Young Girl Weeping for her Dead Bird by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

In psychology, meaning-making is the process of how people construe, understand, or make sense of life events, relationships, and the self.[1]

The term is widely used in constructivist approaches to counseling psychology and psychotherapy,[2] especially during bereavement in which people attribute some sort of meaning to an experienced death or loss.[3] The term is also used in educational psychology.[4]

In a broader sense, meaning-making is the main research object of semiotics, biosemiotics, and other fields.[5] Social meaning-making is the main research object of social semiotics and related disciplines.[5]


Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning

Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy in the 1940s, posited in his 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning that the primary motivation of a person is to discover meaning in life.[6] Frankl insisted that meaning can be discovered under all circumstances, even in the most miserable experiences of loss and tragedy. He said that people could discover meaning through doing a deed, experiencing value, and experiencing suffering. Although Frankl did not use the term "meaning-making", his emphasis on the making of meaning influenced later psychologists.[7]

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, both of whom were educational critics and promoters of inquiry education, published a chapter called "Meaning Making" in their 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity.[8] In this chapter, they described why they preferred the term "meaning making" to any other metaphors for teaching and learning:

In the light of all this, perhaps you will understand why we prefer the metaphor "meaning making" to most of the metaphors of the mind that are operative in the schools. It is, to begin with, much less static than the others. It stresses a process view of minding, including the fact that "minding" is undergoing constant change. "Meaning making" also forces us to focus on the individuality and the uniqueness of the meaning maker (the minder). In most of the other metaphors there is an assumption of "sameness" in all learners. The "garden" to be cultivated, the darkness to be lighted, the foundation to be built upon, the clay to be molded—there is always the implication that all learning will occur in the same way. The flowers will be the same color, the light will reveal the same room, the clay will take the same shape, and so on. Moreover, such metaphors imply boundaries, a limit to learning. How many flowers can a garden hold? How much water can a bucket take? What happens to the learner after his mind has been molded? How large can a building be, even if constructed on a solid foundation? The "meaning maker" has no such limitation. There is no end to his educative process. He continues to create new meanings...

— Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, "Meaning Making"[9]

By the end of the 1970s, the term "meaning-making" was used with increasing frequency.[10] The term came to be used often in constructivist learning theory which posits that knowledge is something that is actively created by people as they experience new things and integrate new information with their current knowledge.[4] Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan used the term "meaning-making" as a key concept in several widely cited texts on counseling and human development published in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[11] Kegan wrote: "Human being is meaning making. For the human, what evolving amounts to is the evolving of systems of meaning; the business of organisms is to organize, as Perry (1970) says."[12] The term "meaning-making" has also been used by psychologists influenced by George Kelly's personal construct theory.[13]

In a review of the meaning-making literature published in 2010, psychologist Crystal L. Park noted that there was a rich body of theory on meaning-making, but empirical research had not kept pace with theory development.[14] In 2014, the First Congress on the Construction of Personal Meaning[15] was held as part of the Eighth Biennial International Meaning Conference convened by the International Network on Personal Meaning.[16]

Learning as meaning-making

The term meaning-making has been used in constructivist educational psychology to refer to the personal epistemology that people create to help them to make sense of the influences, relationships, and sources of knowledge in their world.[4]

For example, around 1980 psychologist Robert Kegan developed a theoretical framework that posited five levels of meaning-making inspired by Piaget's theory of cognitive development; each level describes a more advanced way of understanding experiences, and people may come to master each level as they develop psychologically.[11] In Kegan's book In Over Our Heads, he applied his theory of meaning-making to the life domains of parenting (families), partnering (couples), working (companies), healing (psychotherapies), and learning (schools).[17]

According to the transformative learning theory that sociologist and educator Jack Mezirow developed in the 1980s and 1990s, adults interpret the meaning of their experiences through a lens of deeply held assumptions.[18] When they experience something that contradicts or challenges their way of negotiating the world they have to go through the transformative process of evaluating their assumptions and processes of making meaning, which can lead to personal growth and expanded perspectives. Experiences that force individuals to engage in this critical self-reflection, or what Mezirow called "disorienting dilemmas",[18] can be events such as loss, trauma, stressful life transitions or other interruptions.

In operant (behavioral) psychology, Richard DeGrandpre cited Kegan and showed how the operant conditioning model could be interpreted as a meaning-making process.[19][20] As traditionally understood in behavioral theory, the stimulus operates control over behavior as that behavior is reinforced in the presence of that stimulus.[19] DeGrandpre argued that consequences do not reinforce behavior, per se, but rather shape the meaning of the stimulus conditions in which the behavior occurs.[19] Thus in DeGrandpre's interpretation, much of human meaning is a product of this contingency, where meaningful stimuli come to guide people's behavior, including private emotions, as a result of people's long histories of consequent events.[19] This interpretation is summarized:

The emphasis ... is on the generality of basic operant concepts, where learning is a process of meaning making that is governed largely by natural contingencies; reinforcement is an organic process in which environment–behavior relations are selected, defined here as a dialectical process of meaning making; and reinforcers are experiential consequences with acquired, ecologically derived meanings.[21]

In bereavement

With the experience of a death, people often have to create new meaning of their loss. Interventions that promote meaning-making may be beneficial to grievers, as some interventions have been found to improve both mental health and physical health.[22] However, according to some researchers, "for certain individuals from challenging backgrounds, efforts after meaning might not be psychologically healthy" when those efforts are "more similar to rumination than to resolution" of problems.[23]

Some researchers report that meaning-making can help people feel less distressed, and allows people to become more resilient in the face of loss.[24] On the converse, failing to attribute meaning to death leads to more long-term distress for some people.[25]

There are various strategies people can utilize for meaning-making; many of them are summarized in the book Techniques of Grief Therapy.[26] One study developed a "Meaning of Loss Codebook" which clusters common meaning-making strategies into 30 categories.[27] Amongst these meaning-making strategies, the most frequently used categories include: personal growth, family bonds, spirituality, valuing life, negative affect, impermanence, lifestyle changes, compassion, and release from suffering.[28]

Family bonds

Individuals using existing family bonds for meaning-making have a "change in outlook and/or behavior towards family members".[29] With this meaning-making strategy, individuals create meaning of loss through their interactions with family members, and make more efforts to spend more time with them.[27] When individuals use family to give meaning to loss, more meaning-making strategies emerge within the family system. A couple of strategies that family members use to help each other cope are discussing the legacy of the deceased and talking to non-family members about the loss.[30]

When family members are able to openly express their attitudes and beliefs, it can lead to better well-being and less disagreement in the family.[31] Meaning-making with one's family can also increase marital satisfaction by reducing family tension, especially if the deceased was another family member.[22]

Spirituality and religiosity

Meaning-making through spirituality and religiosity is significant because it helps individuals cope with their loss, as well as develop their own spiritual or religious beliefs.[32] Spirituality and religiosity helps grievers think about a transcendental reality, share their worldview, and feel a sense of belonging to communities with shared beliefs.

When individuals with a divinity worldview make meaning through spirituality and religiosity, those "individuals perceive the divine to be involved in a major stressful life event" and use the divine to develop a meaning for the loss.[33] There are three main ways in which a theistic individual may create meaning through religion: benevolent religious reappraisals, punishing God reappraisals, and reappraisals of God's power.[33] Benevolent religious reappraisals cast God in a positive light and grievers may see the death as a part of God's plan. Punishing God reappraisals cast God in dark light and grievers may blame God for the loss or feel punished by God. Reappraisals of God's power questions God's ability to intervene in the situation.[33] All of these appraisals contribute to how the griever may create meaning of their loss.

Another meaning-making strategy people use is to create meaning by valuing their own life. People who create meaning in this way may try to cherish the life they have, try to find their purpose, or change their lifestyles.[27]


Grievers can make meaning of death through philanthropic services such as charities, foundations, and organizations. Meaning-making through philanthropy can create financial support, social support, emotional support, and helps create positive results from the negative experience of the death.[34] For example, one couple that lost a child described how they developed "Nora's Project" after their daughter with a disability died, in order to help provide wheelchairs for children with disabilities around the world.[34] The mother said: "With Nora's Project, I am also healing. I am able to turn something that was horrific, the way she died, into something that will do good in the world".[34] Like this mother, it is common for individuals to want to create or do something positive for others. Philanthropy helps people make meaning by continuously and altruistically honoring a life while simultaneously helping others going through a similar experience.[34]

See also


  1. ^ Ignelzi 2000, p. 5: "Meaning-making, the process of how individuals make sense of knowledge, experience, relationships, and the self, must be considered in designing college curricular environments supportive of learning and development." Gillies, Neimeyer & Milman 2014, p. 208: Through meaning-making, people are "retaining, reaffirming, revising, or replacing elements of their orienting system to develop more nuanced, complex and useful systems".
  2. ^ For example: Kegan 1980; Kegan 1982; Carlsen 1988; Dorpat & Miller 1992; Drath & Palus 1994; Rosen & Kuehlwein 1996; Basseches 1997; Neimeyer & Raskin 2000; Mackay 2003; Neimeyer 2009
  3. ^ For example: Epting & Neimeyer 1984; Attig 1996; Doka & Davidson 1998; Neimeyer 2001; Kalayjian & Eugene 2010; Dyregrov et al. 2011; Steffen & Coyle 2011; Neimeyer 2012; Gillies, Neimeyer & Milman 2014
  4. ^ a b c For example: Postman & Weingartner 1969; Novak 1993; Merriam & Heuer 1996; Rehm 1999; Ignelzi 2000; Kunnen & Bosma 2000; Mortimer & Scott 2003; Wickman 2006; Scott, Mortimer & Aguiar 2006; Nash & Murray 2010; Baxter Magolda & King 2012; Fantozzi 2012
  5. ^ a b Thibault 2003, p. 41: "... the description of a community's communicative practices cannot adequately be accomplished within the confines of any single discipline in the human and social sciences. Such an enterprise is necessarily a transdisciplinary one, drawing on the insights of sociology, ethnology, linguistics, anthropology, social psychology, and so on, in order to develop a unified conceptual framework for talking about social meaning-making (Gumperz 1992)."
  6. ^ Frankl 1962.
  7. ^ A Google Scholar search for citations of Frankl's work shows that Man's Search for Meaning is cited by some of the most influential psychologists and psychotherapists of the 20th century; it is cited in Aaron T. Beck's Cognitive Therapy of Depression; Albert Ellis's New Guide to Rational Living; Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman's Stress, Appraisal, and Coping; Carl Rogers's Freedom to Learn; and thousands of other texts.
  8. ^ Postman & Weingartner 1969.
  9. ^ Postman & Weingartner 1969, p. 91.
  10. ^ As can be seen in a Google Ngram of the term "meaning-making" in Google Ngram Viewer, usage of the term "meaning-making" in the Google Books database jumps just before 1980 and increases thereafter.
  11. ^ a b For example: Kegan 1980; Kegan 1982; Fantozzi 2012
  12. ^ Kegan 1980, p. 374; Kegan was referencing Perry 1970
  13. ^ For example: Epting & Neimeyer 1984
  14. ^ Park 2010, pp. 290–293.
  15. ^ Medlock 2016.
  16. ^ "First Congress on the Construction of Personal Meaning: Exploring What Makes Life Worth Living". Archived from the original on 2016-04-07. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  17. ^ Kegan 1994.
  18. ^ a b Mezirow 2009; Park 2010
  19. ^ a b c d DeGrandpre 2000.
  20. ^ Strand, Barnes-Holmes & Barnes-Holmes 2003, pp. 107, 114.
  21. ^ DeGrandpre 2000, p. 721.
  22. ^ a b Mackay & Bluck 2010, p. 720: "In their study of bereaved parents, Murphy et al. (2003) showed that finding meaning was related to lower mental distress, higher marital satisfaction, and better physical health. Similar links to better adjustment have been found in other samples of bereaved parents (Keesee et al., 2008) and adults who lost loved ones through violent means (i.e., accidents, homicide, and suicide; Currier, Holland, & Neimeyer, 2006)."
  23. ^ Sales, Merrill & Fivush 2013, p. 97.
  24. ^ For example: Calhoun & Tedeschi 2006; Davis, Harasymchuk & Wohl 2012; Webster & Deng 2015
  25. ^ Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema & Larson 1998.
  26. ^ Neimeyer 2012.
  27. ^ a b c Gillies, Neimeyer & Milman 2014.
  28. ^ Gillies, Neimeyer & Milman 2014, pp. 212–213.
  29. ^ Gillies, Neimeyer & Milman 2014, p. 212.
  30. ^ Black, Santanello & Rubinstein 2014.
  31. ^ Davis, Harasymchuk & Wohl 2012.
  32. ^ Way 2013.
  33. ^ a b c Stein et al. 2009
  34. ^ a b c d Rossetto 2014.


Further reading