The Search for Meaning, Revised

In consideration of the many things that preoccupy the minds of Homo sapiens, and of those things for which we search endlessly in this world, there is perhaps none greater than the search for meaning. As I contend here, however, the search for meaning is a search for connection in disguise. (And it is a poor disguise at that.)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines meaning simply as “a sense of purpose.” Formal psychological definitions similarly underscore the interrelationship between meaning and purpose, with a sense of purpose in life being an important aspect of one’s sense of personal meaning. For instance, psychologist Gary Reker (1997) defined personal meaning as “having a purpose in life, having a sense of direction, a sense of order and a reason for existence.” This suggests that meaning is not merely the contemplation of one’s life, but rather the result of an interaction between an individual and their experiences (between an individual and their environment). It is the product of reflection on one’s life and experiences and the subsequent extraction of significance or importance. Though one may be able to derive purpose from daily events and experiences, one may also define a singular purpose for their life. This act, which is of an entirely subjective and self-determined nature, surely entails higher-order mental processes that are able to draw connections among the various aspects of one’s life. Definitions nevertheless vary, as meaning is both abstract and at times complex, but its cognitive underpinnings are perhaps the most evident within the psychological literature. Meddin (1998) described personal meaning as “an integrative organizing principle (or set of principles) which enables one to make sense (cognition) of one’s inner life and outer environment.” The cognitive component was also highlighted by Wong (1989), who defined personal meaning as “an individually constructed cognitive system, that is…capable of endowing life with personal significance and satisfaction.” In this way, meaning-making can be understood, in part, as a human capacity. It relies on cognitive faculties that appear to be unique to our species (as well as emotional capacities, as meaning is accompanied by something of an affective quality—a “feeling” of meaning).

Krause (2004) further described meaning as comprising “values, a sense of purpose, goals, and reflection on the past,” all of which offer us a sense of meaning because they enrich our lives. That is to say that they give our lives significance; a reason to get up in the morning and do whatever it is we do. But the list of possible sources of meaning is much longer than this and possibly without end. Indeed, a great variety of sources of meaning have been described in the literature: the satisfaction of basic needs, social roles, relationships, work, leisure activities, commitment to goals, personal growth, personal achievements, recalling memories from the past, religion and spirituality, parenting and grandparenting, and so on. (Even one’s dreams can be a source of personal meaning.) Any thorough review of the literature should lead one to conclude that there is no limit to the number of life experiences from which one is able to derive a sense of meaning. In his observations of human suffering during the Nazi holocaust, Viktor Frankl wrote of the will to meaning—the idea that people are driven to find meaning in all of life’s circumstances, including (and especially) those circumstances in which one’s life is on the line; in those circumstances which are most dire. In agreement with Frankl, Maslow (1964) himself suggested that “serious people of all kinds tend to be able to ‘religionize’ [or endow with meaning] any part of life, any day of the week, in any place, and under all sorts of circumstances.”

It is undeniably the case (and it has been found to be so in research) that our social relationships are some of the greatest sources of meaning in our lives, as are the various roles we play in those relationships, including the things we do for others and the support we provide them. From this conclusion we might infer that it is the give-and-take of relationships that makes them so meaningful (and not just the take alone). Research has found, for instance, that spending money on others is more rewarding than spending money on oneself; volunteer work has long been recognized as personally satisfying; and life satisfaction in general is dependent not only on the relationships we maintain, but also the mutual influences that occur within them. It could be said then that communion within an interpersonal context is also meaningful. And, based on the psychological research as well as our own account, the same can easily be said of communion with nature and other species. The primary sources of connection in our lives—human relationships, nonhuman relationships, and the natural world—are all sources of meaning. They enrich our lives and endow them with purpose.

But there is an element of connection present in all meaning, I believe; and likewise, there is meaning to be had in all connections (at least those which are authentic). Over time, I have come to view the search for meaning as one that is at its core a search for connection.

Meaning has been a topic of great intrigue for me for most of my academic career. In the final year of my undergraduate studies, I took a course with the aforementioned psychologist and researcher Gary Reker, which explored psychological and social factors in positive aging—of which personal meaning was one (and arguably, the most important). It was in that course that I first learned of the complexities of this thing we call meaning, and although I have always had an intuitive sense of what “meaning” means, I also recognized the variety of formal definitions of meaning proposed by psychologists. It was as if meaning was both singular and pluralistic in its scientific conceptualization, reflecting a single construct that could be measured in fairly simplistic ways (particularly when using the word “meaning” in research, as in when participants are simply asked to tell us how much “meaning” they have in their lives), but which was simultaneously complex in its various manifestations; in such things as purpose, values, goals, a sense of order, coherence, and so on. It was as if we knew what meaning was but struggled to define it, at times equating it with its sources, at other times emphasizing cognitive aspects more than emotional. Despite my own confidence in the meaning of meaning, I encountered friends and colleagues who were less able to make sense of the concept . I remember trying to explain it to them with only partial success. As it turned out, meaning was difficult to define using concrete and concise terms (at least back then).

Today I discuss the topic of meaning at great length in two of my classes (one class on health and the other on the psychology of death and dying). And I encounter fewer difficulties in others’ ability to grasp the concept today—hopefully, because my teaching of the topic has improved. But my own views on meaning have also changed over time, and in recognition of the challenges that many encounter when trying to define the concept, I have searched tirelessly for ways to put meaning into more pragmatic and relatable terms. (As a teacher of psychology, it is an incredibly frustrating experience to understand a concept like meaning so intuitively but lack the words to adequately communicate that understanding to others.)

Then, one day, it hit me: Meaning is all about connection. More precisely, as a cognitive and emotional experience, a sense of meaning arises from connection. And therefore, the search for meaning is a search for said connection. In conceptual terms, understanding meaning from the perspective of connection is helpful because the idea of connection is much easier to grasp (however complex it too may be), and as a result, easier to define and determine objectively.

There are two primary reasons for my conclusion. The first involves a consideration of a few different conceptual definitions in psychology. Importantly, meaning is often included in formal psychological definitions of spirituality, such that the search for personal meaning is one of the ways in which spirituality is defined (or, in some cases, one of the specific components of the definition of spirituality). But, interestingly, so is the search for connection. As one example, Harold Koenig and colleagues (2000) define spirituality as “the personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions about life, about meaning, and about relationship to the sacred or transcendent, which may (or may not) lead to or arise from the development of religious rituals and the formation of community.” While I admit that this alone does not mean they are one in the same, spirituality is a fairly abstract concept in its own right. Within the abstraction that is spirituality, the co-occurrence of meaning and connection led me to wonder about their possible overlap.

My second justification for this reformulation of meaning is a more pragmatic one: when we look at any occurrence of personal meaning, regardless of its source, it always involves a sense of connection with someone or something. Notably, it always involves the cultivation of closeness with one’s experience, whether it be closeness with something in the environment or closeness with something inside, such that the person feels more connected as a result. This is quite apparent if we consider our main sources of connection—social relationships, interactions with nonhuman life, and nature—all of which are sources of meaning commonly described by psychologists. It should be a straightforward proposition, then, to say that the search for meaning within these three things specifically is a search for connection; and likewise, the sense of meaning that is gained is a sense of connection or communion, whether with other people or other life.

But consider some of the other common sources of meaning in people’s lives, such as leisure activities, work, goal-setting, personal growth, and achievements. All of these things involve connecting with elements of one’s environment (as in work or leisure activities) or elements of one’s self (as in personal growth, as well as in work and achievements). When we engage in either work or play of any kind, we are engaging with the world around us. We are connecting to it. Similarly, when we create something, whether as part of our work or play, we are interacting with, and therefore connecting with, our immediate environment. As it can be argued (and as it has been argued by many), everything that we do in our lives can be understood as an attempt to cultivate meaning and purpose, and similarly, everything that we do in our lives can be understood as an attempt to connect with the world around us. When we find meaning internally, as in goal pursuit or personal growth, we are similarly engaging and interacting with ourselves. We are cultivating a connection with some deeper aspect of our biology or psychology, whether it be a need, a desire, some hidden potential, or the communal instinct itself, long buried and forgotten. We are, in effect, attempting to connect with our very existence and nature as Homo sapiens. (And in the process, we may come to know ourselves.)

The search for meaning is therefore at its core a search for communion with the self and the world. And it is further indicative of the tension that occurs between us and our environment, and the associated though often unconscious desire to return to that from which we came. The search for meaning is an expression of the persistent search for communion (in some way, shape, or form); and, in many instances, of our wish to return to nature (our “source,” if you will), as it represents the original and ultimate state of communion—for Homo sapiens and all life. It may not be possible to return entirely, at least not in life, but the yearning persists nonetheless. That our most enduring existential crisis is one of meaning and purpose is telling, for it underscores the power of the human desire for connection. It is an expression of the communal instinct; as it is suppressed, the search for meaning grows.

Today the world is plagued by feelings of meaninglessness, not because the world inherently lacks meaning, but because we long for meaning in the absence of true communion. And our greatest source of disconnect—of meaninglessness—is our unbridled agency as Homo sapiens, and the resulting disconnect from nature, from other life, and from ourselves. In our increasingly individualistic world, in which people feel ever more isolated and disconnected, meaning is sought in all the wrong places. It is sought in drugs and alcohol, which offer a superficial and fleeting sense of communion with other people and life in general, but which eventually erode relationships and impair the capacity for connection. It is sought in acts of power and control, which massage the ego and create the façade of influence, but which are isolating in the long run, as they lead to division. And it is sought in popularity, and in acts of social conformity, which create the illusion of social relatedness but which lack balance and reciprocity. It is even sought in consumerism and materialism, and in our selfie-obsessed online cultures, which make a person feel as if they are connecting with the world around them but which prove terribly unsatisfying in the end, as they are mainly superficial and fleeting. In our desperation, we may do all of these things, but none will satisfy the inherent desire for communion. Its satisfaction must be of the authentic variety.

And so, we continue searching, hardly aware of what it is we truly desire; never really knowing what it is we seek to regain, or what we long to return to: connection, nature, belonging, or something like that…

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