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The Connection Between Meaning and Personal Values

drawing and sketch showing relationship between personal values and sources of meaning

❝When a person can't find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.❞ -Viktor Frankl

I'm sitting in my chair reading a book referencing the top five regrets people have on their deathbeds. This fascinates me, and I look up Bronnie Ware, who came up with the list. I learn that she used to be a caregiver working with dying people needing comfort care, so they weren't trying to get them healthy. After having several conversations, she learned that most people regretted at least one aspect of their lives. After more conversations, she realized these regrets tended to fall into five categories. She wrote a book about her experience called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

The top regret people experience is not living a life that was true to themselves but instead living a life that other people expected of them. These people may have what many people consider a successful life. Yet many of them felt lost and unfulfilled - like something was missing. The missing piece was often that they lived a life based on societal expectations instead of their own values.

By focusing on what we find meaningful and valuable, we can change our lives. We don't have to wait until our deathbeds to experience regrets. We can recognize what these might be now while we still have time to do something about it. We can align our use of money, time, and energy with our values, giving us a stronger sense that our lives are meaningful.


We all want our lives to feel meaningful. Viktor Frankl claimed that humans have an innate drive to search for meaning, not happiness. Meaning in life researcher Michael Steger proposes a three-dimensional model to think about meaning in our lives. The dimensions are purpose, coherence, and significance.

Purpose: Many people use meaning and purpose as synonyms. This three-dimensional approach instead views purpose as a subset of meaning. A sense of purpose is about having something meaningful to do with your time. They can be thought of as the motivational components of meaning in life because a strong sense of purpose motivates our actions. It can also be considered the behavioral component because it represents what we do going forward.

Coherence: A sense of coherence is about making sense of life. It would be hard to feel like life is meaningful if it was chaotic and nothing made sense. This is about having a story to tell ourselves that puts the events of our lives into a narrative. James Pennebaker writes about the impact of journaling. Journaling helps our sense of coherence because it takes our lives and puts them into context to help us make sense of them. This is the cognitive component of meaning in life because it represents how we think about and understand the world.

Significance: Having a sense of significance is about feeling that life has value and is worth living. This is the affective component of meaning in life; suggesting how we feel about our lives can indicate how meaningful our lives feel. In other words, it would be hard to have a meaningful life if I didn't believe life was worth living and I had no value. This is the evaluation component because it represents how we evaluate our lives.

drawing and sketch showing the three dimensions of meaning in life; purpose, coherence, and significance

The Three Dimension Meaning in Life Scale assesses three dimensions of meaning in life: coherence, purpose, and significance. Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense. Purpose is having direction in life. Significance is the belief that your life has value.


Sources of meaning are how we experience meaning in life. Sources of meaning represent what we do that bring us a sense of meaning. Finding sources of meaning is like trying to find things to do to fill up our buckets of meaning. It's important to diversify our sources of meaning for the same reason we diversify our investments - it's risky. If we have one source of meaning and for whatever reason that source one away, we are left with no sources of meaning.

In addition to having multiple sources of meaning, we want to ensure that we have sources of meaning within each of the three categories; purpose, coherence, and significance. Some sources of meaning may cover multiple categories. For example, spending time with family may contribute to a sense of significance and value. It also gives us a sense of purpose because it represents what we want to do with our time. Time with family could also fill out the coherence bucket if not being able to spend time with family would take away our sense of life making sense.

drawing and sketch showing sources of meaning and our purpose buckets


Personal values represent what is important to us and how we evaluate what is good or bad. Our upbringing heavily influences our personal values, so everyone has different values. Personal values guide our behavior and decision-making. When we live in alignment with our values, we feel a sense of authenticity. By contrast, when we aren't living in line with our values, we feel like we are living a life that we think we're supposed to live - Bronnie Ware's top regret she discovered.

Personal values are closely related to a sense of significance. Living in alignment with our values helps us feel like life is valuable. Thus, living in alignment with our values contributes to a sense of meaning by contributing to our sense of significance.

drawing and sketch showing how values relate to meaning in life

The Value Compass is designed to help you gain insight into your own values and how they guide your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can be used to explore your personal goals and motivations, as well as to gain a better understanding of others' values and how they may differ from your own.


In addition to seeking sources of meaning, we also express our personal values through our actions and decisions. Value expression represents what we do to live in alignment with our values and the things we choose not to do that don't align with our values.

Because our values are heavily related to a sense of significance, expressing our values can be considered a subset of our sources of meaning. Expressing our values would fill up our significance meaning bucket.

drawing and sketch showing values are a subset of sources of meaning

It may be an oversimplification to say that value expression is a subset of sources of meaning because values fall within the significance meaning bucket.

Personal values are closely related to the dimension of significance, but they can be related to the other dimensions, as well. For example, living in alignment with values can help us create a coherent sense of the world. If we are living inauthentically, out of alignment with their values, we may feel like life doesn't make sense. In addition, living in line with our values can motivate us and give us a sense of direction and purpose in our lives. So although it's not a perfect subset, there is a lot of overlap between our sources of meaning and our personal values.

drawing and sketch showing a lot of overlap between personal values and sources of meaning

Experiencing meaning and expressing our values are pretty similar but have some differences. Because of the heavy overlap between personal values and our sense of significance, it may feel like living in alignment with our values is enough to make us feel like our lives are meaningful. But finding sources of meaning in addition to expressing our values can help round out our experience of meaning by giving us sources relating to coherence and purpose.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related Reading
References and Influences

Barker, Dan: Life Driven Purpose

Baumeister, Roy: Meanings in Life

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Fabry, Joseph: The Pursuit of Meaning

Frankl, Viktor: The Will to Meaning

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology

Ivtzan, Itai, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon & Piers Worth: Second Wave Positive Psychology

Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death

Lukas, Elisabeth & Bianca Hirsch: Meaningful Living

McKay, Matthew, John Forsyth, and Georg Eifert: Your Life on Purpose

McKeown, Greg: Essentialism

Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential

Newcomb, Sarah: Loaded

Sinek, Simon, David Mead & Peter Docker: Find Your Why

Steger, Michael & Pninit Russo-Netzer: Meaning360

Vos, Joel: Meaning in Life

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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