This post is based on a transcript of this video I created : What exactly is meaning and purpose
So, lets jump right into it. In terms of what meaning and purpose is, a definition I really like is by a psychologist by the name of Michael Steiger (paper linked below). Steiger when he talks about meaning puts forward it has two main elements or components. The first of these is comprehension, and the second is purpose.
For Steiger, comprehension is important, in that, in order to have meaning in our lives, we have to understand ourselves and understand our place in the world. Then, based on that understanding we can figure our purpose.
Steiger’s definition of purpose is that it is the the motivational component of meaning. It refers to an individual’s long-term or overarching goals, to which they’re highly committed and actively engaged. Our purpose also has two main elements. Firstly, its our overall plan, or mission, or goal – but there’s also a motivational element to it.
So, just to talk a little bit more about purpose and goals, and the difference between them a little bit. First off, or purpose is broader than our goals. In fact, it helps inform and define them. For example, the purpose of my business is ‘to help people better understand themselves, better understand their wants and needs, and better understand the barriers that are getting in the way to them achieving those wants and needs. And so, from that broad purpose, then I create I more specific goals. For example, this blog post is aimed at helping people to better understand themselves. Also, when I create workshops, or I create coaching programs, these are in service of this purpose. Our broader purpose informs our goals.
A second very important point about goals and purpose is that not all goals stem from a purpose, and so often our goals are formed from what’s called extrinsic motivation (also known as external motivation, or motivation that comes from outside us). Extrinsic motivation is often very much associated with reward and punishment. We tend to do things to gain reward or avoid punishment (pain). For example, imagine a student – let’s call him Timmy – and Timmy is studying at school. And the reason Timmy is studying hard is that he wants to gain the praise of his teachers, or the praise of his parents, or maybe he’s studying hired in order to avoid detention or avoid doing badly in school. These are all kinds of external or extrinsic sources of motivation.
This is contrasted with what’s called intrinsic motivation, and intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from inside of us. Intrinsic motivation is important because, really, for a goal to be meaningful it should represent the self, and this is why better understanding ourselves is so important. Intrinsic motivation, is that natural inclination we have towards curiosity and exploration, towards mastery or getting better at things, and toward spontaneous interests. Kids have this in spades. If you ever see how a kid interacts with the world naturally, they are so curious. They are always trying to get better at things, really trying to master things, and they’re also they’re always spontaneously interested. They’re interested in things just for the sake of being interested in them. Intrinsic motivation is there to serve three key needs that we have (see paper linked below by Deci and Ryan). The need of autonomy, the need for competence, and the need for relatedness. So, if we return to our example of Timmy studying. Rather than it being for praise or external motivation, maybe Timmy is studying because he wants to become a doctor. And so maybe he wants to become a doctor because you know, being a doctor is a good job, and it would allow him financial independence from his parents. So, in this instance Timmy is motivated because it helps him become more autonomous, or it serves that need of autonomy. Or, perhaps Timmy is studying hard because not only does he want to become a doctor, but because he wants to become a great doctor. That is Timmy wants to be competent – he wants to get good at something. Finally, maybe Timmy is studying to be a doctor because what he really wants to do is help people. Here, what’s important to Timmy is the need of relatedness and connection. That’s the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic, related to reward and punishment is external. Intrinsic, related to our purpose, is generated internally partly to meet our needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness – we strive to be independent and self-sufficient, capable and connected.
To sum up. Meaning has two parts – comprehension (understanding ourselves and our place in the world) and purpose (our goals based on this understanding). Not all goals are related to our purpose – we are often motivated to gain rewards or avoid punishments i.e. by extrinsic or external motivation. Intrinsic or external motivation is driven by the universal human needs of autonomy (independence), competence (to be capable) and relatedness (to be connected).
I hope you found this useful – I’ll discuss more on why intrinsic motivation, meaning and purpose are so important in future posts.
Micheal Steiger paper on meaning and Purpose
Deci and Ryan paper on intrinsic motivation and basic human needs.