How Symbols Give Life Meaning

Symbols give meaning to life by giving us the opportunity to express ourselves with more richness and complexity. 

When you think of symbols, you might first think of something like a conventional symbol such as a brand logo like the Nike swish or the Apple logo. These symbols are obvious and intentional representations of something. 

This is the traditional way we in Western society learn the meaning of symbols. 

While brand logos are symbols, many people don’t realize that symbols are all around us. This is more commonly understood by Continental philosophers and Europeans. 

In this article you’ll come to learn that everything is a symbol and how important and meaningful that can be.

Symbols Are Everywhere

Symbols permeate our everyday life.  They can be objects, events, ideas, and even people. Symbols can be anything! Carl Jung said “the world is a symbol.” There are an infinite number of symbols in the world.

Anything with meaning must be a symbol because objects themselves have no inherent meaning. An object has characteristics but no intrinsic meaning. When we attach a meaning to an object, it transforms into a symbol. There are two catalysts: the meaning and the object. For instance, we never confuse a lion with a tree.

A person’s consistent habit to be at the gym by 5am might symbolize their commitment and discipline. An annual family event could represent unity and tradition as these  symbolic representations turn ordinary actions and occurrences into meaningful rituals that reflect broader cultural and personal values. 

The creative arts are filled with symbols. Paintings, poetry, songs, movies, and books all speak in the language of symbols. There are symbols in religion, pyramids, astrology, and corporate brands. Even a mountain range can be a symbol.

Gaining a deeper understanding of symbols and their meanings can enrich our perspective on life in these ways:

  • Symbols enable us to have a more profound and philosophical interpretation of our existence.
  • They give us a chance to express our authentic self and feel more happiness. 
  • Above all how symbols give meaning to life is by helping us navigate and articulate the complexities of our human journey.

Meaning Making Machines

Human beings are called “Meaning Making Machines”. Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, indeed found that the act of generating meaning gives purpose and value to human life. 

In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he proposed that our primary drive in life is not pleasure but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

Frankl observed that those who could find meaning despite their hardships were more resilient and hopeful, even amidst the most brutal circumstances. He wrote, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

In essence, Frankl’s theory suggests that even the most mundane aspects of life such as watching a sunset or observing trees can have profound meaning if we choose to see it. 

This ability to find meaning in all aspects of life, according to Frankl, is what helps us make sense of the world and our place in it.

Humans have an innate tendency to project meaning onto objects because we transform objects into symbols imbued with personal and collective significance. 

Wedding rings, for example, are not just jewelry but are generally a potent emblem of love, commitment, and shared futures. 

A sunset can have meaning because we, as humans, are always trying to make sense and order of the world around us. And this search for meaning, as per Frankl, is what gives value and purpose to our lives. When we attach a meaning onto a sunset, then the sunset becomes a symbol filled with meaning. 

The act of attaching symbolic meaning onto something is a process of projection. This projection process allows us to externalize our inner experiences. Through symbolic objects we articulate our deepest values, beliefs, and aspirations.

Symbolic meaning  bridges the gap between the abstract and the tangible, offering clarity, coherence, and emotional resonance to the world. As “meaning-making machines,” humans rely on symbols to express their identities, values, and beliefs. In this way the world around us becomes more understandable and less chaotic. 

Symbols Are a Language

Learning about symbols is akin to learning a new language—a language that fosters introspection and insight. Symbols give meaning to life by opening new avenues for expressing and interpreting the human experience.

Using symbols means we can carry multiple layers of meaning onto a single thing. For instance, a worn-out book might symbolize a thirst for knowledge or invoke a sense of nostalgia. This duality in interpretation highlights the richness and complexity embedded within symbols.

I noticed that all my potential client’s objects were actual symbols that expressed (represented)  that person’s inner and genuine self which I call the Authentic Identity.

How can this be? Well, take a look at the things around you in your home or workplace. At home photos of loved ones or ceramic figurines passed down for generations in your family could represent the importance of familial connections. 

A pen collection can represent a love of writing. An office space with comfortable chairs and an espresso machine could symbolize a space for people to meaningfully connect.

That’s not to say objects don’t have practical functions — they do. However, objects have more purpose and meaning than just being used to accomplish a task.

How Symbols Give Life Meaning to Your Objects

Imagine that the objects you see around yourself are all symbols. And the symbols (objects) you choose to surround yourself with allow you to create (express) your own reality.

Think about that for a second. 

In many cases, you choose the objects surrounding yourself — that means you are the one creating the meaning of your own reality. There’s not some unknown external force throwing symbols at you and determining what your world looks like. You’re the one creating it!

When you can construct a symbolic environment this will bring a sense of fulfillment and gratification. The reason for this is that it nurtures your Authentic Identity by deliberately immersing yourself in symbols that resonate with your core values and worldview. 

This underlines the extraordinary influence that symbols and objects wield in our lives. They have the power to generate a unique kind of joy. 

This joy becomes even more deeply satisfying when you’re aware of it, as you survey your surroundings and see your Authentic Self mirrored back at you. You, as the observer, gain affirmation from your environment, and in turn, your environment bestows upon you a sense of purpose and meaning.

Richness of Symbols

Symbols shape our identities, values, and beliefs by giving meaning and context to our experiences. They turn the mundane into the extraordinary, providing a rich, multifaceted understanding of the world around us.

I hope this article has helped you grasp the importance and meaning of symbols in your life. Symbols can enrich our existence, giving us a sense of purpose and making the world feel less chaotic. 

Most importantly, symbols play a crucial role in expressing our Authentic Identity. Our Authentic Identity constantly seeks out symbols that resonate with its essence, communicating through these intricate representations. 

By understanding and integrating symbols into our lives, we find multiple reasons why they give life more meaning.

About the author

CEO of Authentic Systems, Degree in Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley.
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