Introduction: The Meaning of Meaning

Like happiness, meaning is one of those terms that everyone throws around. And asking, “what does meaning mean?”, highlights the potential for confusion. Indeed, there’s something about it that seems hard to pinpoint and define. It’s elusive, used in different contexts, and yet paradoxically, most people not only seem to have an idea of what it is, but they want it in their lives.

I would now like to entangle some of these issues, and try to give an answer to what meaning entails (‘entails’ seems like a good substitute for ‘means’ here).

A Note on Differences

#Allude to how I began to separate the facets? From Meaning as a whole, to investigating if the components have something to them?

I will begin by stating that meaning isn’t the same as meaningfulness, nor is it the same as meaningful living. They’re related, of course, but certain details make them different. I admit I struggled long and hard to wrap my head around these distinctions. In the beginning, reading up on it actually made it worse; I only got more confused. And it wasn’t only me, but when I talked to my friends, girlfriend, and fellow students, they all felt the same.

Ok, but who cares? At face, this isn’t a big deal; you can live a meaningful life without knowing the technicalities. What’s concerning, however, are all the misconceptions that arise because of this. And so, without even knowing it, they can hold you back and limit your experience. Besides, when you really understand the differences, it allows you to leverage them to live an even more meaningful life. With this in mind, here’s the gist of the distinctions as I understand them:

  • Meaning is about gaining a or clear or coherent understanding of something.
  • Meaningfulness is about finding value or significance in that understanding.
  • Meaningful living is developing a coherent and significant direction in life.

A New Classification

After continued research—both through my education and as a personal curiosity—I arrived at these differences. And I was satisfied, at first, only to discover I wasn’t. What bothered me, and still bothers me, is the hopeless nature of these terms. They’re too similar and easy to confuse. And therefore, I would like to leave this classification behind and use a better one. Inspired by the work of Frank Martela and Michael F. Steger, meaning is still divided in three components:

  • Meaning = coherence.
  • Meaningfulness = significance.
  • Meaningful living = purpose.

In continuing, I will probably use meaning and related terms as they fit, but I will try to keep to the new distinction. I think it would be helpful, for me at least, to understand this topic more deeply. Lastly, whenever ‘meaning’ isn’t specified, you can think of it as referring to some kind of combination of the three. After all, they’re interrelated and it’s what causes the trouble in the first place.

Ok. Now that you have a general idea of meaning, I would like to tackle some of those misconceptions I mentioned earlier.

Next page: 5 Misconceptions About Meaning