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Meaningful and Meaningless Meanings: What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

Updated: Apr 8

... we have to choose between what is important and what is not, what is meaningful and what is not. We have to become selective and discriminating.
 ~ Viktor Frankl ~

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This article will explain meaningful purpose psychology’s (MP) definition of meaning: meaningful, meaningless, important, and unimportant. These terms will provide a frame to understand behavior and one of our approaches for self-regulation. I will build on what we have published in previous papers

 

Definition of Terms

  • Meaning: In meaningful purpose psychology, meaning is an aim backed by a cause. Viktor Frankl defined meaning as “what is meant.” Based on Frankl’s explanation, we define meaning as an aim backed by causes. Nothing can be meant and even happen without a “for the sake of” or reason, motive, and justification; in short, a why. As far as we know, all other definitions for meaning meet this criterion: they have an aim and a raison d’etre or reason for being.  For a more detailed explanation of our definition of meaning, please read our articles, Decoding the Essence: A Deep Dive into the Anatomy of Meaning, The Anatomy of Meaning, and Whisperers of the Mind: Meaning’s Self-talk. 


  • Meaningful: The dictionary defines meaningful as full of meaning, significancepurpose, or value; purposeful; significant. In MP theory and method, the meaningful builds enhance and point to what is significant and beneficial. Acting meaningfully intends to honor, respect, exalt, validate, and value something and someone. For instance, you probably believe that your country’s flag is meaningful because of what it represents – the kinship with fellow citizens, the history, language, culture, and traditions – all of which have a special significance in the flag’s colors. You would also agree that serving and doing good to others is meaningful for some individuals. To summarize, meaningful action is being prosocial.



Being prosocial

This is consistent with psychological literature, where meaningfulness is defined “as a generally positive or beneficial outcome for individuals and organizations.”[i]  Pratt and Ashforth state, “By ‘meaningful,’ we mean that the work and its context are perceived by its practitioners to be, at minimum, purposeful and significant” (Pratt and Ashforth, 2003)[ii]. Joseph F. Rychlack (1994)[iii] defines meaningfulness as “the extent of personal significance that a particular meaning has for the individual concerned.”

 

Leveraging these definitions plus our studies, we developed a framework of what constitutes being meaningful or what we call “The Path to a Meaningful Purpose.” My colleague, Daniel Persuitte, wrote an excellent series describing what is meaningful, starting with his article, 5 Ways We Strive and Thrive (August 31, 2023). I highly recommend the series. But to summarize, this constitutes being meaningful in MP:

 

1.    Being prosocial

2.    Pursuing peace and peace of mind

3.    Promoting contentment, happiness, and well-being

4.    Engaging in interesting activities with interesting people at interesting places for noble ends

5.    Pursuing prosperity by building on the previous four.


Being prosocial

  • Meaningless: In contrast, the dictionary defines meaningless as without meaning, significance, purpose, or value; purposeless; insignificant.  In MP, meaningless is something or someone we could consider useless, trivial, worthless, insignificant, as well as having low value. Hence, the meaningless path is the antisocial path.


The logotherapist makes us aware of a choice of attitudes, which in turn open up meanings in situations of unavoidable suffering that in itself are meaningless.
~ Joseph B. Fabry ~

(In meaningful purpose psychology [MP], all behavior is preceded by meanings; thus, we do not imply that meaningless equates to a literal “without meaning.” Rather, MP’s “without meaning” stands for “insignificance” or of low regard.)


  • Important:  Equates to having priorities and giving significance. The important activates our attention and demands selectivity and ranking among options. [i]  Knowing what is important allows us to prioritize and grant prominence.


  • Unimportant On the other hand, the unimportant is categorized as low-ranking, insignificant, inconsequential, and irrelevant. The unimportant calls for no to low attention.


In MP theory, “important” does not equate “meaningful.” Nor does “unimportant” parallel “meaningless.” In MP, a person can give importance to the meaningless, as defined in this article.


We Have Four Choices: Meaningful and Meaningless Meanings

In our goal for simplicity and ease of understanding, we have developed The Meaning-Importance Quadrant to explain how we have four choices for approaching life and others.



Meaning and Important Quadrant

Figure 1: Meaning and Important Quadrant


Figure 1 presents four behavioral options individuals and institutions can follow and apply.


1.    The important and meaningful display behavior intended to edify and improve. For instance, I can choose to recognize a peer for a job well done.

2.    The unimportant and meaningless indicate behavior that avoids demeaning others. For example, I decided not to infer that my theory and method are better than others’ approaches.

3.    The important and meaningless bears out behavior intended to demean and degrade people, as in the case of a bully in a schoolyard who verbally and physically abuses others.

4.    The unimportant and meaningful reveals behavior that neglects to build and edify others, such as when a person chooses to neglect to recognize another for their good performance.

 

These explanations make options one and two more acceptable and worthwhile. Options three and four should be avoided at all costs.


Summary and Call to Action

I will conclude this article by stating that we have options for viewing and relating with others. You would agree that the most desirable alternatives are those where we give others a meaningful meaning and where we avoid demeaning fellow human beings. We would also pay attention and do what is meaningful.


Carrying out good deeds


I would like to invite you to ponder the following two questions: Why would anyone commit to viewing and treating others as inherently meaningful? Why would anyone reject viewing fellow human beings through a meaningless lens? I hope you agree that giving importance to the meaningful makes sense. Moreover, I hope you agree that being meaningful is a practical and healthy approach to life. The alternative — giving importance to the meaningless — has not, does not, and will not enhance human thriving and prosperity. On the contrary, it has been repeatedly proven by peer-reviewed empirical research, the historical record, as well as the daily news that the meaningless path does not work. These conclusions apply in both professional and non-professional settings.


Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
~ Albert Einstein ~
 
To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic. ~ Viktor Frankl ~

Through this article, I intend to define and differentiate the terms meaningful, meaningless, important, and unimportant according to the Meaningful Purpose Psychology theory and method. I have explained that we have choices and that such choices have consequences. The human condition, be it from an individual perspective or viewed from a global scope — and for good or bad — is a direct consequence of prominent and operating meanings; meanings we give to ourselves, others, context, situations, and the (ecological) environment.

 

The good news is that MP has tools and proven methods that help individuals and organizations:


  • assess the meaning they have given to themselves, others, and situations.

  • discover how these meanings impact their quality of life.

  • select meaningful options.

  • build the confidence to improve conditions and to achieve positive results.

  • enjoy the ability to live an extraordinary and prosperous life!


Finally, it begs the questions: What path have you chosen? What path will you choose?


Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose: Discovering Life's Answers.


-Free Webinar: Meaningful Purpose Psychology: An Introduction for Practitioners. Contact us for our next session.


 


[i] Pashler, Harold F., The Psychology of Attention. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998), 14

[i] Berg, Justin M., Jane E. Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, “Job Crafting and Meaningful Work.” Dik, Bryan J., Zinta S. Byrne, and Michael F. Steger, Eds. Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2013, 82

[ii] Pratt. G. & Ashforth, B. E. (2003) Fostering Meaningfulness in Working and at Work. In Cameron, K., Dutton, J., & Quinn, R. (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

[iii] Rychlak, Joseph F. Logical Learning Theory: A Human Teleology and Its Empirical Support. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. P 316

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