Meaning and Purpose at Work: Understanding Cosmic Versus Terrestrial Perspectives

Besides the obvious motivations for work, such as income, connectedness and opportunities to practice your skills, there are other positive returns from what you do for a living. You can benefit in varied ways, for instance, from designing new ways of adding M&P to work, number 13 meaning not to mention daily functioning. Succeeding at either or better yet, both, will contribute to mental tranquility and enthusiasm for what lies ahead, every day. You have probably heard Robert Benchley’s famous observation about there being “two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

Well, to adapt the phrase for current purposes, let me suggest there are two kinds of meanings in this world, as well: terrestrial meaning and cosmic meaning. They are not exclusive, but if one or the other is fully embraced, dominant and clear, the expressions of M&P that fit in the other will be very much subordinated. Which is not a bad thing, by any means.

Cosmic Versus Terrestrial Meaning

Are you familiar with these two forms of meaning? I first encountered the terms in Irving Yalom’s 1980 masterpiece, “Existential Psychotherapy.” Yalom described the significance and consequences of adopting and pursuing one or the other of these two contrasting forms of meaning.

Cosmic meaning is an explanation of purpose that applies to all humans, a universal meaning associated with a grand scheme. This form of meaning is embraced by contemporary religions that claim the meaning of life is to know, love and serve God – and to do what a deity expects of us. In return, those who successfully pursue this cosmic meaning will find peace and everything good, nothing bad, in a future existence of indescribable happiness and joy. Unfortunately, you have to die first before nirvana sets in but, all things considered, that seems a small price to pay for profound, rapturous, eternal jubilation.

Cosmic meaning says, be patient and follow the rules (as described by the leaders of whatever religion you are taught as a child or, in unusual cases, consciously choose to adopt as an sentient adult) and enjoy eternal bliss, starting when you die.

For billions of people on earth, now and in the past, this cosmic form of meaning is/was represented as the apex, apogee, pinnacle, zenith, summit and climax of what it’s all about and why we’re here – the proverbial Mother of all meanings of life.

People generally don’t talk about cosmic meaning, except among those who share their cosmic meaning of life ideas, and usually only in communities or places dedicated to such discussions – and rituals, practices, celebrations and shared values. Elsewhere, such as workplaces and similar secular organizational settings, cosmic meaning is treated like sex and politics – it’s not considered part of polite conversation. It’s avoided. This is a pity, really, since cosmic meaning, for those who embrace it, is so consequential. In a democratic society, one that values freedom of speech, tolerance for diversity and a quest for understanding and openness to new ideas, this is unfortunate. We all could learn much from respectfully listening to each other and sharing our impressions on important matters, such as this most fundamental existential topic.

Yalom wrote that cosmic meaning deals with whether life in general fits into some overall coherent pattern. A grand design does indeed offer comfort, and some consolation about our inevitable demise. A cosmic outlook holds out a higher, ultimate purpose for being in this world, a hope that this life is not all there is. If wishing or even believing made it so, who would not embrace cosmic meaning as the foundation for all forms of M&P?

Terrestrial Meaning

Terrestrial meaning comes with no universal answer that applies to every human being, everywhere – now, in the past and in the future. It does not address THE meaning of life, instead, it asks, what is the meaning of MY life?

This form of meaning is more manageable; it shifts responsibility for M&P to the individual. It offers choice. It comes with freedom, opportunity and a lifelong challenge to create, fine- tune and celebrate whatever is chosen for life’s multiple meanings and purposes. Possibilities include the wonders of nature, the awe-inspiring grandeur of the cosmos, the beauty of flowers and gardens, the emotions of art, music, love. The list of fulfillments goes on nearly forever.

M&P is up to you with a terrestrial perspective on meaning. A terrestrial-based outlook can be a motivational foundation for a REAL wellness mindset and lifestyle. It invites the embrace and pursuit of reason and science, with exuberance, while inviting athleticism in order to nourish the life vessel with mindful diet and exercise. And, not last and surely not least, it ennobles the precious gift of liberty – the freedom to live your life the way you want to live it in consideration of and service to others, as well as in pursuit of your own happiness.

Some believe that the contrast between cosmic and terrestrial forms of meaning is that of the external world versus the internal world. Do we believe that meaning is something imposed upon and given to us without options or choices, or that we are free to create it ourselves? It’s your choice in a free society, though even in this country and other democratic states, large numbers of people do not experience fair opportunities to recognize and act upon this reality.

Until significant numbers of people are independent adults, cosmic versus terrestrial choices are not on offer – they are transmitted, for better or worse, by families and cultures. By the time many if not most people reach adulthood, the mental doors are often closed to new perspectives on M&P.

Questions for Discussion

  • Are you more inclined to cosmic or to terrestrial versions of meaning?
  • Have you consciously chosen most of the way you find M&P within the organization, or did these matters evolve over time, on the job?
  • Are you comfortable talking about M&P with colleagues?

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