What is the difference between purpose and meaning? Do you think of them as the same thing, or do you see them as different?
The two terms – “purpose in life” and “meaning in life” – are often used interchangeably, but in our research we draw a clear line between them. To study purpose, we need to define and differentiate it from similar concepts, such as meaning. The definition of purpose we use is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is both meaningful to the self and of consequence in the world beyond the self.” This definition distinguishes purpose from meaning in a few ways, which I’ll explore here.
Meaning is about coherence and significance. We find meaning in life by making connections: between our past, present, and future; between events in our lives; and with people. We can also create meaning by developing or discovering a narrative arc of our life: what is the story of my life? What are the thematic threads that run through my life? We also find meaning by understanding what our lives signify, or what is most significant in our lives.
Purpose is meaningful activity, but as the definition above suggests, it’s more specific than that. Purpose, unlike meaning, is an intention or goal, and specifically it’s a higher order goal that is a sustained source of motivation. It’s the drive to be the kind of person who solves environmental problems, helps other people, or raises thoughtful children. Meaning isn’t a goal, though we can act on what we find meaningful to bring more meaning to our lives. If red dahlias remind you of your wedding day, planting red dahlias in your garden will be a meaningful act, but not a purposeful one. And, meaning doesn’t require any action at all, though purpose does. You cannot live a life of purpose if you think about your goals but don’t act on them.
The other key difference between purpose and meaning is that purpose is a desire to be of consequence beyond the self. When we ask, “what is my purpose in life?” We’re asking, “what is the purpose of my life in the world here and now? What can I contribute, with my unique strengths and interests, that the world needs?” A meaningful life might include contributing to the world beyond the self, but not necessarily. We often find meaning by connecting with others outside of ourselves, but that doesn’t necessarily require doing things that make a positive contribution to others.
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