Mechanism of Meaning: Defining Meaningfulness

We are passionate about supporting leaders on their journey of growth and development. Many of the leaders we work with are professionals with interesting perspectives we are compelled to share. This month, we welcome guest blogger Brian Gooden’s thoughts regarding his search for meaningfulness and his beliefs on where it can be found.  Brian is a senior leader for his organization, a 2017 graduate of our Certified Gaming Professional program and is currently a participant in our internal Coaching Certification process.    

“What one can be, one must be” Abraham H. Maslow


A meaningful life can be reverse engineered. Since meaningfulness is the end product of the mechanism, its definition is of utmost importance. For this task we turn to a more intellectual and philosophical perspective.

Firstly we’ll explore Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” He is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto who has held his own private practice for many years. Secondly, we’ll explore the philosophical writings of Susan Wolf. She is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wolf examines meaningfulness in light of morality and happiness and provides fascinating insight to the discussion. I was introduced to her work from a friend who shares a common interest in the topic of meaningfulness with me. He has a podcast, “A Discourse About Nothing: A Philosophical Breakdown” where deep subjects are discussed from a humorous perspective.

“12 Rules for Life” uses mythology, science, modern day and timeless examples to formulate a case for virtues. The book bridges the gap between the academic disciplines as opposed to isolating them. A noteworthy chapter of emphasis is “Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient).” In short this rule ultimately deconstructs into an exploration of sacrifice. Sacrifice what is easy and comfortable for something more purposeful and higher value. Peterson presents the overarching theme of sacrifice as it dates back to the most ancient of texts. It is a theme outlined throughout, those that delay gratification become successful, and those that don’t face universal consequences (164). The delay of gratification isn’t restricted to our ancient ancestors; we also see this in our modern day. Current examples include financial investments, faithful relationships, higher education and our careers. There are no shortcuts to mastery in these endeavors; they all require sacrifice. I am reminded of when I was studying the ancient Chinese thinker Confucius. A quote attributed to him stuck with me, “Do the hard things first.” Without realizing it I made that quote my personal mantra as I grew up. This meant that whenever I was presented with the dilemma of the fork in the road, I’d choose that path of most resistance. Intuitively I understood that fun and pleasure is sacrificed on the front end for meaningfulness and value on the back end.

If there is a good then that means there is a bad. Humans can be extraordinarily good at being bad and even downright evil! Our nakedness and vulnerability make us seem just like any other biological animal on the planet. Our self-consciousness and proclivity towards suffering is what separate us from the rest of them. A hungry lion or wolf will cause suffering for the purpose of survival. Humans on the other hand are really good at torturing each other, we know what hurts us therefore we know how to hurt each other. We know how to use vulnerability against each other, which is what makes us scary. According to Peterson the definition of evil is: that we know how to inflict suffering for the sake of suffering (54). This is easy to find; from the mass shootings in El Paso and Ohio to the next headline of a person who just wants to watch it all burn. Good is the opposite of that; it is the alleviation of unnecessary suffering. One is reminded of a quote referenced by President Kennedy, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” One possible response to the problem is to do good to overcome the bad.

A quick glance any social media feed will reveal one group of people trying to impose their ideas onto another set of people. Whether the topic is business, politics, or social justice the fundamental argument is the same: my group versus your group. To the contrary Dr. Peterson focuses on the individual. After all, groups are comprised of individuals. Psychology pioneer Carl Jung said that we cannot merely impose our beliefs about ourselves onto ourselves. Dostoevsky and Nietzsche had already declared God dead by this time. The rise of fascism and communism shortly followed. These two political ideologies are polar opposites but they share at least one commonality, they are mankind’s attempt to impose ideology onto each other. It is by understanding our individual selves that we truly locate our capabilities, which is a reason why we rebel against totalitarianism (193). Considering the problem of evil in light of understanding ourselves: Similar to Frankl we find responsibility. We identify the ability to respond to the unnecessary suffering we impose on ourselves and the maleficence placed upon us by others. Feelings of joy, happiness and peace are not the most valuable virtues in the meaning hierarchy. By placing the betterment of our world at the apex of our value structure we find meaning. We find something akin to the atonement for the mystery of our existence (200). Peterson proposes that we must sacrifice and pay attention for meaningfulness is found in the responsibility we have for others and ourselves.

We are bombarded with messaging encouraging us to be happier at our jobs and our life. At its foundation they are really catering to our need to be “fulfilled.” In the book, “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters” Susan Wolf recognizes our craving for fulfillment and happiness in what she calls the Fulfillment View. Happiness, wellbeing, purpose, and joy are the focal points. It’s based on the emotional state of the individual. Ultimately the Fulfillment View encourages us to follow our passions. (p. 12). We often find moments of fulfillment when we are lost in a state of flow by engaging in activities that we love like hitting a baseball, solving a problem, teaching a student, reading a book or even balancing that beautiful spreadsheet. Fulfillment Theory is the backdrop for subjective value, which is the value we find in a subject or object and is the emotional sense of joy we find in engagement. This is the subjective value of an object or pursuit.

Objective value defined as something good with or without our participation or observation. It is found in the intrinsic good. Wolf proposes that devotion to a pursuit bigger than oneself is not necessary in the literal sense, as it is to be devoted to pursuits outside or other than oneself. Meaning is found while focused on an object outside of oneself not dependent on the individual. For example sports and educational subjects are not dependent on one individual hence they are bigger than the individual in the figurative sense (19). Perhaps another way to understand objective value is by looking at the counterpart to “outside of oneself” where we find the egotistical focus on the self.

Wolf divided meaning into two complementary parts of subjective and objective attractiveness. Together they give birth to the notion that meaning is found at the intersection of passionate engagement with that which is good. Peterson on the other hand stresses the importance of us getting to know ourselves as individuals. When we seek to truly know ourselves often times we find disarray and subconscious beliefs that serve as oppressors to our surroundings and ourselves. This is where we have the opportunity to respond to bring order to internal and external entropy. When we combine the views of Peterson and Wolf we see that meaning is found at points of convergence between the invisible and the visible, pleasure and pain, chaos and order and the known and the unknown. Meaning is found at the tension between the push and the pull. It is found on the path to the eradication of unnecessary suffering and maleficence. Meaningfulness is found when who we are is sacrificed and what we can become is proliferated.