The making of meaning 

{Csikszentmihalyi, 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.} 

Achieving flow in one activity does not necessarily guarantee that one will carry it over to the rest of life.

Is there a coherent meaning to life? Is it possible to give meaning to one’s entire life? May we turn all life into a unified flow experience?

Set out to achieve a difficult enough goal, from which all other goals follow; invest all energy in developing skills to reach that goal, then your actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together. Each activity will make sense in the present, as well as in view of the past and the future, and you will be giving meaning to your life. The ultimate goal doesn’t matter, provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s psychic energy. As long as it provides clear objectives, rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can give meaning to a person’s life.

The word meaning

The first usage of the word meaning points toward the end, purpose, or significance of something, as in: “What is the meaning of life?” Assuming that events are linked to each other in terms of an ultimate goal, there is a temporal order, a causal connection between them; phenomena are not random but fall into recognizable patterns directed by a final purpose.

The second usage refers to a person’s intentions: “She usually means well.” This sense of meaning implies that people reveal their purposes in action; that their goals are expressed in predictable, consistent, and orderly ways.

The third sense of the word meaning refers to ordering information: “Red sky in the evening means good weather in the morning.” This sense of meaning points to the identity of different words and the relationship between the events. Thus it helps clarify and establish order among unrelated or conflicting information.

Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience.

Establish directionality; set goals for your actions so that your attention gets focused and involved in an achievable, enjoyable activity. Then, at a larger scale, you can invest your energies into a challenging goal to take up all of your energies and give significance to your entire life, merging all the different flow activities into an all-encompassing set of challenges that gives purpose to everything you do.

The objective value of the actions needs to be judged within the context of the social impact they have in terms of potentially reducing entropy in social life or creating chaos for many.

Subjectively, a unified purpose gives meaning to life and brings subjective order to an individual’s consciousness.

The second sense of the word meaning refers to the expression of intentionality. To transform all life into a flow activity, having found a purpose that unifies one’s goals, one must also carry through and meet its challenges. The purpose must result in strivings; intent has to be translated into action. Resolution in pursuing one’s goals is called for; resolution is a fickle thing, easily “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (Hamlet). What counts is not so much whether a person achieves what she has set out to do; rather, it matters whether the effort has been expended to reach the goal instead of being diffused or wasted.

The third way life acquires meaning is the result of the previous two steps. When an important goal is pursued with resolution, and all one’s varied activities fit together into a unified flow experience, harmony is brought to consciousness.

If you know your desires and work with a purpose to achieve them, your feelings, thoughts, and actions will be congruent, and you will achieve inner harmony. When you are in harmony, no matter what you do or what is happening, you know your psychic energy is not wasted on doubt, regret, guilt, and fear but is always usefully employed.

Inner congruence ultimately leads to that inner strength and serenity of coming to terms with ourselves.

Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience. Whoever achieves this state will never really lack anything else. Every living moment will make sense, and most of it will be enjoyable.

Cultivating purpose

Intellectual history tells how humans have attempted to discover ultimate goals that would give meaning to experience. From the search to achieve immortality through heroic deeds to the reach for eternal life through saintly deeds, humans are out to find and follow a unifying purpose that justifies the things they do day in and day out; a goal that attracts their psychic energy, a goal upon which all lesser goals depend, defining the challenges that a person will face to transform her life into a flow activity. Without such a purpose, even the best-ordered consciousness lacks meaning.

How to describe how individuals order their actions?

Culture and meaning systems serve the encompassing purpose by which individuals can order their goals. The sensate, ideational, and idealistic phases of culture are thought to correspond to different epochs, each with its own set of priorities justifying the goals of existence. This tri-part categorization by Pitrim Sorokin illustrates how people end up ordering their ultimate goals. The sensate option involves responding to concrete challenges and shaping one’s life in terms of a flow activity that tends toward material ends; everyone comprehends the rules, and feedback tends to be clear – the desirability of health, money, power, and sexual satisfaction is seldom controversial. The ideational option also has its advantages: metaphysical goals may never be achieved, but then failure is almost impossible to prove: the true believer can always distort feedback to use it as proof that he has been right, that he is among the chosen. Finally, the idealistic mode may be the most satisfying way to unify life into an all-embracing flow activity, but setting challenges that involve the improvement of material conditions while at the same time pursuing spiritual ends is not easy, especially when the culture as a whole is predominantly sensate.

Another way to describe how individuals order their actions is to focus on the complexity of the challenges they set for themselves rather than on their content. How differentiated and integrated are the goals she pursues in those areas, whether materialistic or ideational? Complexity depends on how well a system develops its unique traits and potentialities and how well related these traits are to each other. In that respect, a well-thought-out sensate approach to life, one that was responsive to a great variety of concrete human experiences and was internally consistent, would be preferable to an unreflective idealism, and vice versa.

The developmental view describes the motivational moves in the self-concept (who I am and what I want to achieve in life). At first, the purpose is to preserve the self and keep the body and its basic goals from disintegrating; the meaning of life is survival, comfort, and pleasure. When the safety of the physical self is no longer in doubt, the person may expand the horizon of her meaning system to embrace the values of a community; the family, the neighborhood, or a religious or ethnic group. This step leads to greater complexity of the self, even though it usually implies conformity to conventional norms and standards. The next step in development involves reflective individualism; the person again turns inward, finding new grounds for authority and value within the self; she is no longer blindly conforming but develops an autonomous conscience. At this point, the main goal in life becomes the desire for growth, improvement, and the actualization of potentials. The fourth step, which builds on all the previous ones, is a final turning away from the self, back toward integration with other people and with universal values. In this final stage, the extremely individualized person willingly merges his interests with those of a larger whole.

The accordion principle in this scenario alternates focused attention on the self and the other. First, psychic energy is invested in the organism’s needs, and psychic order is equivalent to pleasure. When this level is temporarily achieved, and the person can begin to invest attention in the goals of a community, what is meaningful corresponds to group values; religion, patriotism, and the acceptance and respect of other people provide the parameters of inner order.

The next movement of the dialectic brings attention back to the self: having achieved a sense of belonging to a larger human system, the person now feels the challenge of discerning the limits of personal potential. As a result, attempts at self-actualization, experimentation with different skills, and different ideas and disciplines become prevalent; enjoyment, rather than pleasure, becomes the main source of rewards. In time, a midlife crisis may emerge. An increasingly desperate straining against the limitations of individual capability may shift the direction of energy once more: having discovered what one can and, more importantly, cannot do alone, the ultimate goal merges with a system larger than the person; a cause, an idea, a transcendental entity.

These dialectic moves are contingent upon psychic energy that can be invested in the tasks of the present stage and challenged to explore the tasks of the next stage. The challenge may never come, or the psychic energy may be exhausted in the present endeavors; development and positive growth may come to a halt anytime.

This is a simple model for describing the emergence of meaning along a gradient of complexity; many models detail different levels, steps, and stages. The number of steps is irrelevant; what counts is that most theories recognize the importance of this dialectic tension, this alternation between differentiation on the one hand and integration on the other. Different stages bring different games, with different goals and challenges, that change with time as a person matures. Investing energy in developing whatever talents we were born with serves us to become autonomous, self-reliant, and conscious of our uniqueness and its limitations. Investing energy in recognizing, understanding, and finding ways to adapt to the forces beyond the boundaries of our individuality serves us to become whole again.

Forging resolve

Purpose directs one’s efforts; it can also make life harder, and the script by which one orders one’s actions can be demanding. Giving up a challenging goal and changing one’s goals may be tempting. Changing goals whenever opposition threatens may make life easier, more pleasant, and comfortable, yet it will likely end up empty and void of meaning.

Following the logic of one’s convictions wherever it leads, acting as if one’s values are worth giving up comfort, goals become worthwhile regardless of whether they had been originally valuable. Moreover, because goals become valuable through commitment, they help give meaning to one’s existence.

No goal can have much effect unless taken seriously. Each goal prescribes a set of consequences and requires effort. Goals justify the effort they demand at the outset, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal. For example, one gets married because the spouse seems worthy of sharing one’s life with, but unless one behaves as if this is true, the partnership will appear to lose value with time.

For those who surrender everything for the sake of their convictions consistently, despite pain and failure, life as a whole has a chance to become like an extended episode of flow: a focused, concentrated, internally coherent, logically ordered set of experiences, which, because of its inner order, is felt to be meaningful and enjoyable.

With the evolution of complex culture, choice and personal freedom have grown inconceivably. Equally attractive choices create uncertainty of purpose, which, in turn, saps resolution, and lack of resolution devalues choice. Therefore freedom does not necessarily help develop meaning in life; on the contrary. If the rules of a game become too flexible, concentration flags, and it is more difficult to attain a flow experience. Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear.

How do we know where to invest psychic energy? There is no one to tell us the goal worth spending our life on, no absolute certainty to turn to. Each person must discover her ultimate purpose on his or her own and choose the one that will give purpose to action through trial and error and intense cultivation.

Self-knowledge can help organize conflicting options. Inner conflict is the result of competing claims for attention. Too many desires and incompatible goals struggle to marshal psychic energy toward their ends. Sorting out the essential from the non-essential and arbitrating priorities among those that remain is the only way to reduce this conflict. The two basic ways to accomplish this are the life of action and the path of reflection.

Immersed in the life of action, a person achieves flow through total involvement in concrete external challenges. If the arena of action is challenging enough, a person may experience flow continuously in his or her calling, thus leaving as little room as possible for noticing the entropy of normal life. In this way, harmony is restored to consciousness indirectly, not by facing contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all potential competition is preempted.

Action helps create inner order, but it has its drawbacks. A person strongly dedicated to achieving pragmatic ends might eliminate internal conflict, but often at the price of excessively restricting options. Sooner or later, postponed alternatives may reappear as intolerable doubts and regrets. And goals that have sustained action over a period turn out not to have enough power to give meaning to the entirety of life. Activity and reflection should complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions: Is this something I want to do? Is this something I enjoy doing? Will I likely enjoy it in the foreseeable future? Is the price that I, and others, will have to pay worth it? Will I be able to live with myself if I accomplish this?

The Jesuits’ methodical test of conscience involves reviewing one’s actions several times each day to check whether what one has been doing in the past few hours has been consistent with long-term goals. Self-knowledge can be pursued in innumerable ways, potentially leading to greater harmony. If the habit of reflection is well developed, a person will know, almost intuitively, whether a course of action is entropic.

It is relatively easy to bring order to the mind for short periods; any realistic goal can accomplish this. However, to extend this state to the entirety of life, it is necessary to invest energy in goals that justify an effort even when resources are exhausted and when having a comfortable life becomes impossible, feeling a sense of order that fits every thought and emotion into a harmonious whole.

Recovering harmony

The consequence of forging life by purpose and resolution is a sense of inner harmony, a dynamic order in the contents of consciousness. But why is it so difficult to achieve this inner order?

Animals don’t suffer from unfulfilled ambition or are overwhelmed by pressing responsibilities. Animals’ skills are always matched to concrete demands because their minds only contain information about what is present in the environment concerning their bodily states, as determined by instinct. An animal mind does not weigh possibilities unavailable at the moment; it neither imagines pleasant alternatives nor is it disturbed by fears of failure. Therefore, animals cannot feel confusion and despair even after all their needs are satisfied. When free of externally induced conflicts, they are in harmony with themselves and experience the seamless concentration that in people we call flow.

Human psychic entropy involves seeing more to do than one can accomplish and feeling able to accomplish more than what conditions allow; keeping in mind more than one goal at a time, and being aware at the same time of conflicting desires; the mind knowing not only what is but also what could be. When there are too many demands, options, and challenges, we become anxious; when there are too few, we get bored. Our souls’ confusion is the consequence of unlimited opportunities and constant perfectibility. The wholehearted serenity of childhood, the undivided participation in the here and now, becomes increasingly difficult to recapture as the years go by. A child’s options are usually few and coherent; they become less so each year. A cacophony of disparate values, beliefs, choices, and behaviors obscures the earlier clarity that made spontaneous flow possible. Within the individual’s life span, each person becomes exposed with age to increasingly contradictory goals, to incompatible opportunities for action.

When we can imagine only a few opportunities and possibilities, achieving harmony is relatively easy. Desires are simple, and choices are clear. There is little room for conflict and no need to compromise. This is the order of simple systems, order by default.

With the increase in complexity, the chances of entropy generated internally by the system also increase. There is no one right way to behave, and each specialized role requires different skills and conflicting thoughts and actions from the same person.

The order based on innocence is now beyond our grasp. Once the fruit is plucked from the tree of knowledge, the way back to Eden is barred forever.

The unification of meaning in life themes

Goal-directed actions provide shape and meaning to an individual’s life. Life themes identify a set of goals linked to an ultimate goal that gives significance to whatever a person does; they identify what will make existence enjoyable. With a life theme, everything that happens will have a meaning, not necessarily a positive one, but a meaning nevertheless.

When a person’s psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony. But not all life themes are equally productive. Existential philosophers distinguish between authentic and inauthentic projects. The authentic project describes the theme of a person who realizes that choices are free and makes a decision based on a rational evaluation of her experience. It does not matter what the choice is as long as it expresses what the person genuinely feels and believes. Authentic projects are intrinsically motivated and chosen for their worth. These are life themes discovered when the person writes the script for her actions out of personal experience and awareness of choice.

Inauthentic projects have a feeling tone of “ought to” or that there is no alternative, and they are motivated by external forces. They correspond to accepted life themes when a person simply takes on a predetermined role from a script written long ago by others.

Life themes unify thoughts, actions, and feelings, and whatever one does becomes part of one great game, held together by goals and rules one agreed to abide by.

Discovered life themes are forged in many cases as a reaction to a great hurt suffered early on, to being orphaned, abandoned, or treated unjustly. But the trauma per se, the external event, never determines the theme. Rather, what matters is the interpretation that one places on the suffering. There are always options for explaining what is wrong, and only some explanations are likely to lead in the direction of a life theme of positive growth and empowerment.

What kinds of explanations for one’s suffering lead to negentropic life themes? To find purpose in suffering, one must interpret it as a possible challenge to develop appropriate skills to confront the challenges one sees at the root of what was wrong in one’s life. What transforms the consequences of a traumatic event into a challenge that gives meaning to life is called a dissipative structure, or the ability to draw order from disorder.

A complex, negentropic life theme is rarely formulated as the response to just a personal problem. Instead, the challenge becomes generalized to others, or humankind, so whatever solution one finds to one’s problems would benefit oneself and many others. This altruistic way of generalizing solutions is typical of negentropic life themes; it brings harmony to the lives of many. There are countless cases where a personal tragedy transformed into a challenge that can be met. In developing skills to meet that challenge, the individual improves other people’s lives.

If we assume that people have a choice in how they respond to external events and in what meaning they attribute to suffering, then we can interpret constructive responses to suffering as normal and the neurotic response as a failure to rise to the challenge, as a breakdown in the ability to flow.

What makes some people able to develop a coherent purpose while others struggle through an empty or meaningless life? If there is a strategy shared by those people who succeed in building meaning into their existence, it consists in extracting from the order achieved by past generations patterns that will help avoid disorder in one’s mind. There is much knowledge, or well-ordered information, accumulated in culture, ready for this use. Great music, architecture, art, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy, and religion are there for anyone to see as examples of how harmony can be imposed on chaos. Yet many people ignore them, expecting to create meaning in their lives by their own devices.

We learn how to make the artifacts of culture by receiving ordered information from teachers, books, and models, to benefit from the knowledge of the past and eventually surpass it. To discard the hard-won information on how to live accumulated by our ancestors, or to expect to discover a viable set of goals all by oneself, is misguided hubris.

When told by a loving adult whom one trusts, fairy tales, biblical stories, heroic historical deeds, and poignant family events often become the first intimations of meaningful order a person gleans from the experience of the past.

In contrast, individuals who never focus on any goal, or accept one unquestioningly from the society around them, tend not to remember their parents having read or told stories to them as children. Unfortunately, with their pointless sensationalism, Saturday morning kiddie shows on television are unlikely to achieve the same purpose.

Whatever one’s background, there are still many opportunities later in life to draw meaning from the past. Most people who discover complex life themes remember either an older person or a historical figure whom they greatly admired and who served as a model, or they recall reading a book that revealed new possibilities of action.

At its best, literature contains ordered information about behavior, models of purpose, and examples of lives successfully patterned around meaningful goals. Many people confronted with the randomness of existence have drawn hope from the knowledge that others before them had faced similar problems and had been able to prevail. And this is just literature; what about music, art, philosophy, and religion?

In times of reevaluation of our lives lived so far and deciding on a path forward, a story such as Dante’s Divine Comedy can focus the issues so clearly that it becomes much easier to think and talk about them afterward.

To extract meaning from a system of beliefs, a person must first compare the information contained in it with his or her concrete experience, retain what makes sense, and then reject the rest. Will a new system of goals and means arise to help give meaning to our children’s lives in the next century? If a new faith is to capture our imagination, it must be one that will account rationally for the things we know, the things we feel, the things we hope for, and the ones we dread. It must be a system of beliefs that will marshal our psychic energy toward meaningful goals, a system that provides rules for a way of life that can provide flow.

Such a system of belief would need to be based to some degree on an integrated interpretation of all that is known and relate it to humankind and its destiny. An evolutionary faith might provide closer integration between what is and what ought to be. The reality of complexification is both an is and an ought: it has happened; given the conditions ruling the earth, it was bound to happen, but it might not continue unless we wish it to go on.

In the past several thousand years, humanity has achieved incredible advances in the differentiation of consciousness that has produced science, technology, and great powers. But complexity consists of integration as well as differentiation. The task of the next decades and centuries is to realize this underdeveloped component of the mind. Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality. Recognizing the limitations of human will and accepting a cooperative rather than a ruling role in the universe, we should feel the relief of the exile who is finally returning home. The problem of meaning will then be resolved as the individual’s purpose merges with the universal flow.