Author: Bendik Sparre Hovet
Having meaning in life means that life seems worth living. But where does meaning come from? And can meaning only come from one source at a time? Through qualitative and quantitative studies, researchers have concluded that we can draw on a big variety of sources of meaning, and that they can be categorised into five dimensions. The source of meaning that appears to be the strongest generator of meaning is “generativity” – doing or creating something that have lasting value. It is about contributing to something that is bigger than yourself and that persists after you are gone.
The five superordinate dimensions are vertical self-transcendence, horizontal self-transcendence, self-actualisation, order, and finally well-being and connectedness. Within each of these five dimensions there are several sources of meaning in life:
Religiosity – believing in a higher power, praying, being part of a religious community
Spirituality – believing in a (good) force or energy behind the universe, living according to higher values
Social commitment – helping and caring for those who are less fortunate, engaging for justice
Nature relatedness – being out in nature, feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself
Self-knowledge – learning about your true self, being comfortable with who you are, feeling at home in yourself
Health – taking steps to live a healthy life, sleeping, eating healthy, being active
Generativity – doing or making something for others that lasts, contributing to something bigger than yourself
Challenge – trying new things, not running away from what is uncomfortable
Individualism – being independent, standing up for yourself, feeling that you are following your own path
Power – shaping the world in your own image, having others look up to you and ask for your advice, being able to achieve what you want
Development – setting goals and trying to reach them, always striving to evolve
Achievement – getting things done, reaching high standards, having something to show for your time
Freedom – living as you want, being able to go beyond norms
Knowledge – understanding the world, trying to make connections and learn more all the time
Creativity – creating something, seeing connections no one has seen, or living in ways others don’t, seeing something new in everyday situations
Tradition – passing on what your parents and ancestors have given you, celebrating holidays, providing stability and security
Practicality – being down to earth, keeping both feet on the ground, getting things done in everyday life
Morality – doing the right thing, sticking to clear values, upholding norms and customs
Reason – thinking before you act, not getting carried away by emotions, being precise, accurate and reasonable
Well-being and relatedness
Communion – feeling close to someone, seeking and enjoying the presence of others
Fun – living with humour, laughing a lot, having fun
Love – loving someone and feeling loved, being romantic and intimate
Comfort – enjoying yourself, taking time to relax, disconnect, do something good for yourself
Care – being there for others, caring about them, doing things to make them feel better
Attentiveness – being in the present moment, experiencing intensely, feeling clarity and acting mindfully
Harmony – being in balance with yourself and others, feeling in tune within yourself and your environment
We usually draw on different sources of meaning – the more, the better! And ideally, they should cover at least 3 of the 5 dimensions of meaning. This is understood as a balanced meaning in life.
Meaning can also be viewed as being more or less deep. Here, depth of meaning is defined as the degree of self-transcendence. In his famous Hierarchy of Needs, psychologist Abraham Maslow is known for placing self-actualisation as the highest human motivation. However, less well known is that he later updated the Hierarchy. After looking again at the people he had used as examples of self-actualisation, he discovered that they were not simply concerned with promoting themselves. Their goal was something bigger than themselves. Thus, Maslow concluded that self-actualisation was only a step on the path to going beyond the self and being concerned with something more than oneself. Forgetting oneself in a focus on something greater is thus the deepest form of meaning we can reach, if we follow this line of thought.
From chapter 6, Sources of meaning, in The Psychology of Meaning in Life by Tatjana Schnell (2021).
Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302–317. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.1992
Schnell, T. (2021). The Psychology of Meaning in Life. Routledge.