Many of us have never taken the time to define “meaningful” even though it’s the most important adjective ever, maybe the most important word ever.
I only had a definition for it after completing the steps below. And let me tell you, it’s now much easier for me to gauge whether I’m doing something meaningful. Simply because I have a definition of the word meaningful and can ask myself a simple question: Is this meaningful? If not, I do something else.
This article won’t change your life but the definition that comes from it most definitely will.
To define something subjective like a human condition, dictionaries use other subjective words. When defining meaningful, Merriam-Webster uses phrases like having real importance. But what is importance? According to Merriam-Webster, importance is value or significance. And what is value? Usefulness or importance.
And around we go…
We can’t blame Merriam-Webster though. After all, it’s not their job to define human conditions; it’s their job to define words – and words are not feelings. Feelings are different for everyone and therefore universally undefinable. In effect, meaningful is universally undefinable. So how do we add meaning to our lives if we don’t know what it is?
We must define it for ourselves.
In this post I’ll define what meaningful means to me in order to help you define what meaningful means to you. You can then use your definition of meaningful to live a meaningful life. Because really, at the end of the day, that’s all we want. And knowing what meaningful means is the first step to doing it.
Part 1: Define Meaningful
While words are imperfect to describe feelings (something like energy is more suitable) they can help us get started. So let’s break down the word meaningful using a medium that’s easy to understand – words.
Note: What follows are my definitions. You should do this exercise yourself. Break down what meaningful means to you based on your passions, beliefs and experiences.
Step 1.1: Define Meaning and Full
I think we can all agree that the word meaningful consists of two parts: meaning and full. Something that is meaningful is full of meaning. But what does that mean? By breaking it down you can find out.
On a sheet of paper write the word Meaningful (adj). Then write out the most simplistic version of its definition. Writing this down will prime the creative, inspired area of your mind.
Meaningful (adj) Full of meaning
That was the easy part. Now write the word Full (adj) below that.
After putting that short, loaded word down on paper, think about how it’s used every day. After eating you sometimes say I am full. When someone asks you about the keg at your tailgate you might say it’s full. When someone is exaggerating you might say they’re full of it.
Now dig deeper. When you take a full breath, how do you feel? How are you able to tell that breath is full? Do you feel relaxed or elated? Or maybe you aren’t worried about feeling and are just being.
These are some of the things I thought about before arriving at this definition:
Full (adj) To not feel like you are missing something or missing out; to not wish you are someone else or somewhere else
This is not a definition you’d find in a dictionary. And this doesn’t matter. All you need is a definition that applies to you.
Now for the hardest part, defining meaning…
Meaning (n) Something you do voluntarily and, after X minutes, continue doing it
I came to this definition of meaning after a few days of contemplation. I thought about the word, wrote down many different definitions, then scratched them all out. Many of those definitions contained run-around words like the ones mentioned in the first paragraph of the Introduction.
Now, recall that I said that your definitions should be inspired by experiences. This was not an empty statement. Ultimately it was my experiences (actually a single experience) that helped me define the word meaning.
That experience involved me sitting on a couch about seven and a half feet away from my white-haired hippy psychologist. She was someone I saw in college while taking engineering courses. I told her they were hard, almost unbearable. I told her it was to the point that I feared assignments.
And then she said something smart.
She told me to sit down and do an assignment for 5 minutes. And she said that after 5 minutes has passed I bet you’ll keep doing it. I eventually left engineering for a creative writing focus but that’s not the point. The point is: What she said resonated with me. That experience resonated with me.
So think of everything in your life (even the seemingly small experiences), take walks, read Walden, read Still Life, do whatever you have to do, and then, only when you’re confident in your definition – more confident than you’ve ever been – write it down. This will help determine how well you live your life.
Note: Don’t freak out. You can always change your definition of meaningful based on new experiences and realizations. But do put enough work into having something you’re confident in for now.
Now let’s put it all together…
Step 1.2: Put the Definitions Together
If you didn’t define the word full, this project would have been a little easier. You could have defined the word meaning and, for the definition of meaningful, stated: full of [your definition of meaning].
If this makes sense to do, please, go ahead and do it. It’s just not how I arrived to my definition of the word meaningful. My definition of meaningful is based on my personal definitions of both meaning and full – not just meaning and the universal definition of full.
What I’m trying to say is that what follows is what makes sense to me. And that’s all that matters. Keep that in mind when you determine your definition.
Meaningful (adj) Something you do voluntarily and, after X minutes, continue doing it and not feel like you should be doing something else
Notice how this definition only applies to actions. It’s not meant to define my life. But if I complete more meaningful actions than less meaningful actions I can confidently say when it comes down to the end that I’ve lived a meaningful life.
Why? Because I know what meaningful means. I now have a compass.
Part 2: Live a Meaningful Life
Step 2.1: Start Asking If It’s Meaningful
I was recently watching a movie in my bedroom and, throughout the movie, forgot to ask myself a simple question: Is what I’m doing meaningful?
If I asked myself the question I would have realized it was not. I would have then done something else, like read a book, went for a run, or took a nap (yes, a nap can be meaningful). And after choosing whatever I chose to do instead I would have asked myself the question again.
Is this meaningful is a question you need to ask yourself more often than any other question. This is the only way to know if you’re living a meaningful life. And when you decide what you’re doing is not meaningful, pivot – just like a startup or entrepreneur does when it’s determined that the business isn’t going in the right direction.
Note: According to my definition of meaningful, sleeping is always meaningful. Because when you’re sleeping (a voluntary action) you don’t wish to be doing anything else. You are, as they say, content.
When people think of living a meaningful life they think of doing grandiose things. But grandiose things are just that – grandiose things.
Start doing meaningful things, because now you can.