The art and science of meaning-making

03 Nov

It seems to me that consciously or unconsciously our lives are driven by an underlying motivation of meaning-making. Philosophers, scientists, poets, religious scholars, you and I have all contributed to understanding this oftentimes elusive concept that is part of being human: What is this life about? Why am I here? What is the meaning of it all? These questions are posed from almost every feeling state – both happy and sad, and often throughout our lives. For many there is an inner understanding and conviction that their lives have meaning and this is evident in their attitude and resilience to life’s knocks. For some this is a brief or temporary knowing, for others it is a deep and unshakable reality.


The “science”

Gestalt psychology is a theory of mind that “tries to understand the laws of our ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world,” [Wikipedia]. This suggests that we are adept at formulating a total picture of a situation, particularly when the situation is chaotic or nonsensical. We tend to have an instinctive need for completeness and order in our lives, and this drive for completeness is probably occurring on a relatively unconscious, second-by-second basis during our waking lives. Stress occurs when we’re not able to integrate the disparate parts, in other words, we feel out of sync, unhappy or just plain depressed. The natural response is to find some equilibrium again and in the process attach meaning to the event.

So, given the fact that we are hardwired, essentially, to find meaning to our lives how do we do this?

The “art”

In an interview with the philosopher, Jacob Needleman who wrote the book “Money and the Meaning of Life”, he says:

“.. a life without meaning is no life at all.

“That’s the most important thing in our life: meaning. You can have all kinds of pleasure, but without meaning you wind up with despair. What I’ve discovered since writing that book [Money and the Meaning of Life] is that human beings were built to give. To put it in the most extreme form, we’re built to love and serve something greater than ourselves, whether it’s other people, something you call God, or whether it’s justice. Until we are finding our way to give, there will be no happiness or meaning. Temporarily, I can feel I’m succeeding and respected, but in the end, there has to be a kind of giving. That’s what we haven’t understood. Because giving has been put into some kind of tax deduction.”

Meaning of Life

Supporting Needleman’s view, an often quoted study on the differences between a happy life and a meaningful life (Baumeister, R., Journal of Positive Psychology) found somewhat surprisingly that giving to others was associated with meaning rather than happiness, while taking from others was related to happiness and not meaning. For more detail on these differences refer to this link:

One cannot talk about ‘meaning’ without referring to Viktor Frankl’s seminal work on the subject, including his book: “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he describes his horrific experience in the German concentration camp, Auschwitz. This experience led him to develop “logotherapy” and “existential analysis”. Frankl said that sources of meaning come from:

1. Creating a work or doing a deed;
2. Experiencing something or encountering someone (love);
3. The attitude we take to unavoidable suffering.

In researching this topic I came across the site: It contains many useful blogs and commentaries about life issues including one on how to discover your life purpose in order to achieve lasting happiness. These 3 suggestions below are found in various forms in most work on reconnecting with your life’s purpose ( :

1. Know your values.

These are your building blocks. What’s most important to you above all else? I’m talking the zero compromise areas of who you are. Family, health, freedom, honesty, intimacy, playfulness, love, adventure, achievement. The list is infinite.

Pick your top few. Prioritize them. What events and experiences allow you to feel them? This is your foundation. Your compass.

2. Know your super powers.

We all have things we naturally knock out of the park. Your core strengths. Some might even call them gifts. Is it public speaking, teaching, analysis, social interaction, influencing, positivity, discipline, problem solving? Most of us have a gut feeling of what these are.

What have past experiences shown? What have people consistently complimented you on? What’s your favorite type of project to put your heart into? The book Strengths Finder 2.0 is an awesome place to start.

3. Know your passion moments.

We’ve all had them. A moment or time in your life when you felt invincible. It could come during a work project, caring for a child, exploring a new place, or cooking a meal. Anything as long as you feel it at your core. You’ve likely had more than one.

Keep a list of these passion moments. And noticing this in others is just as important. What have you seen people around you do that inspire purpose? This list will never stop growing and with every addition, you will gain more clarity on what lights a fire in your belly.

cross roads

Time to take back your life

If you’re at crossroads in life, either as a result of a tragic experience or simply because you’ve become aware that you’ve been ‘existing’ rather than ‘living’ your life, then take some time to work through the ideas presented here or talk to a life coach. In the words of Wayne Dyer: “Don’t die with the music still in you”.

And in conclusion

Music is one of my passions that give meaning to my life. I’d like to share this with you in the form of a Youtube link of a Flashmob in an Odessa Fishmarket in the Ukraine. Enjoy!

Beethoven Ode to Joy