explore purpose

  • What is your life direction or aim?
  • What gives you a sense of purpose or mission in life?
  • What action have you taken in life that is purpose-driven?

Use your strengths to build purpose

  • Consider one of your most meaningful life goals. Name the goal clearly. Then, consider the character strengths pathways that will help you reach that goal. You have 24 strengths to choose from—perhaps kindness is your pathway to your goal of being more charitable or perseverance is your key pathway to that certification in becoming a helping professional or perhaps kindness is your central pathway as you fulfill your purpose of caring for an aging parent.

Build purpose for your character strengths

  • Explore how you can use your character strengths for the highest good. If you are high in social intelligence, make sure you are around people bringing this strength into action. This might be to express empathy and to share your sense of “seeing” them and relating to “how they tick.” This type of support for others gives your strength of social intelligence a role—a purposeful role that benefits others and the world.

Conclusion

Breaking meaning down in these 3 parts can help you better understand your own level of it and discover where you are strong and where you could use a lift. Taken together, these three types of meaning represent a full psychology—your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that underlie what matters most to you. Your character strengths work hand-in-hand with each of these levels of meaning. Strengths and meaning are a mutual support system for our personal growth.

References

Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531-545. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1137623

Niemiec, R. M. (2019). The strengths-based workbook for stress relief. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

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