A New Conception of Meaning

This text is a (very short) summary of my seminar paper on the understanding of the term “meaning” in the context of the debate about meaning in (human) lives. I’ll discuss some difficulties and further problems with my teacher next week and possibly update my position after that. I’d be curious about your ideas when it comes to the meaning of “meaning”.



There are two sub-types of meaning:

a) psychological meaning: We ascribe (subjective) meaning to actions, if we are able to integrate them into our network of beliefs and if they are coherent with the (desired) perception of ourself. This can happen consciously or subconsciously. In that sense humans create meaning (among others supported by Baumeister et. al. and A. Markus).

b) social meaning: Our actions are (objectively) meaningful, if they create, support, or protect projects of (commonly shared / acknowledged) value (among others supported by S. Wolf).

Both types are important in different ways as they affect the individuals’ lives in different ways and because they are useful tools in different sciences (psychology / sociology).



There is a great variety  in perspectives and “answers” when it comes to the discussion of the possibility and existence of meaning in an individual’s life. Those range from theories about god-given meaning (supernaturalistic), deity-independent intrinsic meaning, different relativistic positions, to completely subjectivist accounts (naturalistic) (Metz, Stanford).

It is obvious that those conceptions lead to tremendous theoretic and content relative differences, which increase the danger of misunderstanding when it comes to a discourse about this subject. There is a huge amount of (mostly non-academic) essays proclaiming that the absence of a god would necessarily lead to a meaningless or absurd life on the one hand. There is an equally big amount of writers discussing possibilities of increasing the meaning of ones own life without assuming the necessity of such a connection either by reference to intrinsic (as opposed to instrumental) value or to the phenomenology (quality of experience) of meaningfulness.

This essay tries to answer the following questions: “What are we talking about, when we theorize about meaning in an individual’s life?” and “How can we distinguish theories about meaning from theories about other values that are usually associated with it (happiness, purpose)?



I aim to take academic and everyday conceptions of meaning in an individual’s life into account to fully understand what we mean, when we talk about “meaning”. The evidence for the use of the term in the first setting is derived from essays that can be categorized as belonging to contemporary (mostly Anglo-Americanan) analytical philosophy. The data used for the understanding of the everyday conception is taken from the psychological study “Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life” by Baumeister et. al. (it is obvious that the amount of information that has been analyzed and evaluated is too small to grant a secure basis to form a commonly used conception. Further (dis-)confirmation would be needed for a sensible decision).


On the Relation Between Happiness and Meaning:

There are two apparently contradictory notions when it comes to the relation of happiness (in a hedonic sense / understood as a pleasurable mental state) and meaning:

a) Happiness and Meaning can be conceptually separable

b) Meaning consists in the phenomenology of happiness / fulfillment

The first notion is based on Baumeister et.al.’s study. Although there is a general positive relation between happiness and meaning, there is no direct connection between the two. Instead, the correlation results from a shared factor: engagement in social relations. However, participants considered their actions as more meaningful (with no increase in happiness) when they were in the position of giving or helping, while receiving goods was associated with increased happiness (but not with meaning). They describe the meaningful but unhappy life in the following way:

“Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.”(Baumeister et. al., 515)

The second notion stems from the most discussed essay in the field (Metz, 19): Richard Taylor’ s “The Meaning of Life”. He uses an additive thought experiment – the myth of Sisyphus – to discover necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of meaning in an individuals life.

The Gods punished Sisyphus by making him roll a huge rock up a mountain for eternity. As soon as he reaches the top, the rock rolls down and he has to move it up again. Taylor discusses two possibilities to bring meaning into this life: One could add a lasting result to the task (he could build a temple on the top of the mountain) or one could change Sisyphus’s attitude towards the task. He decides that the latter option makes more sense for two reasons: It is impossible to create something that lasts forever and, even if it was possible to do so, the completion of the task would leave Sisyphus in a state of utter boredom, which is claimed to be incompatible with meaning. Thus, he concludes that the only way to make such a life meaningful lies in the change of attitude. He imagines that the Gods show mercy by doing just that and therewith help Sisyphus live a fulfilled and, therewith, meaningful life.


The conceptual separation of psychological and social meaning:

As we can see there are two similarly plausible and supported perspective when it comes to the relation of meaning and happiness in the described sense. Taylor’s view seems attractive when looking at the vast variety of activities that people perceive as meaningful and there is a huge trend in the everyday perception of this value – “Take your life into your own hands”, “Make your life meaningful”, “How to create (not find) meaning in your life” (derived from google search on “meaning (of life)”).

On the other hand, there is no necessary connection between happiness and meaning and a subjectivist position (such as Taylor’s) leads to severe consequences. Smuts points out that subjectivist positions makes it impossible to claim that any individual’s life is more meaningful than another. He amusingly demonstrates that with the thought experiment about the fulfilled excrement-eater whose life would have to be considered just as, or even more, meaningful as the life of a doctor who does not feel as fulfilled and happy (Smuts, 343f).

We can plausibly defend a conceptual differentiation along the lines of the distinction of a more private, subjective (=psychological) and an apparently more objective (social) understanding of meaning. Both of them gain importance in two ways:

a) they offer rather precise conceptual tools for psychological / sociological research

b) psychological meaning is of great importance for a human’s well-being (Tay et.al., 364). Social meaning is important, because it arises as a result of rationally shared values.



I’d be very happy to clarify and / or discuss some of the points I basically only named briefly. I’m also interested in your position: What would you answer if someone asked you for a concept of “meaning” in the context of “meaning” in life?



Baumeister, Roy F., Vohs, Kathleen D., Aaker, Jennifer L. und Garbinsky, Emily N.:
Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. In: The Journal
of Positive Psychology, 2013, Vol. 8, No. 6, 505–516, doi:10.1080/17439760.2013.830764.

Markus, Arjan: Assesing Views of Life: A Subjective Affair?. In: Religious Studies, 39
(2013), 125-43.

Metz, Thaddeus: The Concept of Meaning. In: Meaning in Life, 2013, 17-36,

Metz, Thaddeus, “The Meaning of Life”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.), URL =

Smuts, Aaron: The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life. In: The Southern
Journey of Philosophy. Vol. 51, No. 4 (2013), 536-52.

Taylor, Richard: The Meaning of Life. In: Good and Evil, N.Y., Prometheus Books.
2000. 31934, 19-28.

Tay, Louis und Diener, Ed: Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World. In:
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011, 101:2, 354-365.