In an identity meanings set the agenda.
~ Luis A. Marrero: The Path to a Meaningful Purpose:
Psychological Foundations of Logoteleology ~
Luis A. Marrero, MA, RODP, LLP
©2016 Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose
August 9, 2016
This article answers the following question: What is meaning, meaningful, meaningless, important and unimportant in Meaningful Purpose Psychology (logoteleology) (MPP) theory and method? [i] It also explains why these definitions are relevant and practical for those interested in studying the role of meaning and purpose in their lives – particularly for non-psychological types who prefer terms they can relate to. However, it is my hope that those in the field of psychology will also find utility in how these concepts are used in MPP. Finally, I will share ways in which these terms can be useful in daily life; and how to learn more about MPP in order to live a meaningful life.
What is Meaning?
Viktor Frankl provided a simple and practical answer: “Meaning is what is meant, be it by a person who asks me a question, or by a situation which, too, implies a question and calls for an answer.” [ii] And, “There is only one meaning to each situation, and this is its true meaning.” [iii] Here are two additional and complimentary definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: [iv]
- the idea that a person wants to express by using words, signs, etc.
- something meant or intended
Pertaining to what a person wants to express, British analytical psychologist Dale Mathers summarized well what the combined intended meaning and the decoded meaning denote: “Meaning is an act of communication, rather than a communication.” [v] Here, communication is a two-way exchange that succeeds when both parties are “on the same page” or when understanding is shared and mutual. Hence, there is a shared meaning.
The second, meaning as “something meant or intended” is about conveying intentions or aims. This intentional effort is stronger than casual everyday exchange of information. Here is how the dictionary defines “mean”: [vi]
- to have in mind as a purpose: intend
- to serve or intend to convey, show, or indicate: signify
- to have importance to the degree of
- to direct to a particular individual
- to have an intended purpose
- Something that is conveyed or intended, especially by language, sense of significance [vii]
- Full of meaning, expressive [viii]
In MPP, we use these definitions of “meaning” or “to mean” to explain how individuals intend, convey and grant significance and value. For instance, after hearing an inspiring presentation from a speaker I can intend to approach her in order to convey how significant and valuable the subject was to me. I could also intend to convey how bright and creative she is to me. The former related to what she said, and the latter to whom she is. On the other hand, there is also a dark side to meaning. If I was offended or disagree with the content of the presentation, I could intend to approach the presenter to convey how insignificant and inconsequential her topic was to me. I could even go as far as to intend to convey to her that I believe her to be incompetent and unprofessional.
Meaning is the stuff that makes thinking and feeling possible. It allows us to define and to recognize things, individuals, and concepts. It also aids us to exchange information with others in order to make sense of things, and to cooperate to get things done. Meanings too, evaluate and convey the significance we attribute to concepts, things, and people. That is why the pursuit of meaning is about doing and experiencing something worthwhile. According to Frankl, we can find meaning through work, by loving someone, and through suffering.
Meaning comes from commitments that transcend personal interests; it comes, as Frankl put it, from ‘reaching out beyond the self toward causes to serve or people to love. ~ Joseph B. Fabry ~ The Pursuit of Meaning: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy, and Life
Now that we know what meaning is, why is it relevant?
Why do Meanings Matter in MPP?
Meanings are particularly relevant to MPP practitioners because they carry the power of branding or defining individuals or groups of people – both fairly and unfairly. In MPP, we refer to this phenomenon as meaning or valuing[ix] another. Core to MPP theory, people act out the meaning they give to another. For instance, compare the meaning given in the following two photos:
On the photo to the left we could assume the prisoners are treated as objects with no or little inherent value to their captors. On the photo to the right a baby is treated with love and as having great value to his mother. It should be clear how the meaning given to one and to the other explain how each is being treated. Again, central to MPP theory, the meaning we give another will be acted out.
“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.” ~ Viktor Frankl ~
“Meanings set the agenda, and guarantee and explain the outcome…”
In MPP method it is core to help people and institutions understand the role of meanings in their life and style of management; and even more important, their consequences. The good news is that worthless meanings can be replaced with more healthy options. I will say more about this below.
What is Meaningful and Meaningless?
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in the world, but only these two – the “race” of the decent man, and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups in society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. ~ Viktor Frankl ~
The dictionary defines meaningful as full of meaning, significance, purpose or value; purposeful; significant. In MPP theory and method, the meaningful builds, enhances, and points to what is significant and beneficial. Acting in a meaningful way intends to honor, respect, exalt, validate, and value something and someone. For instance, you probably believe that your country’s flag is meaningful because of what it represents – the kinship with fellow citizens, the country’s history, its language, culture and traditions – all which have a special significance in the flag’s colors. You would also agree that for some individuals serving and doing good to others is meaningful. This is consistent with psychological literature where meaningfulness is defined “as a generally positive or beneficial outcome for individuals and organizations.”[x] Pratt and Ashforth state, “By ‘meaningful,’ we mean that the work and/or its context are perceived by its practitioners to be, at minimum, purposeful and significant” (Pratt and Ashforth, 2003). In contrast, the dictionary defines meaningless as without meaning, significance, purpose, or value purposeless; insignificant. In logoteleology, the meaningless is something or someone we could consider useless, trivial, worthless, insignificant, as well as having low value. If we consider and contrast the photos previously referenced above, you can appraise from both options which signifies a meaningful behavior and which a meaningless conduct.
The logotherapist makes us aware of a choice of attitudes, which in turn open up meanings in situations of unavoidable suffering that in itself are meaningless. ~ Joseph B. Fabry
(In this science, all behavior is preceded by meanings, and thus we do not imply that meaningless equates a literal “without meaning.” Rather, logoteleology’s “without meaning” stands for “insignificance” or of low value.)
Why is the contrast between Meaningful and Meaningless relevant?
If reasonable people would take the time to study published psychological peer reviewed empirical research – as I devotedly did for many years to complement my experience in the field – I strongly believe most would conclude that the meaningful serve us well and the meaningless should be avoided. That is why MPP or logoteleology practitioners are inclined to study and research findings from various fields – particularly psychology — in order to generate and propose practical and scientifically well-founded solutions that give rise to human thriving and prosperity. We also strongly encourage others to test our propositions.
I can’t emphasize enough the central role that being “practical” plays in MPP method. MPP method not only encourages research and the study of sound science, it favors action and the achievement of meaningful results based on verified science. Moreover, understanding the difference between what is meaningful and what is meaningless can:
- enhance autonomy and self-determination
- build a confident set of values to live by
- disentangle knowing what does and does not require our attention and choice
- simplify decision making
What is Important and Unimportant?
Important equates to having priorities and giving significance. The important activates our attention, demands selectivity and ranking among options. [xi] Knowing what is important allow us to prioritize and grant prominence. On the other hand, the unimportant is categorized as low-ranking, insignificant, inconsequential and irrelevant. The unimportant call for no to low attention.
In MPP theory, “important” does not equate “meaningful.” Nor does “unimportant” parallel “meaningless.” In MPP a person can give importance to the meaningless, as has been defined in this article.
Figure 1 Meaningful / Important Quadrant
Figure 1 presents four behavioral options individuals and institutions can follow and apply.
- The important and meaningful displays behavior intended to edify and improve. For instance, I can choose to recognize a peer for a job well done.
- The unimportant and meaningless indicate behavior that avoids demeaning others. As an example, I decide not to infer that my theory and method is better than others’ approaches.
- The important and meaningless bears out behavior intended to demean and degrade people. As in the case of a bully in a school yard who verbally and physical abuses others.
- The unimportant and meaningful reveals behavior that neglects to build and edify others. As when a person chooses to neglect recognizing another for her or his good performance.
Based on these explanations, options one and two are more acceptable and worthwhile. Options three and four should be avoided at all cost.
Each person is a unique individual going through a sequence of unrepeatable moments, each offering a specific meaning to be recognized to which a response must be made. ~ Joseph B. Fabry
Why is the contrast between Important and Unimportant relevant?
Again, in MPP theory importance does not mean meaningful. While it is possible – and desirable — to give importance to what is meaningful, as shown, it is also possible to give great importance to the meaningless by demeaning others; as in the case of bullying or – as seen in one of the photos above – by objectifying fellow human beings through wars.
Sadly, every day and in all corners of this world people miss opportunities to do good for others; as well as fail to encourage and build when called to do so.
So why are the definitions and contrast relevant? Again, they simplify decision making by telling us which two options will serve us best and which two we should avoid. The science behind this conclusion is robust.
Logotherapy maintains that we have choices about our attitudes under all circumstances, choices about things we can change and choices about our attitudes regarding those we cannot change. ~ Joseph B. Fraby
Summary and Call to action
By now it should be apparent that I will conclude this article stating that we have options pertaining to how we can view and relate with others. You would agree that the most desirable alternatives are those where we give others a meaningful meaning, and where we avoid demeaning fellow human beings. We would also avoid neglecting what is meaningful.
I would like you to ponder the following two questions: Why would anyone commit to view and treat others as inherently meaningful? Why would anyone commit to reject viewing fellow human beings through a meaningless lens? I hope you agree with me that giving importance to the meaningful makes sense. Moreover, I hope you agree with me that being meaningful is a practical and healthy approach to life. The alternative — giving importance to the meaningless — has not, does not, and will not enhance human thriving and prosperity. Quite the contrary, it has been repeatedly proven by peer reviewed empirical research, the historical record, as well as the daily news that the meaningless path does not work. These conclusions apply in both professional and non-professional settings.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. ~ Albert Einstein ~
To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic. ~ Viktor Frankl ~
My intent through this article has been to define and differentiate the terms meaning, meaningful, meaningless, important and unimportant, according to Meaningful Purpose Psychology theory and method. I have explained that we have choices, and that such choices have consequences. The human condition, be it an individual perspective or viewed from a global scope — and for good or for bad — is a direct consequence of prominent and operating meanings; meanings we give to,ourselves, others, and situations. The good news is that MPP has tools and proven methods that help individuals and organizations:
- assess the meaning they have given to themselves, others and situations
- discover how these meanings impact their quality of life
- select meaningful options
- build the confidence to improve conditions and to achieve positive results
- enjoy the ability to live an extraordinary and prosperous life
About the author
Luis A. Marrero, MA, RODP, LLP is the author of The Path to a Meaningful Purpose: Psychological Foundations of Logoteleology, and is pioneer of Logoteleology, and Second Wave Organization Development (OD 2.0). Luis is CEO of the Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM), and co-founder of INPM’s Meaning and Work Division. Luis serves as Editor of the INPM Member Newsletter. He is also member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), and co-founder of IPPA’s Work & Organization Division (W&OD). He is now Lead Chair of the W&OD’s Membership and Partnership Team.
Luis provides individual, team and organization development consulting; coaching, assessment and counseling services to an international audience leveraging his Meaningful Purpose Psychology (Logoteleology) expertise. He is a frequent speaker and presenter before professional and psychological associations. Luis has worked for Fortune 500 Companies both as an employee and a consultant. He worked for 8 years for The Walt Disney Company in Orlando, Florida, USA as a Senior Organization Development Consultant, and has held Senior Human Resource roles in various industries throughout his career.
Through The Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose Luis certifies and licenses aspiring logoteleologists in different countries.
To learn more about ways to improve conditions in favor of the meaningful, please contact Luis (Luis@bostonimp.com) and visit our sites:
[i] Marrero, Luis A., The Path to a Meaningful Purpose: Psychological Foundations of Logoteleology. (Bloomington: IUniverse, 2013)
[ii] Frankl, Viktor E., The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. (New York: Meridian, 1998), 62.
[iii] Ibid., 60.
[v] Mathers, Dale, Meaning and purpose in Analytical Psychology (Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, Inc., 2001), 3
[ix] Valuing in Psychology: A process in which persons assign worth to a particular activity or object. http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/valuing
[x] Berg, Justin M., Jane E. Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, “Job Crafting and Meaningful Work.” Dik, Bryan J., Zinta S. Byrne, and Michael F. Steger, Eds. Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2013, 82.
[xi] Pashler, Harold F., The Psychology of Attention. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1998), 14.
Pratt, . G. & Ashforth, B. E. (2003) Fostering Meaningfulness in Working and at Work. In Cameron, K., Duttn, J., & Quinn, R. (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
©2016 Luis A. Marrero, Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose