In addition to the things revealed while tackling the misconceptions, I would like to present some other ways of thinking about meaning.
For every subject, there exist some fundamental principles. In economics, for example, a fundamental principle might be trade-offs; that it’s impossible to get everything you want at the same time. Or in biology, a fundamental principle might be homeostasis; that an organism strives to maintain relatively stable conditions necessary for its survival. Likewise, there would have to exist some fundamental principles of meaning. And I would like to try to outline them here.
Before I do that, however, I would like to make some distinctions. To understand meaning and how to utilize it fully, it’s beneficial to know what we’re talking about. It’s like in medicine; classifying and separating between symptoms gives a better chance of understanding the underlying cause.
Combined, these ways of thinking will be helpful in establishing a guide of sorts, to underpin the following exploration. Although there might be more ways, these are what I’ve come to realize personally. Either way, however, it will provide a basis to think from.
Individual components vs a whole construct
Based in the elusiveness of the concept, talking about meaning, as a whole, seems to me to hint at some kind of combination of the three components coherence, significance, and purpose. Theoretical investigation supports this classification, but acknowledges a top-level construct of meaning. Regardless of scientific investigation, realizing there are different ways to look at meaning might bring about greater nuance in understanding. While looking at the whole might cause certain understandings, selecting an individual component to look at might cause others. In turn, this might bring about various insight on how to live better.
Thinking about meaning vs feeling meaning
Meaning isn’t just some abstract, widely existential phenomenon that you think about, but it feels a certain way too. When you derive coherence, significance, or purpose, it produces a sense of meaning. And although they’re different in certain ways, the three components might share the same feeling state. When you encounter coherent stimuli, sense something of personal significance, or engage in some purposeful behavior, the feeling that emerges might be the same; that of meaning.
Presence of meaning vs search for meaning
There’s a distinction between having meaning in your life and searching for it. Regardless of your current level of meaning, you might feel a need to search for more—even if you have plenty of it already. This is normal, as searching for meaning or even just thinking about it, brings about a continued sense of meaning for some people. It’s like being happy with what you have, while continuing to strive for more.
Components of meaning vs sources of meaning
Although I’ve focused a lot on the components of meaning, they shouldn’t be confused with the sources of meaning. For example, coherence isn’t a source of meaning, but routine might be a source of coherence, which in turn makes it a source of meaning. The components are objective in some way, shared by all, but the sources are more individual. While research do reveal some common sources, such as family, positive affect, freedom, and self-knowledge, what matters is finding the things that provide meaning to you.
I’s likely that the three components are interrelated, meaning they are all connected. In practice, that means if there are changes in one of them, it might bring about changes in the other two as well. For example, if you work on your coherence, you might find it easier to attain a sense of significance and purpose. Or, if you fail to establish your purpose, you might experience that your sense of coherence and significance decays. These are just two examples, but the changes can occur in any direction between the three.
These levels naturally affect each other in a variety of different ways.
For all three components, there’s an optimal balance you can achieve. It’s easy to see that too little of something causes trouble, but the same thing applies for having too much. Just like there’s an optimal ratio of fulfilled vs unfulfilled needs, so it is for meaning. You won’t feel your best if you’re always starving, but you won’t feel your best if you’re never hungry either. Now, it’s individual how much of each component you need. Some might need plenty of coherence, while others might need a stronger sense of purpose. Either way, the most meaningful experience will be one of balance.
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