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Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow Purpose

Purposehat is meaning? The premise with which we begin is that the question of meaning lies at the heart of who we are as persons—and that purpose is a key component of meaning. The meaning people pursue and experience can be broadly categorized as “everyday” or “ultimate,” that is, involving or resulting from, in the first case, attempts to structure relationships and environments so as to effectively engage in short-term, goal-directed actions or, in the second case, attempts to achieve broad goals across an extended temporal span in a universe where human action matters. The hypothesis underlying the symposium is that the human sense of meaningfulness integrates other fundamental aspects of life, including love, work, coping with misfortune, and facing mortality.

Understanding what meaning is would be a big step toward enabling people to get more of something they value. An emerging perspective among some social scientists is that meaning is a non-physical connection, that is, the symbolic relationship between one physical object and another. Another perspective is that meaning is the potential organization of physical matter. But if we allow ideas to be non-physical connections, then how do ideas cause behavior? Or don’t they?

The purpose of this symposium is to probe the nature of meaning by examining, in the first place, how people develop a sense of meaning, in particular, the psychological mechanisms that contribute to it, as well as significant antecedents and environmental (especially familial), cognitive, and personality variables that bear on the experience of meaning across life spans. Participants will also consider how a sense of transcendent meaning may be used to help people explain the past and choose the future.

Questions to be addressed will include: What is the relationship between purpose and meaning? Are they the same? Is meaning discovered or invented? Do people have an innate drive to seek meaning in events and things? Are they hard-wired to look for meaning in life? How do people find meaning in life? What impedes people from finding it? What makes one purpose more meaningful than another? Characterizing some event as meaningful or meaningless may often be more an emotional than a cognitive response. Does that mean that meaningfulness is an emotion?

What makes one life more meaningful than another—in other words, precisely how does the life full of purpose and meaning differ from the life lacking purpose and meaning (e.g., in terms of beliefs, emotions, social bonds, faith, hope)? How do we measure meaningfulness? How do people regain meaning after a loss or failure? Does religion make a unique contribution to the psychological experience of meaning in an individual life?

The probe for answers brings together eleven researchers from psychology and philosophy in the seaside city of Barcelona. Located on the northeast coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Barcelona is the cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region with fabled architectural treasures that span 2,000 years.