Each piece of sensory information we parse needs to fit into a pattern, for it to make sense to us. It needs to guide us to different states of knowing, of understanding the world around us. If something we see or hear doesn’t fit into our view of how things work, it’s meaningless to us. A child dies before reaching adolescence, and all the hopes for their future are snuffed out. War flares up, claiming tens of thousands of lives, but there’s no hoped-for resolution to the conflict. Civil rights laws are passed, but they’re never enforced. What’s the point of it all? Where’s the meaning? To our minds, there may be none. But once we define another trajectory and understand the purpose of those events in light of this path, formerly pointless experiences suddenly take on new value, and we can move forward.
This doesn’t just happen on a grand scale, however. We are constantly seeking – and finding – meaning in our mundane day-to-day lives. Take, for example, the reality shows your co-workers discuss with gusto. When you were new on the job, none of it made any sense to you and it struck you as a huge waste of time. But over the ensuing months of watching your teammates bond over seemingly pointless exercises in human folly, you can (almost) see the point. The shared experience brings everyone closer, and the opportunity to discuss and argue over harmless details gives everyone a chance to simultaneously be an individual with dissenting opinions and be part of a larger group with shared interests. Rather than being a total waste of time, you now see that there’s some value to it all… however trivial it may actually be.
Meaning not only explains our environment, it also motivates us by assuring us that our lives are part of a larger unfolding pattern, that there will be some payoff i the future. Yes, it’s challenging to relocate from the city you’ve called home for many years. But moving to the ‘burbs will improve your life in ways you’ve wanted for a long time. In that quiet cul-de-sac you have your own little corner of the world to settle into, while you still have plenty of strength and energy to make your house a home. That’s going to come in handy, years on down the line, when you need an established (and paid-for) residence to enjoy your golden years. The patio, the back yard, the vegetable garden… they all figure prominently in your future plans, and everything you do to improve them now is deeply meaningful because of that connection with your imagined future. When you take action consistent with the unfolding meaning(s) of your life, you’re confirming them and advancing them farther down that path.
Conversely, when your experiences run afoul of the expected pattern – like when you’re laid off from a job you’ve done extremely well for over 20 years – life can suddenly become meaningless. You may have expected your loyal service to count for something. You imagined your career trajectory taking you ever higher, as your employer realized the value of your extensive experience and rewarded you accordingly. But for whatever reason, they not only denied you a raise and promotion, but kicked you to the curb. The severance package softened the landing, but your expected pattern of this-leads-to-that has been shattered.
When life loses its meaning, it can feel like little more than base existence. Meaning is as much the currency of life, as electricity is the pulse in our cells. It’s the stuff that flows through us to keep us moving. It aligns us with a master pattern that’s so important to us and makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. A meaningful life is one that’s in sync with the ever-changing world around us in the most productive, satisfying ways. When we have it, we understand what’s next… what’s happening to us… what we’re supposed to do… how we’re supposed to feel about things… and what we can ultimately expect to happen. And when our lives lack meaning, we search for it – high and low – so we can once again align ourselves with the patterns we believe are (or should be) true.
Meaning can be found just about anywhere, and we are constantly on the look-out for chances to use it to bridge our conceptual distance – to figure out where things fit in the larger patterns of our lives, and what we should do with / about them. It compels us to engage with the world, to progress down a path of increasingly knowledge, expanding and deepening our expertise as we go along. It’s what gets us from a state of seeing something just as it is – your neighbor hunched over on her garden bench – to a state of doing something with that information… either walking away or coming closer to find out what’s really going on.
But meaning is a tricky thing. And it’s different for everyone. Where physical distance and temporal distance can be quantified, measured, understood in terms of numbers and comparisons, meaning is qualitative. It’s a feeling we have… An ineffable tone… a sensed quality we measure in terms of strength. Salience. Impact. Not everyone cares about the same things, to the same degree. When our most prized, strongly held meanings are shared, it connects us firmly to community, providing a sense of belonging and safety.