Thriving Together Series: Meaning, Purpose and Significance

meaning purpose significance

This edition of the Thriving Together Series is adapted from an excerpt in Leading Teams: Understanding the Team Leadership Pyramid by Steve and Kimberly Gladis. Steve Gladis, Ph.D., is CEO of Steve Gladis Leadership Partners and serves our center as both a senior scholar and external board member.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” – William Wordsworth, poet

We know that living purposefully is good for our well-being, and we yearn to do so. Yet a sense of meaning, purpose, and significance can elude us when we’re caught up in the daily demands of our responsibilities. In the middle of our busy and sometimes stressful lives, how do we intentionally pursue what matters most to us?

Professors Michael Steger and Laura King have helped us refine our notions of meaning, purpose, and significance. According to Steger in his TED Talk, meaning is comprised of purpose and significance. Specifically, purpose represents “…an anchor we throw out into the future,” a dream we pursue. It operates like a beacon that beckons us. However, we live in a day-to-day world of “getting and spending” as the poet William Wordsworth said in his poem “The World is too Much with Us”.

So, how do we find this grand thing we call purpose in the daily grind of the world of “getting and spending?” According to Steger’s research, in such a reality, meaning evolves to take a front-row seat, ahead of the more elusive long-view purpose. In fact, it is through the concept of significance that we find meaning in the smallest events in our lives. We can discover meaning in a sunrise, sunset, the touch of a child, a kind word, a gesture, a wink – virtually anything we do as humans interacting with the world, especially other people.

Steger contends that our purpose (our long-term anchor), supported by our day-to-day significant events, weave together to give our lives meaning. Thus, if your purpose in life is to serve the world as a teacher, you will find meaning whenever a student has an ah-ha, insightful moment. Truly, there’s nothing like it when students “get it.” Your life as a teacher is infused by significance – watching a student respond.

In one experiment, college students were told to go out and take pictures of things that make their lives feel meaningful. Then, 90 percent of the students brought back pictures of people. As Steger puts it, “…relationships are the ocean in which we find meaning.”

How important is meaning?

Patricia Boyle at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago — tracking senior adults – found that having a strong sense of purpose in life could serve as an antidote to aging-related health problems, such as strokes and damage that precedes dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what she found: “Mental health, in particular, positive psychological factors such as having a purpose in life, are emerging as very potent determinants of health outcomes,” said Patricia Boyle. Ph.D., study co-author and associate professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Clinicians need to be aware of patients’ mental state and encourage behaviors that will increase purpose and other positive emotional states.” Worth noting, we’re all motivated by purpose differently, so finding what motivates us is important.

Like Steger, Professor Laura King teaches psychology at the University of Missouri and focuses on personality, well-being and meaning. She’s written and spoken extensively on the distinction between meaning, purpose and significance. In fact, like Steger, her research leads her to view meaning as the big kahuna of happiness. Moreover, she too views meaning as a combination of purpose (a longer-term anchor in our lives) and significance (the value we put on daily activities, big and small, as they add context in our lives). In short, her formula for a meaningful life is the following: Meaning = Significance + Purpose.

While the research about purpose and meaning is evolving, we conclude that both working in concert together offer high value in our lives. Thus, having a long-term anchor in our lives can drive and sustain us. Also, daily events give our lives meaning, context and significance. So, paying attention to daily meaningful events while also developing a long-term sense of purpose in our lives will likely make us fulfilled and happy.

Consider the collective effect when entire teams and organizations have meaning – significance and purpose.  Let’s take teaching, which regrettably is one of the lower paid professions. However, when you find a team of teachers working collectively on improving the curriculum or working together on a team project to help students in need, there are very few job offers – regardless of salary – that will take them away from their meaningful lives. Clearly, money is not the differentiator when it comes to having a meaningful profession. And, understanding how we make meaning individually, both as a team and as an organization, separates the high-functioning from the rest.

A Meaningful Practice: Identify and Pursue Your Core Values

You can find meaning in your life by identifying your core values – what matters most to you, and why those values are most meaningful in your life. Then you can set intentions to live your life in ways that help you pursue your core values. This mental exercise from VeryWellMind.com can help you do so. 

Additional Resources

There are many well-being benefits of finding meaning, purpose, and significance in your life. Learn about those benefits in this Conversation.com article, this NPR.org article , and this WebMD.com article.

How strong is your sense of purpose? Take this Purpose in Life quiz from the Greater Good Science Center to discover that.

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