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How Meaning and Purpose Differ

by Beth on December 12th, 2018

Meaning in life is a critical component of well-being. Research has made this very clear. What isn’t as clear is exactly what meaning is and how we can build a more meaningful life. Fortunately, research is converging on some answers.

Michael Steger is a psychologist who has dedicated his work to the topic of meaning in life. He explains that meaning comes from reflectively interpreting your life and that there are three dimensions you can reflect upon: 1) sense of coherence, 2) purpose in life, and 3) significance.  

Coherence is interpreting your life in a way that makes sense. You understand who you are and how you fit into the world. Purpose is an overarching aim for your life. It gives you goals and a sense of direction. Significance is the feeling that your life matters because it is worthwhile or valuable. You can think of coherence as being a cognitive dimension of meaning in life, purpose as motivational, and significance as evaluative.

Sources of meaning are different from these three dimensions through which we experience meaning. Sources of meaning are what impact these dimensions. Meaning in life is very personal and we draw meaning from different sources. Each of us has had different experiences that we need to make sense of in our own ways. What gives me a sense of significance will be different from what you find to be worthwhile. You might have a clear purpose that contributes to your sense of meaning, while I may experience meaning through my relationships, my spirituality, or living authentically.

Meaning in life is a broader concept than purpose. Having a purpose can enhance your sense of meaning, but you don’t have to have a single, all-encompassing purpose in order to experience meaning. It is more likely that you have multiple, small scale purposes or goals that change over time. So don’t worry if you haven’t “found your purpose”. There are many other ways to have a meaningful life.

The key is to make more of the moments in your life matter. Spend time learning and growing in order to realize your potential. Nurture your relationships. Find ways to be of service to others. What will you do to make life more meaningful in the coming year?

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