Subjective vs. Objective Meaning

Is meaning subjective or objective?

The psychological research on meaning doesn’t touch this question. The research shows that humans perceive meaning separately from happiness, so, at minimum, meaning appears to be real in the subjective sense.

Philosopher Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism made me question my biases against introspective perceptions as opposed to physical perceptions (e.g. sight). Whether perceptions of meaning are hobbled perceptions of objective meaning, or simply subjective, or one of many potential delusions, it’s not clear.

However, why not assume the Bayesian prior that we can follow our intellectual perceptions of meaning towards objective truth? This seems to be a good approach for ethics. Bryan Caplan’s argument for free will sums up this burden of proof well (emphasis added):

I observe that I choose freely, at least sometimes; and if you introspect, you will see it too. There is no reason to assume that these observations are illusory, any more than there is reason to assume that vision or hearing is illusory. I frequently hear scientists declare that real science (as opposed to bogus Aristotelian science) rests on observation; that is, they take the observed facts as a given, and work from there. The insistence that free will does not exist has more in common with the worst a priori scholasticism than with modern science. The latter demanded that the facts fit the theory, while the essence of science is supposed to be that we make our theories fit the observed facts. […] Any argument for doubting our observations of our mental states would ipso facto be an argument to doubt the observations that confirmed atomic theory. […]

This doesn’t mean that I am sure that no explanation is possible; maybe one day someone will show that this “brute fact” is not a brute fact at all, but one capable of a simple explanation. The point is that we don’t need to wait for this explanation before we can accept my view. We can gather all of the needed evidence for that if we merely turn inwards and observe.

Some meaning researchers in psychology use the following formula to help people find meaningful work (purpose is considered a subset of, or tool to attain, meaning):

Purpose (P) = Values (V) + Strengths (S) + Ecosystem (E)

If meaning is objective, then discovering objective values is necessary to decide a meaningful path. If, for example, the ultimate value is to reduce suffering, then maximizing meaning involves a job that tries to minimize suffering. Sadly, it’s not easy to know when you’re doing this or not. And strangely, sometimes, values can be realized in unintuitive ways, or without consciously trying to do so (profit-seekers probably reduced average suffering more than the the most benevolent kings, queens, or priests).

Doesn’t all of the above apply even if meaning is only subjective? Well, yes, one should still follow perceptions of meaning even if they’re only subjective, but if meaning is also objective, then we’re forced to struggle with our intellectual laziness more. It’s easier to stop the chain of ‘Why’ questions when we can give up at any point and think, “well, it’s all subjective anyway,” and, ultimately, that may stop us from increasing meaning.

Just because a question’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to explore it. We should be hyper-sensitive to our perceptions of meaning throughout the journey.

At the same time, it might not be as hard as over-thinkers like me make it out to be. Just like with morality, although we should be aware of our biases, and we should be open to questioning the sources of our beliefs, and we should be open to changing our opinions, generally, it’s not that hard to introspect and guess what a right and good action is. Similarly, it might be intuitively obvious (potentially with requisite wisdom) what a meaningful career and life looks like, even if they’re not easy to attain.


Meaningful Work as Self‐Transcendence


Theories of meaningful work could in some ways be said to draw their inspiration from Durkheim’s (1897) sociological analysis of suicide. Durkheim argued that one cause of suicide was unemployment because it deprived people of their function and their opportunity to contribute to society. That a noted sociologist was so concerned with the damage unemployment could do to people may have been rooted in the massive changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution to the role of work in people’s lives. In some ways, work was transformed from a predestined path trod by all members of a particular family lineage, where Shoemakers made shoes, Cartiers transported goods, and Breuers made beer. As machines replaced human labor and as assembly line techniques deconstructed work into a sequence of connected tasks, traditional occupations were uprooted and people became responsible not for production as fait accompli but rather for production in terms of incremental additions to a whole. More than 100 years after Durkheim’s observations about the dire impact of losing one’s place in society through the loss of work, we still see concerns about how quickly the world of work changes, how rapidly “human” jobs are outsourced or even replaced by robots or algorithms. As technology continues to change the shape of work in our lives, by increasing competition in the job market, increasing globalization, and increasing the reach of workplace communications into personal time, people struggle with the challenge of trying to balance work demands with life priorities. […]

Steger and colleagues drew upon the much larger body of scholarship on meaning in life as a whole to identify the important role of self‐transcendence in meaningful work (for review, see Steger, 2009, 2012a, 2012b). It has been theorized and shown that as people transcend their own immediate and self‐centered concerns to embrace the concerns of those beyond themselves they experience greater meaning in their lives (e.g., Dik, Duffy, & Steger, 2012; Reker, Peacock, & Wong, 1987; Schnell, 2009; Steger, Kashdan, & Oishi, 2008). The model Steger and colleagues developed can be displayed in terms of concentric circles indicating people’s degree of transcendence from the basic qualities of a job. Meaningful work transcends simple job execution when workers perceive that their work is meaningful and has a point or purpose within the organization. The relationship of one’s work to meaning in one’s personal life as a whole is another step of transcendence away from simple job characteristics. Finally, the ability of work to surpass benefits to one’s own life and provide broader impacts for the greater good represents yet another level of transcendence. Figure 5.1 displays the dimensions of meaningful work from this theory. In the central circle is the extent to which a worker judges her or his job to be meaningful and significant. In the next circle is the degree to which a job or work is harmonious with meaning and purpose in the worker’s life as a whole, or alternatively, helps workers build more meaning in their lives. In the largest circle is the degree to which a job or work helps the worker contribute to or positively impact others or the greater good in prosocial ways.

The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work; Lindsay G. Oades, Michael Steger, Antonelle Delle Fave, Jonathan Passmore; January 2017,

Randomized Controlled Trial on Pro-social Behavior and Meaning

The results of Study 2 provide the first experimental evidence to our knowledge that engaging in the prosocial act of writing gratitude notes enhances meaning in life. Participants assigned to write short notes of gratitude [(5–10 min writing short notes of gratitude to (up to) four people who have positively influenced their lives)] reported [5%] greater meaning in life (while statistically controlling for baseline levels of meaning) after expressing this prosocial behavior than participants in a neutral priming condition and marginally more than participants in the self-affirmation condition. Conversely, the self-affirmation prime did not increase meaning in life relative to the neutral condition. This provides additional evidence for the meaning provision hypothesis: prosocial actions are a source of meaning in life, and the results are not simply due to prosocial behaviors being self-affirming or solely a function of positive mood. […]

[W]e suspect that acting antisocially does not necessarily translate to lower meaning in life. Individual perceptions of meaning in life are necessarily subjective, and individuals derive meaning from various sources in life (see Heine et al., 2006; Wong, 1998). The results here suggest that prosocial behavior is one potential source of meaning. […] We further emphasize that prosocial behavior is but one way to procure meaning in life. There are other ways in which individuals can find meaning (e.g. having a successful career, cultivating a garden) that are not directly relevant to prosociality.


Prosociality enhances meaning in life, Tongeren et al, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016,

Meaning In Life vs. Meaning Of Life

Martela & Steger 2016 is the best overview I’ve found of the field of meaning research. From practical empirical results, to summaries of major themes and definitions, and all the way to discussions of Tolstoy, Camus, Socrates, and Plato, it’s an amazing and dense piece of research at only 11 pages long. If anyone’s interested in this field, start with this paper. The discussion about Tolstoy made me think that his book Confession, which I read last year, is probably what sparked my search for meaning (along with Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism which rehabilitates the concept of meaning). Be careful what you read!

An initial step in understanding psychological research on meaning in life is to separate this question from the more philosophical question about meaning of life (Debats, Drost, & Hansen, 1995). This latter question looks at life and the universe as a whole and asks what, in general, is the point of life: Why does it exist, and what purpose does it serve? These kind of metaphysical questions are, however, ‘out of reach of modern objectivist scientific methodology’ (Debats et al., 1995, p. 359), and not questions for psychology to answer. The aim of psychological research on meaning in life is more modest. It aims to look at the subjective experiences of human beings and asks what makes them experience meaningfulness in their lives. […]

Meaning, as a word, comes from the Old High German word meinen, to have in mind (Klinger, 2012, p. 24). This already reveals that meaning is tied up with the unique capacity of human mind for reflective, linguistic thinking. […] When we ask what something means, we are trying to locate that something within our web of mental representations. Meaning is about mentally connecting things. This is true whether we ask about the meaning of a thing or the meaning of our life.

Meaning is thus about life as interpreted by a being capable of reflective thinking. While the question whether animals can experience pleasure and happiness has been debated within science at least since Darwin (1872; see also McMillan, 2005), we are aware of no serious argument for animals experiencing a sense of meaning in life. Meaning, at least in its more developed forms, is thus an exclusively human affair. […]

[T]here are three basic facets of this search for meaning in life, corresponding to three different domains of human experience: coherent understanding (cognitive), worthwhile pursuing (motivational), and valuing living (evaluative). Meaning is about rising above the merely passive experiencing, to a reflective level that allows one to examine one’s life as a whole, making sense of it, infusing direction into it, and finding value in it.

The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance, Martela & Steger, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016,

Don’t Focus Just on Work Meaning

Allan et al 2015 seemed to find a fascinating correlation: those with moderate and high meaning at work ended up with lower and declining overall meaning towards the end of their life, as compared to those with low meaning at work ending up with higher and increasing meaning towards the end of their life:


Meaning in work refers to the subjective experience that one’s work has significance, facilitates personal growth, and contributes to the greater good (Steger et al., 2012). Conceptually, meaning in work is considered a sub-domain of meaning that acts as a potential source of meaning in life (Ebersole & DePaola, 2001; Emmons, 2003; Fegg et al., 2007; Steger & Dik, 2009). This is supported by several studies that have asked participants the sources of their life meaning, finding common responses including relationships, religion, service, and work (Baum & Stewart, 1990; DeVogler & Ebersole, 1981; Emmons, 2005; Fegg et al., 2007).

Following from this conceptualization, researchers have argued that experiencing meaning in work translates into greater meaning in life (Steger & Dik, 2009), an assertion supported by several studies showing that participants consistently report work as a major source of meaning (e.g. Fegg et al., 2007). Few studies have examined both life meaning and work meaning in the same study, but Duffy, Allan, Autin, and Bott (2013) found a correlation of 0.49 between the two variables in working adults. Several studies have also illustrated how well-being in the work domain can affect meaning in the life domain. For example, workaholism and work–life conflict are negatively associated with purpose in life, and work enjoyment is positively associated with purpose in life (Bonebright, Clay, & Ankenmann, 2000). Finally, adolescents who report purposeful career goals also report higher meaning in life (Yeager & Bundick, 2009). Therefore, there is some reason to suspect that meaning in work may translate into higher meaning in life. […]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals spend more time working on weekdays than any other life activity, including sleep (8.7 h a day; BLS, 2013). Therefore, it is not surprising that the meaning individuals experience at work would have a large effect on overall life meaning. What might be surprising, however, is the manner in which these two variables are related in different age groups. The relation of age and life meaning for individuals with low work meaning was U-shaped, with life meaning being low for individuals in their prototypical working years (ages 20–50) and adults over 50 reporting higher life meaning. An opposite pattern existed with individuals high in work meaning, with life meaning highest for those in their prototypical working years and lower for those over 50.

These results exemplify the role that the presence, or absence of, work meaning may play in promoting an overall sense of life meaning. For individuals high in work meaning, work may represent the dominant way one cultivates life meaning (Emmons, 2005; Steger et al., 2012). Subsequently, it may be that during these prototypical working years, people high in work meaning have plenty of opportunities to contribute to their life meaning through work. However, for both high and low work meaning groups, participants in their 60s experienced similar levels of life meaning. The reasons for this finding are largely speculative, but people in the second half of life may have more difficulty extracting meaning from work, which in turn may result in this group experiencing lower levels of life meaning. For example, the sources of meaning associated with work, such as recognition for achievement, meeting basic needs, and materialism, are lower in older adults (DeVogler & Ebersole, 1981; Prager, 1996), and some sources outside of work, such as maintaining values and religious practices, are higher during this period (Prager, 1996). Similarly, older adults may be less concerned with generative actions, which may be primarily preformed at work, so work might lose its potency to influence life meaning (McAdams et al., 1993). In either case, work meaning may be stronger for middle age and older adults, but the relation between work meaning and life meaning may be lower for older adults relative to those in middle age.

Contrary to people high in work meaning, those low in work meaning may not receive the same type of life meaning benefit from work. Therefore, for people with low work meaning in their prototypical working years, work might be taxing and uninteresting. Perhaps, working in a low work meaning job almost nine hours a day is a drain on overall life meaning. Intriguingly, life meaning was higher for individuals older than 50. Our data suggests that participants in their 60s (those high and low in work meaning) display relatively the same amount of life meaning. Like the high work meaning group, older adults low in work meaning may be more likely to find life meaning in other activities, perhaps as sources of meaning change during this time (Ebersole & DePaola, 2001; Prager, 1996). […]

As evidenced in our data, individuals highest in work meaning are the lowest in searching for life meaning. Work may be such an all-encompassing source of life meaning for individuals high in work meaning that the need to search for new sources is nonexistent. Older adults in particular may never have developed the motivation or skills to look for other sources of meaning. The finding that older adults that are low and high in work meaning have relatively the same level of life meaning life suggests that no matter how much work meaning an individual has, it may be important to be continually searching for other meaning sources. […]

[T]his study was cross sectional and examined separate individuals at different life time points. Doing so allowed the tracking of trends between variables and age, but it is impossible to make any claims about causality or the life track of specific individuals.

Meaning in life and work: A developmental perspective, B.A. Allan et al., The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2015,

Meaning in Life and Work Calculators

Dr. Steger constantly comes up in the Journal of Positive Psychology as one of the main meaning in life and work researchers. He made the questionnaires used for all the studies available for non-commercial use and I’ve converted them into free online calculators:

The Work and Meaning Inventory:

The Meaning in Life Questionnaire:

Pitfalls of Meaning Research

Park & George 2013 find that research on meaning appears to be in its infancy:

Many studies have found that searching for meaning is related to less distress (e.g. Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson, 1998; Sears, Stanton, & Danoff-Burg, 2003), while others have found it to be related to higher levels of distress and dysfunction (e.g. Bonanno, Papa, Lalande, Zhang, & Noll, 2005; see Park, 2010, for a review; Roberts, Lepore, & Helgeson, 2006). In addition, there is little evidence that meaning making results in meanings made (e.g. Kernan & Lepore, 2009; McIntosh, Silver, & Wortman, 1993; Thompson, 1991).

Inconsistent findings regarding the meaning-making framework are not surprising given the tremendous variations in design and measurement across studies. […] [I]nadequate measurement greatly constrains current knowledge of meaning making. […]

A recent review of measures of meaning in life identified nearly 60 measures (Brandstätter, Baumann, Borasio, & Fegg, 2012). This abundance reflects the complexities involved in defining and measuring individuals’ subjective sense of meaning. […]

In the past, popular meaning measures such as the Purpose in Life Test (Crumbaugh & Maholick, 1964) have been criticized for having items that are confounded with positive affect and life satisfaction (Dyck, 1987; Yalom, 1980). Many of these problems persist in currently used measures. […]

Because there is as yet little consensus on exactly how meaning making occurs or of what it consists, approaches to assessing meaning making remain somewhat diffuse. […]

Many studies have assessed meaning making by simply asking participants if they have been searching for meaning or trying to make sense of the stressful situation (e.g. Holland, Currier, & Neimeyer, 2006). As noted in Table 2, these measures are problematic in that they lack established validity beyond face validity, and research suggests that people interpret these items in extremely different ways (e.g. Wright, Crawford, & Sebastian, 2007). […]

Similar to meaning making, many researchers have adopted a fairly simple approach to determining whether meaning has been made, essentially asking the respondent whether he or she has ‘made meaning’ from the event. This question, like its meaning-making counterpart described above, appears to lack any validity beyond simple face validity. […]

The meaning-making literature is replete with examples of the same construct being defined in different ways, and distinct constructs being used interchangeably (see Park, 2010 for a review). This has resulted in confusion and mischaracterizations of findings. […]

Often, meaning making is operationalized via questions that ask participants if they have been searching for meaning […] The wording of such items may make a large difference. For example, in one study, responses of mothers with children undergoing bone marrow transplantation to items such as ‘searching for meaning’ and ‘searching for positive meaning’ were not correlated (Wu et al., 2008). Therefore, researchers need to carefully choose measures that have demonstrated validity and ensure that the measures adequately tap the constructs that they are intended to assess. […]

The majority of existing studies on meaning making have used cross-sectional designs. Cross-sectional designs are limited as they do not capture changes in meaning over time and provide little information regarding the interplay among stressors and components of the meaning making framework. Prospective, longitudinal research designs are crucial in this regard as they capture the dynamic processes underlying meaning making. Although longitudinal and prospective studies can be challenging, they are feasible (e.g. studying high risk populations; Bonanno, Wortman, & Nesse, 2004). […] Although this approach has seldom been employed as a way of examining shifts in these important aspects of meaning over time, results of studies that have employed this approach suggest that it is a very fruitful way to study meanings made over time (e.g. Park et al., 2008). For example, one study of diabetes, heart failure, and asthma patients found that reductions over time in the extent to which their illness was appraised as hindering their goals predicted later improved quality of life (Kuijer & De Ridder, 2003). […]

Most existing studies have focused on small parts of the meaning-making model, precluding a full test (see Park, 2010, for a review). These approaches render the drawing of conclusions difficult. For example, researchers looking to study the relationship between meaning making and adjustment often assess meaning-making efforts without assessing meanings made (e.g. DuHamel et al., 2004). Without assessing meanings made, it is impossible to differentiate between successful meaning making and maladaptive ruminations, and the question of whether meaning making is related to positive adjustment remains unanswered. Similarly, some researchers assess current beliefs without assessing what beliefs were like pre-trauma (e.g. Foaet al., 1999). This approach provides little information regarding changes in beliefs, which is a crucial part of the meaning-making process. […]

Although meaning and meaning making are widely considered to be crucial to individuals’ adjustment to stressors (Davis et al., 2000; Gillies & Neimeyer, 2006; Janoff-Bulman, 1989, 1992), empirical research to date has not been able to confirm these theoretical propositions and provide a thorough understanding of meaning making (Park, 2010). Methodological limitations, inadequate measurement, and the lack of a standard model of meaning making are largely responsible for this lack of definitive research.

Assessing meaning and meaning making in the context of stressful life events: Measurement tools and approaches, Crystal L. Park and Login S. George, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013,

Presence-of vs. Search-for Meaning (in Prisoners)

Vanhooren et al 2016 interviewed prisoners and found that a feeling of the presence of meaning versus the search for meaning seem to be distinct mindsets. The presence of meaning is associated with well-being, low distress, and better health, but the emotions associated with the search for meaning are mixed – sometimes openness and curiosity, but other times rumination and depression. Part of the breakthrough for some prisoners was being “seen” and “believed in” by others. This capacity for change appears to be partly forged in childhood, creating or depressing a sense of the potential meaningfulness of the world.

Martha, a 57-year old-female prisoner, had been incarcerated for 15 years. Reflecting on her prison experiences, Martha explained how she struggled with feelings of hopelessness. In her daily solitude she fought against the temptation to commit suicide. One of the things that kept her going was her personal knitting project. With the help of a chaplain her knitted bunnies were sold outside prison and the profit went entirely to an orphanage in Eastern Europe. Martha strongly asserted that as long as she could mean something to another person, life was still worth living. […]

In general, presence of meaning has been defined as an individual’s perception of his or her life being significant, purposeful, and valuable (Steger, Frazier, Oisgi, & Kaler, 2006). People experience meaning when they comprehend the world, when they understand their place in it, and can identify what they want to accomplish in life (Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008). […]

Higher levels of presence of meaning have frequently been associated with positive well-being, lower levels of distress, and better health outcomes (for an overview, see Steger, 2012). The links between the search for meaning and well-being have been less clear (Steger, 2013). Some studies found a search for meaning to be related to a lower level of well-being whereas other studies yielded mixed results (Steger, 2013). Steger et al. (2008) discovered that searching for meaning was not only related to rumination and depression, but also to openness and curiosity. […]

Maruna (2001) analyzed the narratives of interviews conducted with 50 ex-prisoners. The main purpose of this research was to study differences between offenders who successfully desisted from crime and offenders who persisted in crime. Remarkably, no differences were found in their socio-demographic background, in their crimes, the amount of committed crimes, or in their personality structure. One of the main differences between desisting and persisting offenders was the fact that they showed distinct profiles vis-à-vis meaning. Interestingly, persistent offenders were not likely to search for meaning. Maruna (2001) described their experience of meaning in life as ‘empty’ and self-centered. Their life purposes reflected this emptiness through the pursuit of hedonic happiness, such as hyper-consumption and sensorial thrills. This group avoided making life choices and taking responsibility for their own lives.

Meaning in the desisting group, however, was marked by a search for meaning, and the desire to accomplish self-transcending purposes, to contribute to larger causes, and to care for others (e.g. volunteer work). This group had also experienced emptiness in the past, but their experience of meaning had changed, primarily caused by the fact that they had an experience in which someone ‘believed’ in them. The experience of being ‘seen’ by another person and being truly valued prompted the onset of a profound process of change. This process involved an internal search for meaning, during which their inner sense of self and their purpose in life were recalibrated. As a result they experienced a higher sense of meaning in life, which was accompanied by higher levels of self-worth and the belief that they could change their destiny.

In the general population, self-worth has been found to be an important source of meaning (Baumeister, 1991). Connectedness with others is also found to be closely linked with feelings of meaningfulness (Stillman et al., 2009). A recent study on sources of meaning discovered that adults in the Western world especially derive meaning from personal growth and family involvement (Delle Fave, Brdar, Wissing, & Vella-Brodrick, 2013). The connection between people’s experience of meaning, their sense of worth, their perception of others and the world has been studied closely by Janoff-Bulman (1992). Janoff-Bulman (1992) and Park (2010) argue that people’s experience of meaning is usually built upon
assumptions about the self, others, and the world, which form their personal meaning system. These assumptions are basic schemes through which individuals understand or give meaning to themselves and to the world. Schemes like these are usually shaped during childhood and most people seem to develop positive assumptions about life. More specifically, people usually have a positive sense of self, and they experience the world as mostly benevolent and meaningful (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). […]

Several studies discovered that a vast majority of the prison population is raised in highly stressful environments, with a high occurrence of child abuse, neglect, and violence (Gibson, 2011; Grella, Lovinger, & Warda, 2013; Harner & Riley, 2013). In a pilot study with young prisoners (N = 38), the World Assumption Scale (WAS) (Janoff-Bulman, 1989) was used to measure three central world assumptions: self-worth, perceived benevolence of others, and the meaningfulness of the world (Maschi, MacMillan, Morgen, Gibson, & Stimmel, 2010). Cumulative trauma prior to imprisonment was significantly correlated with lower scores on the WAS, and most specifically with rather negative assumptions about the meaningfulness of the world (Maschi et al., 2010). This relationship was confirmed in another sample (N = 58) with adult prisoners (Maschi & Gibson, 2012). […]

We discovered that the absence of meaning is clearly connected with the experience of distress. The fact that similar associations were found in the general population (Steger, 2012), makes our finding more robust. It also shows that prisoners are – in this aspect – not that different from the general population. Just as for people in the ‘free world’, it is essential for prisoners to make sense of their lives and to have a purpose in life. […]

Being a cross-sectional study, we were not able to search for causal relationships, or to explore the long-term implications of meaning-profiles on societal re-entry and desistance from crime. […]

Prisoners with profiles that were marked by higher levels of meaning experienced less distress, more positive world assumptions, higher levels of self-worth, and more care for others compared to prisoners with low meaning-profiles. In a way, the experience of meaning seems to buffer the daily experience of distress, as we described in the case of Martha. […]

Older prisoners and those who experienced sexual abuse during childhood were more present in the profile that was marked by lower levels of meaning and lower levels of search for meaning. Their meaning-profile seems to reflect an existential vacuum, which Frankl (1959/2006) described as a state of being marked by meaninglessness, emptiness, and apathy. People who reside in this vacuum are in extreme need of support (Frankl, 1959/2006).

Profiles of meaning and search for meaning among prisoners, Vanhooren et al, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016,

Meaning vs. Purpose (in Cancer Patients)

George & Park 2013 surveyed cancer patients (twice, one year apart) with questions about meaning and purpose, and tried to tease out any potential differences. Meaning seems to be related to making sense of the why’s and what-for’s of life (e.g. religion/spirituality, etc.), whereas purpose seems to be related to accomplishing goals (e.g. direction in life, optimism, social support, etc.).

In the past few decades, the constructs of meaning and purpose have received increased scholarly attention and have come to be viewed as fundamental to wellness and fulfillment […] Empirical research has substantiated theoretical claims that a sense of meaning and purpose in life are important to well-being.

[T]he current study conceptualizes meaning and purpose as distinct constructs. Meaning is conceptualized as the subjective experience of perceiving life as fitting into a larger context and finding significance in it (Yalom, 1980). Individuals experiencing meaning are able to feel a sense of comprehension and significance in their lives and feel that life as a whole “makes sense” (Baumeister, 1991). In contrast, purpose is the subjective experience of possessing a system of overarching goals that provide a sense of direction in life (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). Purposeful individuals have an attitude towards the future characterized by a sense of enthusiasm and excitement. They see the future as promising and their current actions as leading to such a positive future state. […]

There is evidence to suggest that the term meaning represents more than merely a sense of goals, aims, and direction for individuals. For example, Wong (1998) asked lay people to describe their conceptions of an ‘ideally meaningful life.’ Participants’ descriptions consisted of a whole host of topics that are distinct from what we refer to here as purpose – participants wrote about having religious beliefs, intimate relationships, a sense of transcendence, being treated fairly, and living life in fulfilling ways. Therefore, when the term meaning is being used, people seem to think beyond mere goals and a sense of direction. […]

However, although they are closely related, the presence of one may not guarantee the other. For example, an individual who is concerned with climbing the career ladder may generate a system of goals and hence possess a strong sense of purpose, but these goals may or may not in turn contribute to a sense of comprehension and  understanding regarding life (i.e. meaning). […]

We examine these questions in a sample of cancer survivors, as questions of meaning and purpose are particularly salient for individuals dealing with crises. […]

Meaning and purpose were strongly correlated (r = 0.61, p < 0.01). […]

Given that meaning and purpose were substantially correlated with one another, partial correlations were conducted to tease out the psychosocial predictors of each, controlling for the other. […]

[P]artial correlations showed that Time 2 meaning was positively related to Time 1 religiousness and spirituality (whereas Time 2 purpose was not). Religion and spirituality offer comprehensive frameworks to understand and comprehend one’s existence and thus provide meaning (Park, 2005; Silberman, 2005). As this is a more salient function of religiousness and spirituality than the provision of a sense of goals and enthusiasm and excitement regarding the future, it is to be expected that religion and spirituality would be more closely associated with meaning than with purpose (Park, 2013; Park et al., 2013). Also consistent with the idea that comprehension and significance are more defining of meaning than purpose were the partial correlations that showed a positive relationship between Time 2 posttraumatic growth and Time 2 meaning and a negative relationship between Time 2 posttraumatic depreciation and Time 2 meaning. […] After an experience of crisis, individuals struggle to make sense of their experience, and to incorporate their experience into their worldview (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Park, 2010). This process may be accompanied by growth in various aspects of their lives (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) as it allows individuals to make sense of their experience and gain a sense of significance regarding the event and their lives (Janoff-Bulman & Yopyk, 2004). Posttraumatic growth helps individuals answer fundamental questions regarding the experience such as ‘why did it happen?’ and ‘what for?’ (Davis et al., 1998). Similarly, posttraumatic depreciation may hinder participants’ ability to make sense of their experience and thus lower meaning. In our sample, individuals who perceived more growth following their cancer diagnosis had a greater sense of meaning and those who perceived more depreciation had a lower sense of meaning, supporting the idea that part of meaning is the ability to make sense of one’s life and life events.

Consistent with the definition of purpose as a sense of goals, direction, and enthusiasm regarding the future, partial correlations showed that Time 2 purpose was positively associated with Time 1 optimism and negatively associated with Time 1 pessimism. […] It seems that in our sample, individuals who had more positive expectations of the future (optimists) also experienced more purpose in life. Furthermore, Time 1 goal violations pertaining to cancer were also inversely predictive of Time 2 purpose (but not of Time 2 meaning). Survivors who perceived their cancer experience as violating their goals perceived less purpose one year later, supporting the idea that goals are more central to the experience of purpose than of meaning. […]

For Time 2 meaning, Time 1 spirituality emerged as a unique predictor. The spirituality measure that we used captured subjects’ perception of the transcendent (God, the divine) in daily life and the degree to which s/he feels involved with the transcendent (Underwood & Teresi, 2002). The fact that experiencing the transcendent uniquely predicts meaning is consistent with the idea that meaning refers to a sense of understanding and significance regarding life. In contrast to meaning, regression results showed that Time 2 purpose was uniquely predicted by Time 1 interpersonal support and marginally (inversely) predicted by pessimism. The marginally significant inverse prediction of purpose by pessimism is consistent with the definition of purpose as a sense of goals, direction in life, and enthusiasm regarding the future. Pessimists have generalized expectations regarding outcomes that are negative (Scheier & Carver, 1985). Individuals with such negative expectations perceive more difficulties regarding their goals and more readily disengage from them (Carver & Scheier, 2002). Such a scenario is likely to result in a lower sense of purpose.

Some of the results were inconsistent with our expectations. The fact that regression analyses showed interpersonal support as a unique predictor of purpose but not of meaning was surprising considering that social relations are a primary source of meaning in individuals’ lives (Debats, 1999; Wong, 1998). Close relationships can add a sense of value and significance to one’s existence and make people feel that life is worth living (Yalom, 1980). […]

Another finding that was inconsistent with our expectations was the lack of a relationship between Time 2 meaning and Time 1 belief violations pertaining to the
cancer diagnosis. As core beliefs help individuals comprehend and understand their experiences (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Koltko-Rivera, 2004; Park, 2010), we expected a negative relationship between belief violations and meaning. […]

An intriguing aspect of our results was the set of relationships between meaning and purpose and crises. On the one hand, Time 2 posttraumatic growth and posttraumatic depreciation following one’s cancer diagnosis was correlated with Time 2 meaning but not with Time 2 purpose. On the other hand, Time 2 intrusive thoughts pertaining to the cancer experience was correlated with Time 2 purpose but not with Time 2 meaning. Lifetime incidence of crises measured at Time 1 also negatively correlated with Time 2 purpose but not with Time 2 meaning. This begs the question, are crises and the consequences of crises related more to meaning or to purpose? […]

Our analyses also showed that meaning and purpose were not related to demographic variables such as socioeconomic status and level of education. Socioeconomic status and level of education have been associated with purpose in the past (Ryff & Singer, 2008). Higher economic opportunities and educational standing may allow individuals to pursue personally valued goals and paths and thus confer an increased sense of purpose (Ryff & Singer, 2008). One possibility as to why we did not find a similar relationship is that the diagnosis of cancer may have affected this relationship. Crises and other difficult experiences could cause changes in sources of meaning and purpose (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). They could result in the discovery and commitment to meaningful and purposive aspects of one’s life regardless of one’s life circumstances (Frankl, 1963) – aspects which transcend the material realm and that are less dictated by socioeconomic and educational standing (e.g. spiritual beliefs and social connections). From an existential standpoint, the experience of cancer may put individuals on an ‘equal playing field,’ and this may explain why we did not find a relationship between meaning and purpose and socioeconomic status.

Are meaning and purpose distinct? An examination of correlates and predictors, Login S. George & Crystal L. Park, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013,