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Money and Meaning

the question of the meaning of life is both unknown and unknowable, but you can find meaning in life

❝He is terribly afraid of dying because he hasn't yet lived.❞ -Franz Kafka

In the movie Click, an architect named Michael (played by Adam Sandler) finds a remote control that can help him speed through various parts of his life. For example, if he wanted a promotion at work, he could fast-forward his life until he got promoted. By fast-forwarding through most of life's events to get to the outcomes he's hoping for, he effectively misses his life. He missed his kids growing up. He ruined his relationship with his wife. He missed the death of his father. All the while continuing to chase after what he thought he wanted out of life.

Ultimately, he found that he had achieved all the goals he wanted in life but was unfulfilled. His life was meaningless because he skipped over the important parts that made life worth living.

don't skip to the end, enjoy the meaningful moments that make up life


One of the age-old questions people ponder is the meaning of life. The problem is that this is not a very interesting question. To some, the meaning of life is something humans are incapable of understanding. To others, the meaning of life is based on a cosmic or divine plan. Still, others view life as a completely random event based on probabilities and chance, believing that life has no inherent meaning.

I propose that the answer to the question, what is the meaning of life, is both unknown and unknowable. My favorite answer that gets close to an answer comes from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said that the purpose of life is to live it. This gives us closer to a better question. Instead of asking what the meaning of life is, we can ask how we can find meaning in life. "In" instead of "of."

When we consider how to design a life that would feel meaningful, we can be intentional about how we go through life. We can choose to let things into our life that are meaningful to us. As we consider what brings meaning to our lives, we can think about meaning in life as having three components; Purpose, Coherence, and Significance.

Purpose: Meaning and purpose are often used interchangeably as synonyms, but adding purpose to meaning is redundant. It's like saying the autumn leaves are pretty in Minnesota and the United States. Purpose is one facet of a meaningful life. Having a purpose in your life means having something to strive for. Having purpose is to find something worthy of your time and using your time in a way that brings meaning to you. It need not be a grand purpose in life, although it can be. Purpose in life could be local, like helping keep the community clean, helping your elderly neighbors, or raising responsible children into adulthood.

Coherence: For life to be meaningful, it can't be chaotic and confusing. Having a sense of coherence means having the ability to make sense of life. If you've got a sense of coherence, life is predictable and consistent. Having a sense of coherence is the ability to construct a narrative about how things have worked out. That narrative also predicts how things will turn out in the future.

Significance: For someone to believe their life is meaningful, they must believe their life is worth living. A sense of significance means feeling that life is worthwhile. It's a sense that life matters and has value.

Ideally, you have sources of meaning that cover all three components of meaning in life.

three facets of meaning in life

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.


It's one thing to say that meaning consists of purpose, coherence, and significance. It's quite another to figure out what exactly makes your life meaningful. This is deeply personal. What is meaningful to me may not be meaningful to my neighbor or somebody who lives in a different state. The things that make your life meaningful are your sources of meaning. Your sources of meaning represent your personal values.

Sources of meaning can be anything. It doesn't matter what makes life meaningful to people as long as those involved find it meaningful. Sources of meaning include family, nature, work, leisure, and friendships.

It's also important to consider diversifying your sources of meaning. In much the same way you diversify your investments so that if one particular investment blows up, the rest of your portfolio will be okay, you don't want to have all of your meaning eggs in one basket. It's too risky. For example, if your sole source of meaning comes from work and you lose your job - or even retire - then you no longer have any sources of meaning left.

And keeping with the investment metaphor, even if you diversify across companies, you don't want too many companies within the same sector because something could happen to that sector. In much the same way, if you have several sources of meaning, but they all fall within the same category, like purpose, you're still undiversified, missing sources of meaning for coherence and significance.

It's great to have several sources of meaning, but not all sources of meaning are created equal.

sources of meaning in life and personal values


Some sources of meaning are deep, giving us the potential to experience a great deal of meaning. Other sources of meaning are shallow, offering us less meaning even if we realize all the available meaning. The depth of meaning refers to the potential meaning in each source. It's the maximum amount of meaning that you can expect from a particular source.

For example, materialistic sources of meaning tend to be shallower sources of meaning. That is to say, even if you max out the amount of meaning available, it adds less to your overall meaning than other sources may. On the other hand, social relationships tend to be deeper sources of meaning, which is to say that there's more meaning available even if you don't realize all the meaning within that source.

That is to say that if you focus on deeper sources of meaning, you can achieve a more meaningful life even if the presence of meaning isn't fully utilized. If my source of meaning is shallow (say, money), then even if I'm maximizing all the meaning available in that source, I may realize less meaning than if I were to partially utilize a deeper source of meaning (say, family).

depth of meaning in life include shallow and deep sources of meaning

The Meaning in Life Questionnaire assesses two dimensions of meaning in life, the presence of and search for meaning. Presence measures how full you feel your life is of meaning. Search measures how engaged and motivated you are in efforts to find meaning in your life.


Once you know more about your sources of meaning, the presence of meaning in your life, what kind of meaning you're experiencing, and learning to be more mindful of meaning in your life, you can start to design a life that will bring you more meaning. You can start to break from the idea that money is a goal and instead view it as a tool. True, money can be a source of meaning, but it's a shallow source of meaning. Money is worthless on its own and is only useful insofar as it can be used for something else. If you understand what kind of life would be most meaningful for you, you can create a system where you use your resources to bring you the most meaning.

The top source of regret people experience towards the end of their life is that they didn't live a life that was true to themselves. They didn't understand who they were and didn't know what a meaningful life meant to them. Other common sources of regret are that people worked too hard, lost touch with their friends, and didn't allow themselves to be happy. Once you view the rest of your life through the lens of meaning in life, you can intentionally choose a life that you would be happy to look back on.

money is a tool that supports your meaningful life

You can live a meaningful life once you understand that finding meaning in life is your choice and responsibility. It helps you live in a way that will bring you meaning and happiness while ignoring the proverbial Joneses.

Spend some time understanding your values or sources of meaning. Diversify those sources of meaning, so you don't have all of your meaning supplied by one source. Experience meaning across all three types of meaning in life - Purpose, Coherence, and Significance.

Then simply live your life - unapologetically. Take steps today so that you can look back with pride from your deathbed.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Barker, Dan: Life Driven Purpose

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What

Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks

Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness

Delucca, Gina & Jamie Goldstein: Positive Psychology in Practice

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here

Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life

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

Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death

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

McKeown, Greg: Essentialism

Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential

Sivers, Derek: How to Live

Steger, Michael & Pninit Russo-Netzer: Meaning360

Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core

Vos, Joel: Meaning in Life

Wagner, Richard: Financial Planning 3.0

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture

Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun

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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