One might think meaningful experience is about doing:

But on closer examination, it seems attention is an important part of it. Imagine you were skiing that difficult slope, but while thinking about home prices in your area. Wouldn't be so meaningful! Or what if you were making eye contact with a loved one while occupied by an upset stomach, or playing an awesome guitar solo, but it’d become a habit to play so well, and didn’t require your attention at all.

There's a pattern to what's meaningful, but it’s in qualities of attention or in ways of approaching a task, rather than in the tasks themselves. Meaning is in how you engage with the ski slope, the guitar solo, or the person you trust. In fact, those qualities of attention or ways of approaching a task may be shared across many contexts: you may have the same quality / way of engaging with the guitar, with a piano, or even with your skis. They will be meaningful for you in all cases.

It’s these qualities of engagement that we hope to label, when we describe our sources of meaning. Each one will apply to many kinds of activities.

Tracing Meaning to Capture an Attention Policy

This connection between attention and meaning helps us get specific about our values:

<aside> ☑️ Task

Imagine yourself doing something meaningful. List various things you attend to when you do that meaningful thing. Then ask: which kinds of attention make the meaning?


For instance,

<aside> 📎 Example

There's something I find meaningful about biking fast through the streets of Berlin. I attend to many things.

Not meaningful

More meaningful

The second set—the meaningful ones—is what go in the middle of your values cards.

Actually, it more likely goes across several cards: we find these things to attend to form natural groupings—some types of meaningful attention come together as a package, and those go together on a values card.

In fact, that’s all a value or source of meaning is—at least as far as this course is concerned—it’s a group of meaningful things to attend to, that come together as a kind of package, and that are constitutive of a person’s sense of the good life.

<aside> 🕴️ Read Making Values Concrete for more about this, including the philosophical background.



Do it Yourself

To get good at writing out values, you should do what I just did: think about a meaningful time, list what you were attending to, and follow the meaning—separating the meaningful things to attend to from the less meaningful things. Then step back, and see which of those meaningful attention policies come together in a package. Wrap them up in a values card.

Try it 5 or 10 times, and you'll be establishing a shared language of meaning with whomever you do it with.