13 Meditations On Meaning

Meaning is a bag of stonesMeaning is a bag of stones, waiting for us to put it down. Waiting for us to put down the load of expectations, of aspirations, of better times ahead.

The load of always subordinating the present moment to a hypothetical future one. We have to set it down if we want to keep on going.

After all, the best way to collect gems is with an empty backpack.


We’re born and we breathe in for the first time. We die with one last breathe out. In between these two moments, all we really have is our consciousness. A state of consciousness that we want to be a certain way. We have a set of requirements that we’re hoping to meet to a certain extent in order to regard our lives as meaningful.

What are these requirements? To answer this question is to find your personal meaning.


In my youth, I built cannons, tanks, and self-reliance. I discovered that some questions don’t have answers, or are not the right questions to ask. This is what it means to embrace the Absurd: the gamble of living without answers, without appeal. That’s what my cannons and tanks were for; to wage a war against the Absurd!
 
I think Blaise Pascal was right to gamble. He simply misplaced his chips.

We’re looking for something, a feeling, a certain state of consciousness, a return. But what is often ignored is that one has to invest in order to get a return.

If meaning is the yield, the profit, the return, the question is in what we should invest to attain it. The answer lies in the only two currencies we have as humans, time and attention. We get to SPEND time and PAY attention.

The meaningful life is the return, the reward for investing your time and attention well.


Meaning is more important than happiness. Why? Because happiness is what we’re willing to sacrifice for something truly meaningful.


A healthy will to power should take the form of a will to responsibility.

What follows is that with great responsibility comes great power.


The most important thing about the nature of purpose to understand is that it is not, as often presented by religion, top-down. It is bottom-up, that is, you are free to create it.


I do not believe in the concept of a soul. I believe in consciousness, but that is not dependant on my belief in it. I couldn’t escape it if I tried, and boy have I tried.


You can live a miserable life for yourself and spread misery to others (lose lose)
You can live a great life for yourself and spread misery to others (win lose)
You can live a miserable life for yourself and be great to others (lose win)
Or can live a great life for yourself and be great to others. (Win win, aka the meaningful life)

Needless to say, it is advisable to strive after the latter, win-win way of living your life.


When I was 19, I chose not to kill myself. And with this, I don’t mean that I was suicidal. Not at all.

Instead, I realized that if we have the option to end our lives, we also have the option to choose to live fully. Just because someone is alive, doesn’t mean this person has deliberately, consciously chosen to make the most of this one life we can be sure of having. As soon as you’re born, living is the standard option, the option box that is checked by default.

So when I was 19, I chose to live fully and wanted to figure out what makes life most worth living. This is what led me to positive psychology.

But even though positive psychology provides us with a scientific approach to what makes life most worth living, it doesn’t provide us with a philosophical motivation for actually living. This is what led me to do research meaning.

In my opinion, the the fundamental question around meaning is: “Why to live?”

Only when this question has been answered in a life-affirming way can we ask the second most important question, namely “How to live?”


“How to live a meaningful life?”

This question is only valid because of life’s inherent finitude. I would argue that the more aware you are of this finitude, the more urgency you will feel to spend your time well. This is what the terror management theorists argue as well and so does research into people who’ve had a near-death experience.

So if you find yourself wasting a lot of time, maybe it would be a good idea to meditate on your own death (or, slightly more extreme, your own funeral or even decomposition) every once in a while. It’s one of the most powerful interventions that I know of and one that I can personally attest to the benefits to.


What the existentialists did is lay the worst facts about our human predicament out on the table so we can look at them, get accustomed to them, and transcend them.


Meaning is not real because it contains certain qualities that seem to come from outside of ourselves, it contains these qualities precisely because it is believed in as real.

About the Author

Seph Fontane Pennock, BBA, is the co-founder of PositivePsychology.com. Seph strongly believes that we can deal with most of life’s absurdities by leveraging human connection and challenging ourselves, instead of using dogma or pharmaceutical drugs.

Comments

  1. Sergey

    Hi Seph
    It’s not accidental that Victor Frankl has been mentioned so many times.The value of his works is difficult to overestimate.
    You wrote – “I discovered that some questions are not the right questions to ask”.
    This is exactly what Victor Frankl meant when he wrote that to ask what the meaning of your life is is the same as to ask a grand master what the best go in chess is. According to Victor Frankl the above question is incorrect.
    One of the most meaningful ideas of Victor Frankl is – a human being is not the one who asks the question about the meaning of life but the one who answers it. I love that.
    Kind respects,
    Sir J

    Reply
  2. Anna Betz

    Thank you for sharing all these insights worth contemplating and being with to notice what emerges for us.
    I wonder if anyone had heard of the Map of Meaning, a holistic evidence based framework created by a professor in New Zealand called Marjolein. The Map allows us to explore individually and collectively the whole territory of Meaning in Life and Work.
    Since Meaning making is the most natural thing we all do the model is accessible and open source. You can check it out on their website called the map of meaning.

    Reply
  3. Roman Rodriguez

    Greetings.
    I’ve been familiarizing myself with the concepts of positive psychology for a little over a year. Just scratching the surface really, and the question that pops in my head frequently is the following: “How is positive psychology (labeled often as a new, emerging or modern branch of psych), different from self-help literature that has been around for decades?
    Sincerely

    Reply
    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      Hi Roman,
      The simplest way I know of answering your question would be to look at the way we get to certain knowledge. Positive psychology, as a branch of psychology, uses the scientific method for this, meaning that researchers come up with a hypothesis that they then try to test and falsify in order to assess its validity.
      The self-help movement does not use the same methodology as its “evidence” – if you want to call it that – is often either anecdotal or non-existent. Self-help literature sometimes borrows certain ideas from the scientific literature with the danger of overgeneralizing its findings or using them outside of the context they were in.
      This is how positive psychology differs from self-help.
      Hope this helps!
      Seph

      Reply
  4. Carly Radford

    Is cognitive semiotics the same as meaning-making of life and life experiences?
    Also can you direct me to research or books on meaning-making after trauma and how the search for meaning and understanding impacts the thoughts, feeling and behaviours post trauma? Wanting to do this for my dissertation but it’s like looking for needles in linguistic semiotic haystacks.
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      Hi Carly,
      Yes, I suppose you can equate cognitive semiotics with “meaning-making”, except that, in my estimation, meaning making is more than just cognitive. There’s an affective (feelings/emotions) and a conative (striving action) component to it as well. I usually refer to the “trilogy of the mind” model for explaining this (Hilgard, E. R. (1980). The trilogy of mind: Cognition, affection, and conation. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 16(2), 107-117.)
      Other than that, I can recommend the following works for meaning & trauma:
      – Frankl, V. E. (2018). Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. Hachette UK.
      – Russo-Netzer, P., Schulenberg, S. E., & Batthyany, A. (Eds.). (2016). Clinical Perspectives on Meaning: Positive and Existential Psychotherapy. Springer.
      – Landau, I. (2017). Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Oxford University Press.
      I know there are a great many of other books out there that focus more specifically on meaning in clinical settings, but I’m not one to advise.
      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  5. Dr Stephen J Costello

    Seph,
    I’m a philosopher and logotherapist. On Meaning, I’d recommend the works of Viktor Frankl. My question: re your post above with its recommendation the praenefitatio malorum and memento mori spiritual exercises I wonder if you have been influenced by the Stoics- or are there any points of equivalence between Stoicism and positive psychology and also how you view the attempt by some to unify existential philosophy and psychology with positive psychology? Thanks

    Reply
    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      Dear Dr. Stephen, thank you for leaving a comment.
      Yes, I’ve read most of Frankl’s works and lectures with great interest. There are only a couple of points he makes that I do not necessarily agree with, such as that meaning is always ‘discovered’ instead of created and that meaning is ‘what is meant’. To be fair, more context is needed here. Maybe a topic for another post.
      Have I been influenced by the Stoics? I recently read ‘On Peace of Mind’ by Seneca – a work I highly recommend – and have read a number of Stoics both directly and indirectly. They were the cognitive behavioral therapists avant la lettre†.
      Similarities with positive psychology? I’d say the methodologies and epistemologies behind these schools differ, but other than that, they are almost the same. Both study the good life and try to offer advice for improving one’s life.
      There indeed is a recent mix of these fields called ‘Existential Positive Psychology’. My (retiring) friend Paul Wong has been taking a leading role in this. Like I wrote in the piece above, I think answering the question of ‘how to live’ only makes sense if one is clear on ‘why to live’.
      That is why meaning – as an emerging academic field – needs philosophy (why) at least as much as it needs psychology (how).
      Best of luck with the programs you’re running!

      Reply

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