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Finding Meaning – Objective and Subjective Approaches5 min read

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Meaning, like truth, has both objective and subjective components. Over the centuries, wise men, spiritualists, and philosophers have observed the human condition and concluded that certain principles and practices lead to relative ruin and unhappiness, while others lead to meaning and satisfaction. This is why we have the concept of a “wasted life.” Those who like to say there is no such thing as a wasted life should consider starving children or oppressed peoples. So, we might ask, what principles and practices for human living lead to satisfaction and meaning? To start, here’s a nice list that describes our primary task, that of LOVE:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

– 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

And here’s a nice set of principles to go by as well:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

– Philippians 4:8

One of my favorite authors and authorities on the objective principles that direct us towards objectively meaningful pursuits, Stephen Covey (arguably a modern day wiseman).

Principles are like lighthouses. They are natural laws that cannot be broken. As Cecil B. deMille observed…in the Ten Commandments, “It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.”… “Objective reality” [is composed of] principles that govern human growth and happiness – natural laws that are woven into the fabric of every civilized society throughout history and comprise the roots of every family and institution that has endured and prospered. The reality of such principles or natural laws becomes obvious to anyone who thinks deeply and examines the cycles of social history. These principles surface time and time again, and the degree to which people in a society recognize and live in harmony with them moves them toward either survival and stability or disintegration and destruction. The principles are not esoteric, mysterious, or “religious” ideas….These principles are part of most every major enduring religion, as well as enduring social philosophies and ethical systems. They are self-evident and can easily be validated by any individual….One way to quickly grasp the self-evident nature of principles is to simply consider the absurdity of attempting to live an effective life based on their opposites.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, pp. 33-35.

In Covey’s even more excellent book, First Things First, he identifies many principles and arenas that we should be observing and endeavoring in, in order to succeed in a meaningful, satisfying life, note that these principles are applicable to all humans as a rule, not just “good for some people.” Without going into detail, he gives an overview of four areas in which we must develop proper perspectives and habits in order to find meaning and satisfaction. They are:

  • To Love, to develop into healthy individuals, and to share ourselves and receive others
  • To Live, to not waste our precious commodities of time and personal potential and resources, but to channel them into worthwhile pursuits.
  • To Learn, to continue growing in mind and spirit
  • To Leave a Legacy, to invest ourselves into people and institutions that have ongoing value.

In summary, the meaning of life is well defined through objective, self-evident principles and practices that lead to meaning. Life’s activities are not just meaningful because I decide to assign meaning to them.

However, there is a subjective component to meaning. Some things may not have “objective meaning,” but for me, they may have meaning. For instance, watching baseball might not have objective meaning to all mankind, but to me, because I used to play baseball, watching it does have meaning (positive or negative). So in this context, you can say that things only have meaning if I give them meaning for myself. There is a danger, however, in the subjective assignment of meaning, if I fail to assign meaning to things that have objective meaning, or assign meaning to things that do not have objective meaning, I may miss out on meaning, or be controlled by things that are meaningless, respectively. The more our subjective mental map of meaning aligns with the objective map, the more successful, meaningful, and free we really are. It’s not that assigning meaning to watching baseball is harmful, but if it assumes supreme meaning for me, I may be hurting myself and other by missing what is actually meaningful.