Personal Development

Is There a Difference Between Meaning and Purpose?

Woman looking toward mountain on a hill

The short answer is yes. 

But often the terms are used interchangeably.

Your individual vision, mission, purpose, and meaning can be overwhelming to think about. Especially if you don’t know how each is related.

You are not alone if you have found yourself asking, “what is the meaning of life?”

But sometimes I think the real question is, “what is my meaning in life?”

Well, it’s a good thing you asked the question! Because thinking about our meaning and purpose is the only way to discover it.

Viktor Frankl made the concept of “meaning” famous in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning

He describes the importance of having a meaningful or a vision-filled purpose in your life when you are going through challenges or hardships. He argues that the question that all humans are driven to answer, is “what is the purpose of life?” Frankl survived the Holocaust and describes that his search for meaning was a key factor in his survival. From his belief that the search for meaning in your life is the primary motivation for your actions, he founded logotherapy. This psychological framework has provided a key part of our modern understanding of the way that we function as an individual and as a society.

But there is a difference between your search for meaning and your purpose

One builds off of the other. It’s important to understand this so that you can understand your meaning and your personal purpose at a deeper level. One of my favourite life lessons is to teach about the importance of understanding your own personal visions and values. But understanding your meaning and your true purpose can help you to develop your visions, your values, and your mission.

If you don’t understand the basis of your meaning and your life’s purpose, it can be difficult to think about your vision at all.

Here’s a look at some definitions

The definition of meaning is, “implied or explicit significance, important or worthwhile quality, a word that can be intended to communicate something that is not directly expressed, the meaning of something that is the deeper intended mission of the text.” 

Here is an example:

If I say the word DOG to you. You inexplicably understand the meaning of the word, even though the letters D-O-G have no meaning by themselves. The meaning of the word “dog” is understood based on your experience with the word representing the four-legged and furry friends that we keep as pets. 

We assign meaning to words when we learn a language as a child, so why don’t we assign meaning to our own lives when we are learning who we are?

Our personal meaning is the deeper intended purpose behind our actions and choices, which may not have a deeper meaning when considered as isolated events. Something that you believe to be true to your meaning has a lot to do with what you stand for as a person. Your meaning is a deep and integral part of who you are and plays a big, important factor in how you choose to live your entire life.

The definition of “purpose” is a little bit different

The definition of purpose is, “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” You can also use the word as a verb, “to purpose” or “to have as one’s intention or objective for something.”

If we look at the noun again, “the reason why something is done or created,” or “the reason for something to exist” you can see that your purpose gives you the reason for your existence on earth. Your purpose is the driver that makes you motivated to do that next action or make that next choice. And if you’re making choices that do not align with your life purpose you feel the icky sensation of being disingenuous. It’s very uncomfortable, but you can’t always figure out why. It can also feel like you are out of place. 

Your purpose fulfills your meaning

You have to understand your deeper meaning for you to understand your purpose. Your purpose is the particular way that you align your actions to express your sense of meaning. 

If my meaning is at a deep level to be compassionate to others, the action I take to be compassionate is my purpose. So my purpose might be to be a Mom by adopting children in need. 

Being the mother of adopted children is one way of expressing my meaning —  which is to be compassionate towards human beings. Meaning is the fundamental guideline and your purpose is the way that you expressed yourself within those guidelines.

Everyone can have different purposes (even if they are connected by their faith to the same sense of meaning) because the way that we put action into our sense of meaning is different.

Many people link their purpose with their faith

It is easy to relate your purpose and meaning to your interactions with a higher power. All religions and faith help people to connect with a deeper meaning. Some studies show that a deeply held religious belief strongly increases a person’s purpose in life, especially when they are disconnected from social connections.

Many religious scriptures contain information on the value that a deity assigned to human life and outlines the ways that you can live to fulfill the unique purposes that you were designed for. Understanding these texts and reflecting on the way you live out the teachings in your life can help you to understand your purpose on earth.

Religions also unite groups and create a common purpose for the people who follow it. For example, the Golden Rule plays into many Christian households but has a version across many religious texts. The concept of “treating others how you wish to be treated” is an idea that can provide a launching point for your personal vision while uniting you with a culture of people that follows a specific faith.

How does mission factor into all this? 

Venn diagram showing how meaning, purpose and values relate to each other

Your mission, your meaning, and your purpose can seem very interchangeable. We’ve discussed that your purpose is the action of your meaning, and your mission is the way you communicate that action. Based on my previous example, my mission statement would be, “to adopt underprivileged individuals and raise them to understand that they are a valuable human on the earth and that they can be compassionate to others.”

Mission statements summarize your purpose and demonstrate your meaning. You can’t have a mission statement without each of those elements. Your mission is the communicated value of your purpose and your meaning. 

Here are a few mission statements that help consumers to understand the communicated meaning and purpose of the individual or company:

McDonald’s Corporation — “Our mission is to make delicious feel-good moments easy for everyone.”

Nike — “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. *If you have a body, you are an athlete.”

Maya Angelou — “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.”

Kobe Inc (Kobe Bryant’s company) — “Kobe Inc.’s mission statement is to own and grow brands and ideas that challenge and redefine the sports industry while inspiring the world.”

Sir Richard Branson — “To have fun in [my] journey through life and learn from [my] mistakes.”

Mission statements build an emotional connection to your purpose

When you can accurately describe in words your mission and your purpose, you create an emotional link between the two. It can be difficult to express your emotions in words, so it can be very challenging to summarize a mission. 

But when you understand the emotions that you feel and can connect them to your meaning and purpose, you can use them to align your mission statement clearly with your values. That’s why your vision statement and mission statements are so valuable for individuals and organizations. 

If you don’t have a mission statement, I highly encourage you to create one

A clear mission statement built on your meaning and purpose will help you to align each of your choices with what you have been put on the earth to do. You likely think this is a little bit intense… like, “Hannah, do I really need a vision statement for my life? I’m just trying to survive!” 

And with the onslaught of stressful events during the last 2 years, I totally get it. But there are long-term benefits to understanding your purpose.

But when you identify the deep purpose envisioned for your life, and you can express it to others, your choices become a lot more clear. You will not find yourself wondering if you’re making the right decision if you understand why you’re making those decisions. The choices you make will be anchored to your purpose if you run them through the filter of your mission statement. 

There are so many unique ways to express your personal mission, that it becomes a challenging creative exercise that can take weeks of reflection to get right. But the effort is worth it.

The following statement is our family mission:

The Kuspira mission is to empower others to strive for and achieve their holistic visions for their life. Through leadership and business developments we strive to be the best examples of a life lived on purpose; to encourage others to develop a life based on their values and dreams; and to foster strong and faithful families in our generation and the generations to come.

Mission statements are as important to organizations as they are to individuals

When I consult with organizations to help them grow, it can be very difficult to understand why they make the choices they do if they do not have a mission statement.

When I consider job opportunities, it’s a big red flag if the company does not have a clear and consistent mission or vision statement. Understanding how your personal mission statement interacts with the mission statement of an organization during the recruiting process is key. 

Frankl’s focus on meaning formed Logotherapy

Logotherapy is built on 3 main principles:

  1. All humans are innately healthy 
  2. We all have the tools to develop our purpose and can learn new tools to develop grow into fulfilling our purpose
  3. You can get purpose and meaning from life, but not the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment

But I see a lot of Positive Psychology tenents online that are closely linked to the ideas in Logotherapy. Both associate closely with meaning being a primary driver or motivator of our choices, but Positive Psychology extends it to say that seeking and finding meaning in your life can be a main driver of happiness.

Whether you believe that a happy life comes from meaning, or that meaning and purpose is the motivator and doesn’t need to result in happiness to be satisfying, it’s undeniable that the idea of meaning and purpose has spread throughout popular culture.

But positive psychology and logotherapy have their flaws 

If you focus only on positive feelings and emotions you can’t move past the negative ones by harnessing the power of the positive ones. 

Focusing only on your vision and your mission can cause you to gloss over or ignore some of the negative things going on in your life. Sometimes we can use the veil of positivity to hide from some of the negative emotions that we each have to deal with. I don’t think that positive psychology is the only right way to approach your overall mental health and well-being especially if there are other traumas or depression or anxiety that you’re experiencing. Your vision can help align your choices but is less likely to be the be-all-end-all fix for your mental health.

Positive psychology and your vision/mission might help you as a guide to get through difficult times, but it’s not going to be the thing that cures you of your mental illness. I encourage you to reach out for help if you are struggling with any one of those things by finding a local counsellor, or counselling resource, or help phone line.

Understanding your purpose and your vision can provide a lantern in the darkness

Your purpose can provide you with a focal point to guide you along the way through challenges. Viktor Frankl used this daily to help him survive one of the harshest environments, a concentration camp. Your purpose will guide you along the path of your life by illuminating the next right step.

Without a purpose statement, it can be difficult to deal with the frustrations, the drawbacks, the setbacks, and the challenges that we all face in day-to-day life. It can be very difficult to make decisions that align with your values if you don’t understand your vision or your purpose.

You can end up living a really unfulfilling life if you never take the time to discover those deeper levels of your meaningful life.

If you’re wondering how to figure out what your meaning or purpose is, take a few minutes to reflect on these questions

  • When was the last time you cried with joy? What were you doing?
  • When was the last time that you were overwhelmed with anger, frustration, irritation, or sadness? What caused it?
  • When was the last time that you have changed something important in your life? What was the change and what motivated it? Was there a deeper purpose attached to the change?
  • When was the last time that you got lost in an action or task what were you doing? 
  • Who do you admire and how do they spend most of their time?

Once you have a list of answers to these questions, ask yourself “why.” Dig a little bit deeper and ask “why” several layers to uncover layers of deeper meaning.

For example:

I last cried with joy when I got a large bonus from work.


Because it was a lot more than I expected.


Because it showed all the hard work that I had put into my job paid off.


Because I value recognition for effort


Because I feel that everyone should be recognized.


Because I believe all people have value

BOOM. That’s where we get down to the personal meaning that the event has for you.

By asking these questions you start to develop a pattern of what bothers you and of what you want to change about the world. You will notice what you want to change about yourself and what really motivates you to take steps in the right direction. 

Sometimes your purpose will align with a cultural value or expectation

I know that has been the case for me… For a while, my purpose was to be a Mom because that is what I felt that society expected. But by separating myself from societal pressures, I could dig deeper into that purpose and identify a deeper meaning to the action of being a Mom. For me, the deeper level is that I want to spread compassion and kindness into the world. One way for me to do that is by raising compassionate and kind children that will outlive me. If spreading compassion is the meaning of my life, then raising children can be one of my purposes that bring that to life.

To pursue a good life, dig in to understand the deeper significance of your personal meaning and authentic purpose and use it to craft a unique mission statement for yourself. Use it to develop your own framework for which you can help make your decisions. Whether those are career decisions, personal decisions, professional decisions, or relationship decisions they can all be helped by understanding your meaning, your values, and your purpose.

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