The Meaning of Meaning: Definition, Explanation, and Examples
Do you want to know what it means to have meaning in life? What leads to a sense of meaning and how do you get more meaning? Here you'll learn all about the meaning of meaning.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means I earn from qualifying purchases of products.
What is the definition of meaning?
The word ‘meaning’ in English is incredibly confusing. Meaning is the concept, definition, or explanation of something. But if something is “meaningful”, it has some important or significant concept, definition, or explanation.
When we “search for meaning” we are rarely looking up the definition of meaning. No, we are looking for a deeper, more meaningful reason for why something is the way it is. We are really looking for a "meaningful meaning".
Did I already mention that meaning was confusing? ;-)
A more meaningful meaning of meaning
What we’re really interested in here is the definition of a meaningful meaning—or a relevant, significant, or valuable explanation of something. For example--What is the meaning of life? What are meaningful ways to spend time? And, What gives life a sense of meaning?
The answers to these questions will depend on who you ask—psychologists, religious scholars, philosophers, etc... But ultimately, the definition of what is meaningful to you is up to you.
How do the experts define meaning? Watch the video to find out.
Crafting your definition of meaning
To create your own definition of meaning, start by asking yourself what is meaningful to you. Ask yourself:
Even if you currently feel like your life lacks meaning, these questions can help you start to find the small things in your life that do indeed provide some meaning. Then you can use these insights to cultivate more meaning, simply by creating more of these things or situations in your life.
For example, if the last time I felt like my life had meaning was years ago when I was volunteering for an important cause, or when I was helping my children learn to read, then I know that I can create more meaning—and a more meaningful life—by doing more of these things.
What is meaning in life?
Even though we all differ in our exact definitions of meaning, research has shown that certain things tend to contribute more to meaning while other things contribute more to happiness. A meaningful life and a happy life often go together, but happiness often has more to do with being healthy, having enough money, or feeling comfortable in life. Meaning, on the other hand, has more do to with reflecting on the past, present, and future and finding some sort of reason or explanation that helps it all make sense.
What’s the difference between meaning and happiness?
Although happiness comes from spending time with other people—doing fun things, building relationships, and having allies during hard times—meaning also arises from relationships. In particular, meaning comes from treating others well, with kindness, generosity, and caring for others. For example, parenting tends to contribute to greater meaning but not greater happiness.
Meaning also often involves stress or challenges. When we do things that are hard, we often derive more meaning from them. The common adage, “nothing worth doing is easy” represents how challenging, important, or difficult tasks tend to generate more meaning than simpler tasks.
Self-expression seems to be integral to meaning as well. For example, our cultural or personal identities, which may include experiencing hardship, do not necessarily make us happier. But knowing ourselves and how we came to be who we are seems to contribute to a greater sense of meaning.
Here's one take on meaning:
Why is meaning so important?
Victor Frankl, author of the book entitled, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, was a psychologist and a Holocaust Survivor whose search for meaning saved his life. His great question to himself was, what gives meaning to our lives? He even used his Auschwitz experiences to develop a psychological therapy called logotherapy, for curing the soul by leading it to find meaning in life.
As Frankl said, meaning is a sort of a “cure” for the soul. Indeed, having meaning in life is associated with better physical and mental well-being. Searching for meaning, on the other hand, seems to be associated with worse mental health (because you don’t have it).
To learn more about “man’s search for meaning”, you can access Frankl’s audio book for free here:
Examples of meaning (meaningful experiences)
What makes something meaningful? Well, it depends a bit on what we think is important, significant, or valuable, but here are some examples of meaning in situations that many people experience.
As you can see, meaning can come from experiences that are both positive and negative. Again, when we start to look at meaning more carefully, it becomes clear why meaning and happiness are not the same thing.
Ways to create meaning
If we want to create lives of meaning, we also need to think about meaningful situations that we can create. Here are some examples of meaningful situations that we can create.
You can take action to create meaning. It's also helpful to pause and notice the small bits of meaning already in your daily activities. Here’s more tips on exactly how to find meaning in your daily life.
Places to look for meaning in your life
Frankl believed there were 3 main areas where we could find meaning: in work – by doing something significant, in love – by caring for another person, and in finding courage during difficult times.
In Frankl’s case, his highest hope was for reunion with his wife, as such thoughts, hopes and prayers uplifted him. He also used his mind to imagine the lectures he would give once he was back at his teaching job at the University again. He was fond of quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a 'Why' to live for can bear almost any 'How.'”
How to find the meaning that is already there
When faced with a disappointing situation, like a job loss or a divorce, you can slide down the rabbit’s hole of desolation and gloom, or you activity try to make meaning from your hardship.
Start by taking a few deep breaths and then try to look at the situation with the goal of finding meaning. Remember, there is just as much meaning (if not more) in challenging situations as there is in easy or positive situations. In fact, its usually the challenges that make us who we are and reveal meaning to us. So when in doubt, look for meaning in all things—both the good and the bad.
How to start meaningful projects
According to research, one way to pursue meaning is through achievement. The achievement doesn't have to be huge. You could start a new project or lead something.
What are the projects that might give you meaning? Perhaps you find meaning in seeing a seed grow into a plant that then grows into food. If so, you could start a veggie garden or grow a plant in a pot on your patio.
Other ideas include:
Want some more ideas? Check out these key strategies for finding meaning and purpose.
Get creative to get more meaning
Another way to cultivate more meaning is by being creative, perhaps through art, music, writing, making videos, or starting our own business. It can feel meaningful when we create something from scratch, perhaps something that will still be available for future generations.
And be sure to do your best. We can often feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose when do a good job at something. For example, you could strive to make your creative work of art as good as you can (but watch our for perfectionism which can harm well-being). This approach can help us feel pride in our work, which feels good.
How to generate meaning by giving to others
One of the best ways to cultivate life purpose is by giving, being kind, compassionate, and generous–you may feel like you are in greater alignment with your values.
So ask yourself, what are the gifts, unique to you, that you can contribute? It could be as simple as an encouraging word, an uplifting thought, or a kind smile. To find meaning in the moment, look for ways to make another happy, however briefly. A simple ‘hello’ is sometimes enough. Or find ways to connect to others, to support one another, and to encourage others.
You could try community service, helping others who are struggling, or joining a program to clean up the environment. Or, if a neighbor is isolated in their home, you could offer to get some groceries or make an effort to chat a bit when you see them. When you are giving, you can start to feel that you are providing something that helps others. In short, engage in ‘random acts of kindness’ to boost a sense of meaning.
Here's an exercise to help you find more meaning
Here’s a quick exercise. Take 3 deep belly breaths, filling your lungs with the intention to see and experience meaning in your life. Try to surrender your need to know the answers, your eagerness to reach an outcome, and just be in the moment.
Sit in the silence and listen from within the cells of your body, from within your DNA for an insights that might provide you with more meaning. If an answer comes, explore it. How does it feel? What does it mean? How will you pursue it?
With these insights you truly can create more meaning in your life.
What makes for a meaningful life? One more persepctive:
Here's one last take on meaning:
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.