Section A1: Personal meaning in life
A study of the nature, psychological function and the construction of personal meaning.

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section

1. Introductory video giving an introduction to the content covered in this section. Click the icon or here to view or download the introductory video

Brief overview of content of this section

Summary of the range of questions that are concerned with the nature, development and communication of personal meaning. Brief discussion of some of the issues related to the development and communication of meaning. The evolution of humans as meaning making animals. The search for meaning as illustrated in the epic of Gilgamesh. Discussion of the ideas of Viktor Frankl and evolution of the meaning making animal – mankind.

How personal meanings are related to cultural meanings and communities of meanings are considered.

And attention is given to meaning conveyed in a narrative, story or myth -like form. Some of the problems with superficiality and meaning are considered. And attention is given to political, ideological and hegemonic meanings.

Finally, some examples are examined which show how humour can be important in people's personal meaning, as well as in critiquing or evaluating meanings in the culture which might be unhealthy.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section

2. The audio file lecture presents the content for this section. This is the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture (49 minutes) will refer every now and again to particular parts of the accompanying text below that will easily be identified -- here you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text. At times you will also need to pause the audio to look at particular sub-presentations such as video clips and powerpoint presentations. The audio lecture and the text go together. Click the icon or here to hear or download the mp3 audio lecture.

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The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture of 49 minutes duration)

What is meaning? And how does it function?
Contemporary crisis in meaning???
Traditional sources of meaning and the changed situation today

The search for meaning as a defining human characteristic: perspectives from anthropology, religion and psychology
Some ideas about the structure and function of personal meaning
Narrative structure to meaning: personal meaning as a master story and as personal myths
Cultural meanings and communities of meaning
Meaning through myth-making
Crises of meaning: diseases of meaning, spiritual pathology and junk meaning
Some additional notes on other political aspects of cultural meanings
How humour can be used in the construction of meaning

(2.7) What is ‘meaning'? And how does it function? Some preliminary questions:

  We live not by things,
But by the meaning of things.
It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation. Antoine de Saint-Exupery

He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Meaning is an explanatory construct. It is used to understand and interpret people's thinking and behaviour.

The noun ‘meaning', like ‘identity', when applied to the development of the human person, is such a basic word that it is hard to define without using the same word again. But if it is to be useful in education and the helping professions, it needs clarification. Rather than beginning with a generic definition, it will be more helpful to look at a series of questions about the nature and function of meaning:

  • What constitutes ‘meaning' in life? What counts for meaning for different people?
  • How is meaning constructed by individuals?
  • How is meaning generated in communities? How is it communicated?
  • How do you ‘search' for meaning and how do you know when you have found it?
  • If you have to search for meaning, does this imply that meaning is not readily available or is difficult to find; or that the meaning readily at hand is inadequate or unsatisfying?
  • Do you only search for meaning when something goes wrong? Or when the implied meaning with which you were comfortable is called into question?
  • Is the search for meaning a result of a significant or traumatic experience, calling for more thought about the fundamental values implied in the way one lives?
  • Is a search for meaning a symptom of a more fundamental problem: dissatisfaction with life or unhappiness that prompts individuals to think about what is wrong with their lives and what needs to be done to improve it?
  • Is the search for meaning a cognitive searching or an experiential testing of different values that are available for adoption?
  • Does meaning need to include values for day-to-day living? Or is it just concerned with ultimate beliefs and values like God, death and afterlife?
  • How well does one's religion provide satisfactory meaning?
  • How much time does a healthy person need to spend on the search for meaning?
  • Can the search for meaning be a health hazard? Can you spend too much time and energy searching instead of getting on with life?
  • How do you judge when meaning is good or harmful for the individual? What are the criteria for good and healthy meaning?
  • Can meaning be manufactured and sold?
  • Western culture is saturated with different meanings for life; does the search for meaning involve evaluating and choosing what is valuable from the available meanings?
  • Given that the search for meaning has a significant cognitive component (also emotional, attitudinal and volitional dimensions), do the processes of interpretation, critical thinking and evaluation become important for education in meaning?
Click here for materials that look into some classic examples of the discussion of meaning and purpose in life. Open these materials and use in conjunction with the lecture.

Resource materials from a year 12 course that focused on search for meaning; including material on the epic of Gilgamesh and on be ideas of Viktor Frankl.

Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor

Extract from a lecture in Melbourne in 1970 about meaning in life and crisis in contemporary meaning.

For further interest you may wish to look at part of his lecture on You tube about finding meaning in life in complicated and difficult times,

Dr. Victor Frankl, who fathered the “Third School of Viennese Psychiatry,” known “logotherapy”, experienced first-hand the horrible atrocities that were forced upon the Jews in Nazi Concentration Camps, and lived to tell about it.

He shares the truths he learned as a prisoner, including man's search for meaning in life, and his ability to survive extreme physical and emotional hardships, despite the odds.  At the root of the theory is the value of helping others find their unique purpose or mission in life.

What was the key to the survival in the Nazi death camps? It wasn't survival of the fittest in the traditional sense of those who were the most physically robust of the human species. Rather it tended to be those individuals, described below, who found inner survival strength as follows:

(1) Those who had a meaning in life, a sense of purpose, or intent to accomplish a goal. It was Dr. Frankl's desire to survive the death camps so that he could write and publish his experiences and truths learned through his suffering.

(2) Those who had a spiritual belief in God and a faith that there was a divine plan for them. They believed God would help them through their difficulties. Dr. Frankl said: “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.”

(3) Those who had an intellectual life to fall back on (in their thoughts) during the monotonous, strenuous, and most painful times of endurance. He states: “Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain… but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.” This was something their oppressors were not able to take away from them.

(4) Those who held on to the cherished bonds of loved ones. Dr. Frankl often found strength by carrying on imagined conversations with his beloved wife who had been taken to another death camp. His ability to communicate his love for her in his thoughts, and receive back her love, gave him the incentive to hold on to life during the toughest of times. Unfortunately his wife was not able to survive, but he didn't know this at the time. (Perhaps it was her Spirit he was communicating with after all.)

Contemporary crisis in meaning???


There is a real crisis of meaning in the community, and the problems associated with constant social change – the erosion of the old public morality, the breakdown of family structures, high levels of unemployment and instability in the workplace, and the public emergencies created by drugs, alcohol, crime and increasing suicide – have shaken this country out of its former innocence and urged us to take stock of ‘what really matters' …

We can no longer afford to remain silent about matters of meaning … People who idealise the relaxed social conditions of the past are refusing to engage the urgent crises of our time, and failing to see these crises as a cry for clarification and affirmation of human and social meaning … Speaking about our innate hunger for spiritual meaning, David Millikan has said that ‘there is a distinctive quality or capacity in us all which creates a restlessness with the limitations of our present life'. This spiritual restlessness is dramatically accelerated when society goes through a period of critical instability and uncertainty. Often, what inspires spiritual search is a profound disillusionment with the present social system, especially in the fields of politics, social leadership, industry, health, law and education. The search for new values and visions is frequently sparked by frustration, disappointment or anger at the current state of secular society … It represents a protest against the conditions of our all-too-human world, as well as a search for abiding spiritual values that can provide a new stability and unity to society.

From Australian author: Tacey, D. 2000, Reenchantment: the new Australian spirituality , Harper Collins, Sydney, p. 6

Traditional sources of meaning and the changed situation today

In the past, more of the meaning to life was implied or culturally embedded in institutions and religious traditions. Human purpose may have been taken for granted by individuals and perhaps there was less ‘searching' for meaning. Nowadays, in Western societies in particular, little is taken for granted; practically everything is questioned, and individuals have to do more of the construction of meaning by themselves. People in great poverty or in oppressive political situations may not have the luxury of spending time philosophising about the meaning of life; most of their energy is spent just surviving. However, it may well be their core meaning, socially reinforced by group identity, that sustains them.

While acknowledging that religion has long been important for human meaning, Zohar and Marshall claimed that it has been superseded as a principal source of meaning. They saw the meanings supported by religion as ‘unravelling' in the wake of scientific rationalism. They considered that their view of spiritual intelligence was based on evidence from psychology, neurology, anthropology and cognitive science – as if religion and philosophy had little to say that would be relevant to the contemporary human condition. They acknowledged a role for religion in the communication of meaning. But their view seemed too narrowly associated with a particular style of Eastern spirituality; the relevance of their book thus depended on the extent to which readers could identify comfortably with that spirituality.

The construct meaning is a useful one because it can accommodate both religious and non-religious views of life. It is important to probe the spiritual dimensions of human experience in non-religious language, especially for educational purposes; but at the same time, to neglect what religions and philosophy have to say about meaning is to ignore some of the principal cultural inputs to human meaning throughout history.

As noted in the previous chapter, fostering young people's search for meaning and purpose in life is often listed as a contemporary aim for school education. But if such an aim is to be followed through into relevant practice, it needs more clarification about what constitutes meaning, how it functions psychologically, how it develops and matures, and how it can be communicated in ways that respect the developing autonomy of young people. Also needed are skills and criteria for identifying and evaluating meaning. Young people need to learn how to judge whether particular meanings are healthy or harmful. Then there are questions about how personal meaning relates to cultural meanings, and about the roles of institutions in the communication of meaning.

(2.2) The search for meaning as a defining human characteristic: Perspectives from anthropology, religion and psychology

In Lake Mungo in New South Wales is the earliest known archaeological site for the ritual burial of the dead (more than 40,000 years old). This is regarded as evidence of early human belief in an afterlife, suggesting that in these communities a spiritual element figured prominently in the way people made sense of life. In turn, this has been interpreted as an indication of the functional origins of religion.

The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (over 2500 years old), has already been mentioned.

The human search for meaning is as old as humanity itself. For all other animals, there is no evidence of this level of self-awareness. Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the principal architects of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, considered that knowledge that we are mortal is one of the defining characteristics of the human species. He explained this in his book The biology of ultimate concern (1966) . Only humans can ask questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives. For many, this revolves around belief in God and an afterlife, and the practice of religion; for others, meaning is constructed in spiritual but not necessarily religious terms (for example values and commitments); for some, the meaning they decide on is that ‘there is no meaning'.

So people stand today in a long line of human searchers for meaning. Meaning is not inbuilt as, by analogy, it appears to be in other animals. Instinctive, genetically determined behaviour is prominent in other animals. In humans, this has been largely replaced by a genetic ability to learn and to construct an interpretation of life. The quest for meaning is an individual task; it does not come ready made. But the answers people develop are derived in some way from their community experience. Children naturally absorb and take for granted the meaning system of their immediate family – at least until they are able to think more for themselves as well as take on meaning from other agencies and culture. Individuals are born human, but they become persons through interaction with a community. Individuals in the human species depend genetically on a non-genetic, cultural inheritance to become as fully human as they can be. In this very basic sense, education (as natural learning) is a fundamental formative process for the human being. This same basic principle justifies links between formal education and people's construction of meaning and purpose in life.

(2.3) The role of religion

Providing meaning and purpose in life is a central role of religion. For many people, it is their principal source of meaning. Religion provides an overarching spiritual framework for life and it gives direction to morality as well as to prayer and other religious practices; it gives a sense of ultimate meaning not only to personal life but to the universe, seeing it as the complex creation of God. The meaning in religious beliefs can be strongly coloured by cultural contexts. Religion and culture can become so intertwined that it is difficult to see what is authentically religious (in terms of the traditional core teachings of the religion) and what is cultural accretion.

Typically, religions see the capacity of humans to construct meaning and purpose as innate and central to the human condition, even if the meaning they ultimately live out of is not drawn from a community of faith. Theistic religions also see direct, personal communication with God as a natural capacity, and that union with God is a fundamental goal of life.

(2.4) The role of psychology and psychiatry

Psychology and psychiatry (and the social sciences in general) also have much to say about the search for meaning. Comments have already been made about psychological understandings from Victor Frankl and Carl Jung.

In Abraham Maslow's psychology, two concepts were pertinent to meaning: a ‘hierarchy of needs' and ‘self-actualisation'. While basic physical needs had priority, the full development of the person required, according to Maslow's scheme, meaning and purpose, together with fulfilling life goals and satisfying relationships.

The movement known as humanistic psychology, typified by authors like Maslow, Rogers , Fromm, Erikson, Allport, May and others, did not overtly highlight the construct meaning, but had much to say about the meanings that were considered to be important in becoming a fulfilled person.

Some ideas about the Structure and function of personal meaning

(2.9.1) Meaning as personal explanatory theory or interpretation

Meaning can be thought of as a satisfying theory or interpretation of life; similarly, people ascribe meaning to particular events and activities. It is an understanding that gives a plausible explanation or a useful working hypothesis. Meaning is the theory that makes sense of one's experience. Semantics (study of the meanings of words) and hermeneutics (study of interpretation) are important in any investigation of meaning. While any detailed excursion into these fields is beyond our scope here, comments about these areas of study will be made towards the end of the chapter.

Meaning also helps explain behaviour; it shows the implied thinking beneath behaviour that makes it understandable; it describes the underlying pattern of motivation. Individuals may not always be fully aware of their own motives, or of other influences on their behaviour. In these circumstances, they probably would not have good or convincing reasons for what they do. Hence the meaning of their own behaviour might not be clear to them, even though astute observers may have a better idea of what was going on.

The explanation may not be perfect, but it can give a reasonably satisfying, even if partial, answer to questions people face, and it can help them work out their response.

(2.9.2) Meaning as personal motivation

As noted above, personal explanatory theories are closely associated with motivation. From this perspective, meaning is the articulation of motives, spelling out the individual's interests, needs and goals. Motivation may also acknowledge external influences on behaviour.

(2.9.3) Meaning as the justification of thinking and behaviour

Another function of meaning as an explanatory theory is evident in the way it serves as a justification . People usually have some reason for what they do. Even if vague, it rationalises their action; it can be a defence or excuse. Such usage is common in ordinary conversation where people explain why they do particular things.

Even when they behave inappropriately, people still have some justification in mind; this makes it easier for them when their action conflicts with professed values. Later, they may feel uncomfortable when the real meaning of their behaviour becomes more self-evident.

The justification of behaviour given to others is not always its ‘true' meaning. People are often reluctant to reveal their true motive. This may be as simple as being polite by not voicing displeasure. Or it may be more complicated where there is deception, or, where people are only partly aware of their real motives, there is self-deception.

Some distinctions help illustrate this complexity. Justificatory meaning can take three forms: articulated personal meaning; unarticulated personal meaning; and implied personal meaning. There may be differences between the meaning individuals articulate for themselves and what they profess publicly. For some there is no difference; for others the discrepancy is considerable.

There will naturally be variations in people's level of awareness of their own motives, and also in their consciousness of cultural influences. A mature person could be expected to have good self-knowledge and a discerning awareness of the cultural influences that affect them. On the other hand, people can try to avoid the discomfort of thinking about what actually motivates them; they may be embarrassed to think that others can see their real intentions. But with hindsight and growing maturity, they may develop a more realistic picture of their own motivation, and this may lead to personal change.

This aspect of meaning parallels a later interpretation of the psychological function of identity (Chapter 6). The content of meaning is an expression of the individual's identity. Here, meaning and identity are the same psychological reality looked at from different perspectives. From the viewpoint of meaning, it is the explanation of the individual's intentionality. From the viewpoint of identity, it is the individual's distinctive self-understanding and self-expression.

(2.9.4) Articulated personal meaning and expressions of meaning

Following reflection and interpretation of experience, people can articulate the beliefs and values that give direction to their lives. The process is usually affected by interaction with others.

Articulated personal meaning can be expressed in various ways, some simple and some complex. It can be phrased in their own words and/or in various formulae. Expressions of meaning may be value statements, wise sayings, quotations or religious teachings; they may be in narrative form. They can also be expressed through identification with particular role models and/or communities that embody the meanings to which individuals commit. Articulated personal meaning is usually dependent, to varying degrees, on the culture in which people live.

A significant part of people's articulated meaning and implied meaning (see below) may be directly imported from the culture – where cultural meanings become ‘operative' in the individual. Hence there may be varied levels of congruence between personal and cultural meanings. It is unlikely that they generate their own personal meaning in isolation from the outside world. What constitutes a healthy interaction with cultural meanings is a matter for debate that is relevant for education.

People vary in the extent to which they try to articulate meaning; and there is also variation in the accuracy of their articulation. In articulated meaning, some give an authentic account of themselves. Others do not have good self-knowledge; they may give little or no conscious attention to clarifying their own meaning, and may live without much reference to it.

Where individualism is prominent in the culture, there is general acceptance that people have freedom and responsibility for determining their own meaning. This raises questions about the role of parents and community in the communication of meaning.

2.9.5 Implied personal meaning

As already noted briefly above, from the point of view of an observer, it is helpful to make a distinction about implied personal meaning. An individual's behaviour is open to interpretation by others. What they do and how they spend their time signal an implied meaning, whether or not it is ever articulated; their behaviour defines personal meaning, de facto . In this sense, there is always an implied meaning to people's behaviour. Accordingly, observers attribute intentionality to others, rightly or wrongly; it is a natural part of personal interaction.

To realise that the meanings in our behaviour are to some extent accessible to others can affect what we plan to do. It can make some more devious. Some may not know, or may not want to know, the implied meaning in their behaviour that is reflected back to them by others.

The capacity to interpret meaning in the behaviour of others is a basic human learning process. It shows how values can be learned, particularly by the young; they can learn across a wide values spectrum – for example, from altruism to racism. The process is a central part of socialisation into belief systems. Natural personal learning is open to enhancement through education, particularly where meaning is identified and evaluated.

The notion of implied meaning has other ramifications. The degree of congruence between professed and implied meaning has much to do with honesty and integrity. For example, someone could hardly claim that spouse and family had priority when practically all of his or her time and energy was devoted to work and progress up the career ladder, with its incentives of power, status and money. Here, the implied meaning contradicts the professed meaning. This example could also be interpreted from the perspective of identity: a conflict between professed identity and implied identity.

The cognitive dissonance between the individual's and the observer's interpretation of meaning can be a catalyst for personal change. If people judge that the meaning in their behaviour is inappropriate in the eyes of respected others, they may want to change that behaviour. Such change can be positive or negative. Young people especially are susceptible to influences from the perceived social reality sustained by role models and peer groups; who their heroes or heroines are can have a big effect on who they become.

The notion of ‘knowing yourself' well presumes that congruence between inner meaning and behaviour is a desirable virtue, central to spiritual health; behaviour fits with the self-explanation. Self-knowledge is the content of the meaning that expresses the ‘true' self. This is fine as long as the self-knowledge is judged to be good. But where self-knowledge is judged to be poor, there may well be congruent poor behaviour, though such congruence would hardly be regarded as spiritually healthy. It suggests that there is a need for some objective criteria for self-appraisal, and for the appraisal of personal meaning. (See section 4.5 on healthy meaning. It is also related to the consideration of self-esteem in 6.4.) In other words, acting with the justification of being your ‘true self' does not necessarily make what you do morally good; it is not a licence to cut across the good of others. These issues highlight the importance of the evaluation of personal meaning.

Another point can be made about implied meaning. It overlaps with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's construct of ‘life structure'. He proposed that the most telling description of people's values was embedded in the way they acted and how they spent their time. His views are considered further in the later discussion of identity.

Following up the earlier comment about the potential enhancement of meaning through education, it is useful to note that study of articulated and implied meanings (hopefully, with follow-up reflection) is the substantive content that education has to work with if it is to educate the young with respect to meaning. It marks out the limited, rational ‘window of opportunity' that education has for promoting personal change in young people; it shows the relevance of studying ‘reasons for living'. Such study may lead to the acquisition of new meanings; it is an appropriate psychological channel through which classroom learning can occasion change in beliefs and values. But there is a need to acknowledge that the ‘learning' of meaning is more complex than learning knowledge and skills, even though it includes both of these.

(2.9.6) Emotional meaning

While the rational component of personal meaning has been stressed, together with its implications for school education, it would be a mistake not to attend to the emotional component. How people feel about a situation can be more fundamental than what they think about it. How comfortable they feel about something may sway their thinking and beliefs, and what they believe in can affect their feelings about a situation; the influences work both ways.

There is an emotional meaning woven through people's interpretation of life and events, just as they have feelings associated with particular places and people. Personal meaning is usually not just a rational understanding, belief or value position. The emotional dimension has implications for what constitutes maturity in meaning.

(2.9.7) Imagination and intuition: Their contribution to meaning

Imagination is the capacity to see things differently – new possibilities in contrast with what exists now. It enables individuals to go beyond the constrictions of the present to create new ideas and to appraise their potential. They can try themselves out imaginatively in new situations; they can explore what they might become. Through imagination, new meanings can be developed.

But imagination comes into play not only when people think of the distant future or of fantasy-like potential change. It is much more than the capacity for daydreaming. It operates constantly in relation to more immediate activity, every time people do any planning. It helps them anticipate what might happen as a consequence of particular decisions. It is an essential part of the decision-making process, and therefore a key component of meaning – its exploratory dimension, testing the waters of new meanings. It can help people extend their meanings beyond present horizons; whenever meaning is concerned with the future, imagination is involved.

Imaginative rehearsal of future possibilities is a ‘pathfinder' for personal change ( 13.8 ); on the other hand, if imaginations are not encouraged , they can stifle choice and action. In both cases, imagination is a potent mechanism of human learning.

Imagination does not develop in the individual in an exclusively endogenous way. While the capacity for imagination is genetic, it can be stimulated and enhanced, especially by images – it needs raw material. It can be cultivated and refined (one of the aims of education).

In the image-dominated mass media and entertainment industry, it is said that ‘little is left to the imagination'. Here, so much imagining is done for us. To the extent that this dynamic affects the imagination, life expectations can be influenced by those who orchestrate media images. Hence, while significant for creativity, and while it can pave the way for personal change, the imagination is a psychic area vulnerable to subtle manipulation. Marketing and consumerism can affect (infect?) the imaginations of the young to secure their purchasing power.

Intuition is knowing something by feeling or ‘instinct'. It is not a genetic instinct, as in other animals, but a conclusion reached about a certain meaning that is not yet fully understood or explained satisfactorily, or not yet justified by evidence or argument. Intuition may draw on the imagination. Sometimes the phrase ‘gut feeling' is used to stand for intuition, but it is certainly the brain and not the alimentary canal where it is located physiologically.

Intuition is also about the synthesis of ideas, about discovering meaningful patterns in data. Intuition is about anticipation; it is like a hunch – it is not irrational and may be based on thorough examination of data relevant to the decision, but to some extent it is like a ‘leap of faith'; one is not sure in advance that an intuition will be correct in its interpretation, and most people learn that sometimes their intuitions are right and sometimes they prove to be wrong.

Being intuitive is a part of being creative and imaginative. Action cannot always wait for the perfect solution to be worked out successfully in advance, with no margins for error. Sometimes people have to act on their intuition as to what is the best course of action to take; they then have to wait until the eventual outcomes emerge before judging how good their intuitive meaning really was. In this way, intuitive meaning can be evaluated, and to some extent, the intuitive capacity can be enhanced.

2.9.12 Ultimate meaning

Ultimate meaning is summed up in a painting by Paul Gauguin entitled D´où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? 1897 (Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?) ( 2.2 ).

The phrase ‘ultimate meaning' is used to refer to the answers individuals have for ultimate questions, like those listed in Gaugin's title. While for many, ultimate meaning is a religious interpretation, for others this is not the case. For some, their ultimate meaning is that there is no such overall meaning and purpose to life, and it has to be constructed on an existential and pragmatic basis.

Religious beliefs, and some non-religious worldviews, seek to locate individuals' ultimate meaning and purpose beyond their own limited situations. Such beliefs link individuals with larger divine and/or cosmic realities and purposes; they propose that an individual's personal meaning needs to be meshed with community and transcendent meanings, giving a wider perspective than meaning that revolves exclusively around the individual. Such meaning counterbalances the uniqueness and sanctity of the individual with the importance of community and custodial responsibility for the environment (both physical and social). For religious people, this meaning underlines the importance of relating to God.

(2.9.17) Narrative structure to meaning; personal meaning as a ‘master story', and as personal myths

In addition to its place in literature, the theme story is used constructively in a number of domains like psychology, psychiatry and theology ( 15 .2) The interpretation of personal meaning as ‘master story' suggests that a narrative structure can be used for articulating personal meaning. Personal meaning is like a master theory, or master story, that explains and gives insight to an individual's behaviour and motivation. Life is interpreted as a journey and the master story tells where people have been psychologically, where they think they are now and where they think they may be headed in the future. It gives perspective to their lives by looking at the geography of their experience in a story form that illustrates the drama, the highlights, the low points and the historical developments.

The narrative focus of this interpretation of personal meaning is important from the point of view of the ways in which story carries cultural meanings. The story of an individual's life can be meshed with, and influenced by, the many value-laden stories in culture. These could be: stories children are told by parents; stories associated with particular community and ethnic groups (including sporting clubs); religious stories, especially in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (with parallels in other religions); as well as stories that abound in literature. Nowadays, most of the stories in most households are told by television and film.

The meaning in an individual's master story may unfold in episodic form. A new experience or situation may not be understood initially. Eventually, the individual comes to terms with the new episode and the understanding is assimilated into the master story. It may be interpreted without any major change to the individual's story; or, if the event is significant, it may result in a new theme or a different orientation. When looking back over their lives, individuals may see key ‘marker events' as turning points in their life story.

As people have new experience, they need to modify their narrative theory to incorporate it. They may talk about an experience either with themselves or others until they come up with an interpretation that they think is the most accurate or with which they feel most comfortable. But what is true and what is comfortable do not always coincide. Some people cannot always cope with the truth of certain situations or with aspects of self.

A strength of the story interpretation of meaning is its emphasis on continuous development. People's meaning has coherence and continuity, but it is not static. It gives them perspective on the geography and history of their lives. It helps them see new decisions from a vantage point; decisions can then be made on more than a pragmatic basis. The story motif is equally useful in interpreting identity (Chapter 6).

A recent research study on Australian youth considered that:


Young people make their lives by using various resources, especially those drawn from trusted relationships, to create storylines about who they are and where their lives are leading. The results of their narratives, or ‘storying' are visible over time: different understandings shape the way individuals engage in the world, the way they engage shapes experience, and experience, in turn, shapes understandings.

… Research has explored how personal stories or narratives can be useful for negotiating complex social spaces. For example, for 40 years, social theorists have explored how individuals make meaning and construct identities in story ( Eg, Strauss 1977). Moral philosophers have suggested that individuals' stories are narratives of progress, charting the journey towards and away from ‘the good' or valued goal-states ( Eg, Taylor 1989).

Myth or meaning-embedded story will be considered later in this chapter in section 2.10.6 on cultural meaning – myth-making as meaning . But it is pertinent here to consider the idea of personal myths, understood in much the same way as master story. People understand themselves through their own mythology. As one education writer expressed it, ‘ literally every human being on earth, weaves a tapestry of beliefs and myths with which to make sense of reality. In short, every young learner has to build his or her own explanatory system for the universe.'

In addition, people use personal myths to express some of the principal motifs that they would like to see as distinctive of their way of life; to some extent, they may consciously act in ways that seek to identify themselves with these myths. (For references see reading at the end of the text)

Cultural meanings (2.10.2) Communities of meaning

It is natural for the young to absorb meanings from their family and community reference groups in an uncritical way; they are socialised into meaning; their personal meaning is located in, and therefore only explicable within, their community frame of reference. In most cases, children would not advert to this as a conscious learning process. Such learning prompts use of the concept community of meaning . The first community of meaning for children and young adults is their family. Then there are various other groups that engage the young, ranging from religion and school to peer groups and the local sports club and the like. In an age of television and information technology, young people are tuned in more widely to international sources of meaning.

The above listing of communities of meaning is a traditional one. But for many young people, their upbringing is anything but traditional. The groups within which they grow up are diverse and not as homogeneous as they might have been in the past; each of the groups in which they move may have different implied meanings for life. From an early age, the young are subject to competing cultural meanings, only one of which comes from their parents or guardians. Some scholars would argue that once children are old enough to watch television, it becomes their most influential socialising agency and their principal spiritual and moral reference point. The role of parents then changes to that of secondary modifiers of their children's primary TV socialisation.

How dependent people are on meaning derived from culture is not easily determined; they use cultural elements differently. They may implicitly accept the meaning proposed by others or the meanings into which they are socialised; different levels of autonomy, reflection, evaluation and choice may enter into the equation. Cultural influences on different people vary in scope and strength, as well as across different periods of the life cycle; hence personal meaning is often variegated, showing its diverse cultural origins. Also, the ‘size' of the individual's ‘life-world' often changes. People are always judging, and then choosing or rejecting cultural meanings. But as they become mature and better educated, they will be more selective; they engage in a more critical interpretation and evaluation of culture .

Personal meaning not only draws from culture in its construction, but is sustained and reinforced by social interaction and cultural artefacts. The way people think ‘things should be' creates an influential social reality for the young; its power depends on the regard they have for these people – hence the influence of family, friends (‘mates') and peer groups. The power of television over social reality is more subtle; it does not argue a case for ‘what should be', but through its narrative structure it gives the impression that ‘this is reality.' And it is hard to argue against what is perceived to be reality – ‘if you see it on TV, it must be true!' To make sense of any television narrative (even commercials) one has to enter, at least to some extent, the presumed worldview of that narrative. And it is only if one is able to identify and articulate this presumed worldview that its reality criteria can be questioned.

Personal meaning is supported by cultural elements like symbols and rituals, as well as by religious structures like churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. In addition, meaning is also promoted and sustained by structures like malls, game arcades, night clubs, theme parks, museums, monuments, galleries, movie theatres, public beaches, architecture and posters. Film and television images, song lyrics and even messages on T shirts can imply meaning for life. Meaning in culture is ‘atmospheric' and young people breathe it all the time. It has to do with self-understanding and self-expression and is therefore central to their identity.

The learning of meaning from culture is also influenced by cultural change – as if culture itself were a living organism with evolving meanings. Different events and issues change the meaning landscape within a culture. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, fear of total nuclear war worried both adults and children. This is not so prominent now, but terrorism and violence are – even though they have been present for a long time, they now feature more visibly in the media. Also more prominent is concern about the global environment and the potential for natural disasters. At any point in time, the changing topography of meanings in the local culture needs to be taken into account as it colours the meaning young people develop.

While people absorb meaning from culture, they also help maintain and change cultural meaning. It is a two-way process. Individuals and groups may introduce their own distinctive variants. This is how ideologies are born. National Socialism, Leninism and Maoism, for example, had humble beginnings on their way to becoming political ideologies that changed the course of history. Judgments of such manipulative ideologies do not necessarily imply a canonisation of capitalism or the liberal democracy; the latter too are in constant need of appraisal. The lessons of history need to be learnt in terms of critical evaluation of cultural meanings – an important role for education.

For both local groups and individuals, the various normative meanings of the institutions to which they belong are not always appropriated fully or consistently. Hence popular cultural meanings can have a ‘life of their own' with considerable variation and influence, while still maintaining links with the normative meanings of institutions. For example, at a personal level, some Christians do not subscribe to all of the official teachings of their church while still maintaining identification with the institution. The cultural meanings carried in a particular local community or family are often a complex mixture that cannot easily be ascribed to any one normative source.

2.10.6 Meaning through myth-making

Myth, in its proper sense, is a story with a worldview-creating function – contrasting with the popular use of the word ‘myth' to mean an untruth. Myths are ‘truths about life' expressed in story form. A mythology is a worldview embodied in a collection of related myths. Hence, in essence, myth is about personal meaning; it is a way of articulating values and beliefs – essentially spiritual realities – in story form. Psychologists like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell considered that myth was a human way of grasping at the trans-empirical or transcendent dimensions to human experience. Myths help people to make sense of reality and of their place in the world, particularly with regard to ultimate questions about human existence and purpose. The meaning of myths will be missed if they are interpreted purely in factual or historical terms, for they are rich in metaphor and symbol. Myths may have historical roots, but historicity is not essential to their meaning-carrying capacity. Later, ( 3.2.9 ), this will be followed up when looking at fundamentalism, which generally focuses on literal and historical meanings to religious texts. Those who see more importance in symbolic and theological meanings in myths would consider that fundamentalism fails to grasp their principal human meaning.

Just as individuals use the notion of story or myth to frame their own personal meaning, communities of meaning will embody their beliefs in myths. Beare explained it as follows:


A mythology … is a representation, through language and story, through imagery rather than through propositions, of what the cosmic order is. It is the most widely used explanatory device known to the human race. It has always been part of the schooling within traditional societies, and coming to an understanding of and respect for the prevailing system of myths is part of the initiation which gives one a rite of passage into a culture.

Mythology touches us at the outer limits of our understanding and gives us a method to cope; it means to take the ineffable and to make it intersect with what we deem to be real. As a result, our personal and collective mythologies (we all have them) govern what we think, what we are able to grasp, to act upon, and to achieve …

Beliefs, visualization, ideas of connectedness, play-acting and personality tend then to become embedded in, and embodied within, narratives and stories. When human beings are confronted by a reality which is hard to describe, and when comprehension teeters on the edge of wonder, then they use the universal device of inventing stories to convey meanings. At the simplest level, they emerge as novels or films or TV serials or stage-plays. Some of them last and survive because they encapsulate so well what human beings know to be authentic about themselves… . Some stories acquire overlays, invent symbolism, or express profundities, or become epics in which the characters assume the status of heroes, heroines and demigods; and the events become cosmic struggles. Sometimes the stories are based upon actual events to which added significances are attached. Sometimes the stories are invented for the purpose. It really does not matter which. The meanings are what is important.

This view of meaning through myth-making relates to our discussion of religious meanings, and to later considerations of scriptural meanings, and of clashes between religious and scientific meanings. It is also helpful for evaluating the social meanings purveyed through film and television. As Beare went on to note:


Of growing concern for the community … is the question of who is creating the myths of modern societies, how those myths are being promulgated, and what collective set of meanings is being legitimized. Clearly, film, television and video libraries are mass-producing stories and images which have the power of myth, and which deliberately create attitudes about the world and about life itself. There are millions of persons generating music and song which carry their own powerful and recurrent messages … the consistency of violent depictions on screen and records shapes impressionable people's beliefs. The print media – especially the paperback industry – is producing more books, especially novels, than ever before in human history. Collectively, then, there is a huge, worldwide industry in myth-making. It is generally left to schools, as a formal part of their curriculum, to teach the skills to discriminate, to critique, to appreciate, to classify and to respond …

That modern society has failed to comprehend the fundamental nature of mythic consciousness and of story, is all too evident across the globe. Teachers almost by default have inherited that role of cultural priest.

Beare also drew attention to techniques for the evaluation and development of mythologies, considering that the mythopoetic dimension was an important one to develop in education, which was still dominated by learnings that were too scientific, rationalist and utilitarian.

2.10.10 Crisis of meaning: Diseases of meaning, spiritual pathology and junk meaning

Meaning has become more a matter of idiosyncratic taste and feel than of values and commitments. In addition, this trend helps promote nihilism – a feeling that no coherent personal meaning is possible, and that it is pointless trying to find it. Scholars have described this situation as a crisis of meaning . Jung identified some psychological disorders as primarily spiritual or existential illnesses, related to problems with meaning. Frankl's social diagnosis referred to the problem as an ‘existential vacuum' or lack of a satisfying interpretation of life. He felt this was linked with a ‘pervasive sense of boredom in our culture, particularly among the young'. More recently, Zohar and Marshall have used phrases like ‘diseases of meaning' and ‘spiritual pathology' in their interpretation of problems with meaning. They considered that increasingly, disorders such as depression, fatigue, excessive eating, anorexia, stress and addiction could be attributed more to ‘problems of meaning and value and to a consequent inability to integrate and balance the personality'. While there is an abundance of cultural meanings readily available, many of them are comparatively trivial (concerned with entertainment, enjoyment, pleasure, fashion, lifestyle and money), while meaning about more substantive human issues (quality of life, meaning of work, transcendence, suffering, injustice, death, God) are not so prominent or so popular. Perhaps there is a glut of ‘junk meaning'.

This crisis of meaning affects people, and the young in particular, in different ways. Some will burrow more deeply into their traditional beliefs and will resist critical questioning and any aspects of contemporary culture identified as dangerous. Others will try to adjust their traditional meanings to help them understand their new situation. Still others, who do not find current religious meaning very helpful, will work out some pragmatic meaning ‘on the run'. Some will be affected negatively by their perception of a lack of functional meaning (this will be more noticeable in those who are depressed); this may be linked with a general feeling of dissatisfaction with life related to a variety of causes. Public acknowledgment of this problem was evident on a recent billboard advertising a youth helpline: It read ‘Life sucks now has a website!'

Still other young people may not give much attention to seeking coherent meaning and purpose in life. They keep themselves occupied with things immediate and pragmatic – for them what is important is maintaining and improving their lifestyle.

The issues considered in this and the previous section point to a stream of postmodern cultural diffidence about meaning that has behavioural consequences. The value position taken here identifies with Frankl's interpretation that adequate meaning is essential for psychic health.

Some additional notes on other political aspects of cultural meanings:

2.10.8 Political meaning, ideology and hegemony

This cluster of terms has to do with the influence of power in human relationships and social activity.

The political meaning of a situation is the composite of values, motives and decisions that actually ‘drive' developments, or that influence consequent decision-making and actions. Political meaning reflects the ‘real' power influences at work in a situation and the ‘real' intentions may not square with the stated ones.

At times, political meaning is the rationale of the power players who are setting out to have their will followed. Here, the political meaning is the one that counts; in this sense, the words' ‘political meaning' have a negative connotation, implying that the influential reasons behind an action are not stated and are not transparent to public scrutiny – this meaning has to be uncovered to be identified.

An individual's political meanings are the relatively hidden purposes that direct activity towards particular goals; exposing these meanings would show up their personal plans and schemes.

In terms of governance, whether this be at institutional or state level, political meaning is implied in the policies and actions of those in positions of power. Politics could be said to include the ‘art of negotiating political meanings', among other things.

An ideology is an identifiable set of political meanings and values that go with a particular viewpoint or purposeful activity. The cluster of meanings in an ideology make up the philosophy behind a movement or particular action.

Ideologies have different scopes and strengths. While the ideology of an individual informs his or her life, usually the term refers to the meanings of social groups. There is an ideology for the Rappers in the popular music world and for particular business practices; it may be as large as a whole political system like Maoism or socialism. Ideology is like a philosophy of life: it can underpin lifestyle choice and approach to work.

The words ‘ideology' and ‘ideologue' have a negative connotation where their values are not publicly transparent. Particular views and actions may be so taken for granted, almost as if they were natural, that it may come as a shock to discover that they are human constructions coming out of an ideology. For example, the disadvantaged position of women in society was long felt to be part of the natural order – as Earl Percy noted in England in 1873, ‘The real fact is that man in the beginning was ordained to rule over woman: and this is an eternal decree which we have no right and no power to alter.' This view is now more readily identified as part of a patriarchal ideology. Ideologies can be more effective in commanding compliance if their influence is not so visible. They are less likely to be challenged if they appear as natural and commonsense, and not recognised as constructed by the powerful and maintained by social interaction.

An ideological statement is intended to promote the cause of a particular ideology. It is likely to be more effective if its ideological status is not identified. De Botton defined it as ‘one that is engaged in subtly pushing a partial line while pretending to be speaking neutrally'. This view was prominent in the thought of Marx, who saw ideology as the instrument of those in power: ‘The ruling ideas of every age are always the ideas of the ruling class.'

Hegemony , derived from the Greek word hegemon – leader, and by association, the dominant group – is the sphere of political influence flowing from a particular person, institution or movement. It is like the ‘cultural momentum' of an ideology – the ideological dominance of one group over another. This can take the form of subtle control over people's thinking by some ideas being more important and influential than others, often excluding or marginalising contrary views. Like ideology, hegemony may not always be readily evident – such cultural influences need to be identified and tracked to their sources.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed a theory of cultural hegemony (in the late 1920s and early 1930s) to show how the dominant power maintained the political status quo through the influence of its ideological, cultural values. He proposed the need for counter-hegemonic thinking and education to critique prevailing cultural values as a prelude to social change. His thinking has been applied in contemporary cultural studies to explore the ways in which themes in popular culture can have a shaping influence on people's thinking and behaviour.

What is common to the three terms considered here is the exercise of power and its subversive influence through cultural meanings. Hence, detecting these meanings and ‘auditing' the trail of power are essential elements in what can be called a political education . It empowers individuals, giving them more scope for self-determination. It may not always deliver real power to those in unjust or oppressive situations, but at least it can liberate their thinking. This can be a first step towards social change.

2.10.9 Meaning and cultural postmodernity

There are problems with the use of the word ‘postmodern' when applied to culture (see Chapter 8). Sometimes the impression is given that it is used as a synonym for ‘contemporary'; other usage does not clarify differences between postmodernity as the description of a particular style of culture and postmodernism as an ideology; also, its meaning can be conflated with the views of postmodern (and post-structuralist) philosophers. However, what is prominent in cultural postmodernity is the level of questioning and uncertainty about meaning and truth.

In the past, people tended to chart their meaning within a given framework (worldview or meta-narrative) that was relatively well accepted. Now, there is a recognisable tendency not only to challenge traditional cultural meanings, but to call all frameworks into question. Meaning is then perceived as relative, subjective, individualistic and linked to particular contexts ( 4.3.4 , 8.4.2 and 8.5.6 ). This tends to create diffidence about finding any worthwhile meaning to life. With less cultural reinforcement, individuals can feel more alone in their construction of meaning. They can find it difficult to locate helpful meaning, while at the same time sensing that there is a virtual supermarket of meaning available if they care to shop for it.

How humour can be used in the construction of meaning

Click the icon or here for for the additional mp3 audio file on this last part of the section

The audio explains this sub topic and what to look for in the video material below.

Click the photo to view a video clip showing how the serious issue of the growing prevalence and money spent on new online betting companies has become a significant problem in the Australian community. The clip looks at the television advertising for online betting companies.


But rather than follow the usual documentary format with up-to-date information that might serve as a social warning, the presenter uses humour to create significant meaning about the problem. Humour can also be used to highlight the ridiculous or non--common-sense stands taken on some issues.

This is an example of how people often use humour to make sense of difficult situations, or to cope with difficult people. To be able to laugh at something means you can put it into some sort of meaningful perspective.

Another example of how humour has been used for not only creating meaning about an issue but for calling into question and critically evaluating the meanings held by some sections of the community. this example is about the gun-control lobby in the United States and criticism of this lobby, and a critique of excessive consumerism in 'Catacombos', by the comedian and social commentator Stephen Colbert. This material was used in the unit EDRE623 to illustrate an aspect of the critical evaluation of culture – through humour. If you have not seen these video segments you may wish to have a look at it. Click for a file which gives links to this second additional example of humour in the creation of meaning and in the critical evaluation of particular cultural meanings.

Humiliation in humour: Prominent in reality TV and increasingly in personal relationships

The roles of humour in the construction of meaning shows that it can be involved in both defending individuals against those who hold power over them, as well as in challenging cultural meanings.

But there is another aspect prominent in contemporary humour that can be very problematic for people's own personal meaning and sense of personal identity. At this is the humiliation based humour that has become prominent in the long line of "Friends" sitcoms – Seinfeld, Friends, and more recently Big Bang theory. And it is particularly prominent in the competition based, so-called reality television programs. commonly showing that people are taking pleasure in the humiliation of others. The viewers participate in this process as well. The German language has a special word for it "schadenfreude". This seems to have flowed over into lots of the conversations between friends today which may have more than the usual level of "put down banter" and making fun of the other -- just to get a laugh. Through its television amplification ,this problem may well be a significant one in contemporary social life.

This sort of mentality could also have a lot to do with the growing prominence of bullying amongst adults and even with children in school, and even through social media and mobile phone texting.


Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: The nature, psychological function and construction of meaning , chapter 2 from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality.

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