There are at least three distinct shades of meaning to the word “meaning”.
The first is the most mundane and also the clearest sense. You may ask, “What is the meaning of that word?” or “What is the meaning of that sentence?” or “What is meaning of this action?” or simply, “What do you mean?”. This version is intuitively clear: you are interested in what certain symbols (verbal or non-verbal) signify. In other words, you’re interested in the intention behind certain acts of communication.
A more deeper sense in which it is used is in questions like, “What is the meaning of this song?” or “What is meaning of this painting?”. Here again, the intention interpretation is useful: you’re asking what the artist intended when she created this piece of art. A more subtle twist to the intention interpretation is to ask what are the set of concepts that this piece of art could reasonably be said to correspond to, even if they were not the original intention of the artist. For example, you may find Catcher in the Rye to signify J.D. Salinger’s WWII experience, even though the author may never have consciously intended this.
The deepest and most perplexing sense in which it is used is, “What is the meaning of life” or “What is meaning of my college experience?”. You may say that we are simply overloading the word “meaning” with different conceptual connotations. Of course, to some extent you would be correct. It’d be great if we had different words to differentiate all these shades. Still, it is interesting to ask why this kind of concept has the same word as the previous two.
I think that we can make sense of this by using the fact that people often interpret their lives as stories. Let me explain.
In a story, an event is considered meaningful if it has consequences down the line. A common pattern is that the protagonist in a story would’ve acquired a rare skill which is later useful in saving a lot of lives, perhaps even all of humanity. For example, in Transformers 4, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is a struggling inventor and his robotics skills are crucial in repairing Optimus Prime and thereby saving the Earth. This signals the intentions of the author in making the protagonist acquire said skills. Here again meaning is generated by the identification of intention—in this case, the intentions of the author of the story.
I propose that meaning in normal life is generated by a similar pattern: a particular skill/knowledge/experience is employed to make lives better. This allows you to interpret your life as intention-ful, and therefore as meaningful.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett coined the term ‘the intentional stance’, whereby you interpret certain processes by attributing intentions to them. He used this in the context of philosophy of mind. You can take the stance of a brain as ‘just’ a collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics—the physical stance; or, you could attribute goals and intentions to the brain in order to make sense of it, thereby taking the intentional stance. That is, even though the brain can be viewed as simply a physical system with no intentions, attributing intentions behind certain behaviors executed by the brain allows you to explain and predict its features. Indeed, we always take the intentional stance towards one another in everyday life and almost never take the physical stance. Neurosurgeons take the physical stance when operating on a brain.
In the case of the ‘meaning of life’, usefully employing skills/knowledge/experience acquired in the past allows you take the intentional stance towards your own life. In other words, in the story of your life, the purpose of the past experiences now become clear and you can retroactively attribute intentions to yourself; much like attributing a meaning to a work of art that perhaps the author never consciously intended.
A simple example: suppose you learned to draw very skillfully when you were young, perhaps simply because it was fun. At that point in time, you may not have considered this skill to be very meaningful. Now suppose that later in your life, this skill is crucial in getting you a job, say in an advertising agency, a job which you really like. In this light, you will view your childhood experience of learning to draw to be quite meaningful. Again, this is an example of a skill acquired earlier being employed later. You can now weave a story about your life: you put in the time when you were young and you reaped the benefits when you were older.
A less mundane example of an experience people consider as meaningful: a major illness. There is, at the very least, one famous example of this, the last lecture by Randy Pausch. In these cases, the people who find such a major illness to be deeply meaningful are those who use this experience to refactor their life and goals so as to focus on things that are most important to them and the people around them. The experience of the illness is actively used to better lives, hence lending intentionality to the story of their life.
The intentionality explanation of meaning is consistent with the fact that older people typically find their lives to be more meaningful that younger people. Older people, having lived longer, have had more opportunities to employ the different skills they’ve acquired.
Indeed, this is also consistent with the fact that many people find teaching to be deeply meaningful. If you’re teaching something, it means you have knowledge which is useful to others, thereby making the acquisition of the knowledge purposeful in the first place
Thus, if you want to live a meaningful life, acquire varied skills and experiences. But don’t stop there. Find ways to use these skills and experiences in a way that makes a difference to your lives and others. And when you think back on your life, take the intentional stance.
Further, if you’re young, don’t fret too much about whether what you’re doing now is meaningful. That happens later.