Meaning Explained

08/13/2011 11:22 am ET | Updated Oct 13, 2011

When our younger daughter came home from college one year, she presented me with a coffee mug. The motto on the coffee mug read: "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."

"Isn't that your philosophy in a nutshell?" she laughed. She was exactly right.

I make my meaning -- or else I don't. All that exists until I actively make personal meaning is the possibility of meaning and, while I wait to get started, the experience of emptiness. There is the possibility that I will experience the next hour as meaningful, a possibility that turns into a reality only if I make a certain kind of decision and a certain kind of investment.

If I don't make that decision and that investment, I experience myself as going through the motions and wasting my precious time. We've all had that experience -- for many of us, far too much of the time.

We are on the threshold of understanding a shining idea: that each individual life can have meaning even if the universe has none. Each of us comes with appetites, genetic predispositions and everything else that "human being" connotes, and still we are free to choose what meaning we intend to make. This, nature has granted us. I get to decide what will make me feel righteous and happy, and you get to decide what will make you feel righteous and happy. You can turn the meaning that was waiting to be made into the meaning of your life.

You and you alone are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life. The second you turn to someone and say, "What does life mean?" or, "What should my life mean?" you've slipped into a way of thinking that courts inauthenticity and depression. The second you agree with someone simply because of his position or reputation, whether that someone is a guru, author, cleric, parent, politician, general or elder, you fall from the path of personal meaning-maker.

You and you alone get to decide. That is the awesome proposition facing every modern person. The revolutionary idea that I'm proposing is that as limited as we are in a biological and psychological sense, we are exactly that free in an existential sense. If we do not live that way, honoring that existential freedom, we get sad and depressed. If we do not live that way, we find ourselves wishing that we had opted for authenticity and had decided to matter.

I understand completely the extent to which people are burdened by the feeling that they and their efforts do not matter. It isn't that people don't work hard or try hard. They do. But two thoughts, that they are disposable throwaways in a meaningless universe and that nothing they do can alter that painful truth, play havoc beneath the surface, draining them of motivational energy and fitting them for a depression.

These doubts must be met in the following way: you announce that meaning does not exist until you make it, and then you don the mantle of meaning-maker. The split second you do this, all previous belief systems -- both those that told you what to believe and those that told you that there was nothing to believe -- vanish.

You let go of wondering what the universe wants of you, you let go of the fear that nothing matters and you announce that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious and triumphant announcement. The instant that you realize that meaning is not provided (as traditional belief systems teach) and that it is not absent (as nihilists feel), a new world of potential opens up for you.

You suddenly have the opportunity to pursue personally-resonant activities and the philosophical and psychological pillars to support those pursuits. You break free of tradition, with its restrictions, demands and narcissistic bent, and set out to make your life a thing of value. You haven't made it that thing yet, simply by announcing your intention, but you have aimed yourself in a brilliant direction: in the direction of your own creation.

Meaning is a deep, inexhaustible wellspring and an infinitely renewable resource. Today it may not seem meaningful to sit by a pond and feed the ducks, since you have too much you want to do. Sixty years from now -- or tomorrow, for that matter -- you may decide that sitting by a pond for an hour or two is abundantly meaningful. At 9 a.m. the meaning that springs to your mind might be to fight an injustice; at 10 a.m., to send your daughter at college a sweet note; at 11 a.m., to work on the song you're writing; at 1 p.m., to pass on meaning and pay some bills; at 2 p.m., to resume fighting that injustice; and so on. You can invest every increment of time that rises up before you with the next appropriate meaning. There is always another meaning available.

To think of meaning as something to find -- something like a lost wallet or a lost ring -- is to picture meaning as a very paltry thing. In this mental model, meaning is so small a commodity that you can acquire it by listening to a guru's lecture or by sitting cross-legged in a dark room. You weren't sure what was meaningful -- a guru speaks and now you know. Really? And what if you didn't tape the lecture and happen to forget what he said? Is meaning lost to you again? And what if you did tape it? Do you have to listen to the tape constantly to know what meaning means to you? Is that the way to construe meaning?

Meaning is nowhere out there. If it were, that would make it a tiny, trivial sort of thing. What if you discovered that the meaning of life was to stand on one foot while singing show tunes? What if you discovered that the meaning of life was to praise a one-armed man who lived in a faraway land? Would you find either of those revelations particularly exciting? There is no way to complete the sentence, "The meaning of life is ... " without producing a small, sad result. If meaning were the sort of thing that could be tagged to the end of a sentence, as if it were the answer to a question, it would not be worth considering. But it is not at all that sort of thing.

Meaning is a psychological experience, an idea you create and an evaluation you make about life. This wellspring is within you, but it also is you. When you think about a problem for a long time and a solution finally arrives, it arrives to you but also from you. It was your neuronal activity, your set of experiences, your genetic endowment and everything that you are that provided the answer. You got the answer, but you also provided the answer. Meaning is the same sort of thing. You receive it and you also provide it. Could any other subject be more fascinating or more practically important?

Making meaning is the centerpiece activity of our species. Isn't it time that we understood it better? Please join me for Noimetics: Bring Meaning to Life!, a class with the Academy for Optimal Living. To learn more: The Academy for Optimal Living

Eric Maisel is the author of 40 books, among them "Coaching the Artist Within," "The Van Gogh Blues" and the forthcoming "Rethinking Depression," and the creator of noimetics: the new philosophy of meaning. Visit Dr. Maisel at and learn more about noimetics at The Academy for Optimal Living.