When you don’t know what you’re living for, you don’t care how you live from one day to the next. ― Ivan Goncharov
We know that feeling when our day looks exactly like the day before and many days before that. We can’t recall what we had for dinner two days back. And then you ask, “What is the meaning of my life?”
Humans began to ponder that existential question as soon as they learned how to communicate.
Our prehistoric ancestors tried to figure out why our lives matter more than mere survival (we explain later how we know this). Even today, modern humans are searching for the “ultimate meaning” of their existence.
Why do you think you were given life? What is the purpose and meaning of your life?
Let’s dive in to find out. After reading this, ask yourself those two questions again, and spend some time finding the answers.
7 Ways To Find Meaning In Life
Here are seven ways to find meaning in your life:
1. Stop taking life too seriously and find your happiness, for your happiness depends on you. Once you realize that you don’t need to get too serious about life, you stop being overwhelmed by your dark emotions when the situations are stressful.
2. Discover your unique gifts and pursue them. If you can’t make a living from your natural talent, build a passion project out of it. We find meaning in life when we practice what comes to us naturally and use it to help others.
3. You are an average of five people you spend your most time with. Spending time with people who deplete your willpower and suck your energy will only leave you confused about your meaning and purpose in life. So, connect with people who inspire you and make genuine efforts to spend time observing and learning from them.
4. Your ambitions and aspirations drive you toward your meaning in life. Make a list of your desired milestones. Create realistic goals out of your dreams. Build concrete plans to achieve them. Then act.
5. Altruism is the unselfish concern for other people’s well-being. When you do things to help others out of an altruistic sense, you feel worthier and gain a sense of purpose in life. Find out how you can help others with your time, resources, or in any other way (like a weekend service at a homeless shelter). Then go out and do it.
6. When we step away from our familiar surroundings and habitual patterns of behavior, our eyes can open up to a purpose we had never thought of before. So, disrupt the routine and try new things, like visiting a museum, attending a course instead of scrolling through your social media feed, or spending a day at a spa on self-care and self-love.
7. You’ll always be busy. Make time for things that matter while you’re busy. In doing so, you will discover your purpose. Find yourself some spare time and sit down with a diary to list the things you have wanted to do for a long time but weren’t able to. Then, instead of waiting for a better opportunity, get started right away.Don't get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life. — Dolly Parton Click To Tweet
[The ancient Stoics devised a meditative practice called View From Above to gain a greater understanding of their place in the universe.]
How To Find The Meaning of Your Life
The meaning of our life stands on four pillars:
- Belonging: We all have an urge to belong, to a relationship, to a group, to a community, or an ideology. Belonging is our relationships and bonding with others.
- Purpose: A purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned with making the world a better place. Purpose is your mission of making a meaningful contribution to society.
- Storytelling: Our storytelling instinct stems from a deep need shared by all humans: the desire to make sense of the world. Storytelling is the unique narrative of our life’s events and moments.
- Transcendence: Transcendence washes away our sense of self, together with all its petty concerns and desires, and we feel deeply connected to other people and everything else in the world. It is our connecting to something bigger than ourselves.
Today, psychologists and neuroscientists are exploring the philosophical perspectives on how we can find meaning and purpose in our lives.
Positive psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith explores how to find life’s meaning and live a meaningful life in her debut book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. To get an idea about the book, watch her insightful and engaging TED talk titled, “There is more to life than being happy.”
This is the sense of closeness that you feel with the people in your life. Your life’s meaning comes from a sense of belonging to your tribe.
This feeling of belongingness comes not only from your close connections, but also from others that we may call “high-quality connections.”
A sense of belonging comes from people you meet in your day-to-day interactions with others. When you say a few words of empathy during an exchange, you find belonging. When you see people from a distance and feel they say something that you subscribe to, you find your belonging.
These high-quality connections, which need only a few minutes of your time, can make you and those around you feel more alive. It makes them feel that you didn’t look through them, and instead saw the importance of their lives.
Those connections offer both of you a better sense of meaning in your lives.
These connections can make those who work far below you in an organization more engaged, energetic, and resilient. These can make them feel like they are a part of your tribe and their role as your tribesmen is even more worthwhile.
That’s the power of meaning. It’s not some great revelation. It’s pausing to say hi to a newspaper vendor and reaching out to someone at work who seems down.
— Emilia Esfahani Smith
We all want to be understood, recognized, and validated by our friends, family, and romantic partners; we all wish to belong to a tribe. So, open your hearts to others and invite them over with compassion and love.
Reach out. Attend reunions. Go to weddings. Remember birthdays. Meet old friends. Keep up group chats with your faraway friends.
In creating meaning in others’ lives, you will create meaning for yourself.
People with a purpose have more satisfying and meaningful lives. They have more grit and more resilience.
Stanford developmental psychologist William Damon says a ‘purpose’ has two facets:
- First, it’s a stable and far-reaching goal. It’s something that motivates you to work at it for years together, without losing any interest. It’s the conviction around which you can organize your behavior and actions.
- Second, it involves a contribution to the world. It makes a difference in the lives of people. It contributes to matters that are larger than yourself.
You can have a different purpose than others around you. Your unique purpose will align with your values, strengths, and experiences. Such a purpose can make you feel more satisfied in your life and at your work.
Your purpose can come from helping others.
In a survey of over 2 million people in over 500 different jobs, behavioral psychologist Adam Grant discovered that people who ranked their jobs as most meaningful were those who served and helped others. The finding also hints that people working in any industry can find purpose in their work.
Each of us can find a way to help others, starting from our close circles and growing out into society.
Parenting paradox: Children decrease the happiness of their parents, as proven by the social scientists, but parents find their parenting duty meaningful and purposeful. Their larger purpose is to help their children grow into responsible adults. That is their meaning.
We are all storytellers. We were born to create our own stories and tell them to the world.
But why do we love to tell our stories?
The world around us is constantly changing and shifting shapes. This outside change also alters our identities. This change is forever creating chaos in our minds.
Now, as humans, we hate chaos and have a desperate desire to set our worlds in order. So, we take these uneven pieces of our lives and neatly string them together into unique narratives.
Then we take the beaded string and show the world why and how our lives make sense. Thus, we fulfill our primal desire for storytelling.
Storytelling is central to human existence. The earliest cultures had rich storytelling traditions. Rock paintings by early humans from 40, 000 years ago attest to this.
Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Thinking Race: Social Myths and Biological Realities, backs this:
Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning.
We pick pieces of data from our environments and layer them with meaning that is exclusive to us. No two people do it the same way. We all live in the same world, yet every one of us has a different tale to tell.
As Milton Erickson, father of modern hypnotherapy said:
Every person’s map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint. There are no two people alike. No two people understand the same sentence in the same way.
And even when our stories are unique, they have a universal appeal. As an American, you will be as intrigued by a story of Viking Age hero sagas from Iceland as they would be about a native Indian’s life adventures.
To make a sense of our world, we craft, edit, and rewrite our life script in meaningful ways. When people ask us who we are, we tell them our Hero’s journey through loss and hardship to our moment of glory, “That’s my story.”
Why is storytelling important to humans?
The human quest for meaning begins with storytelling. We create narratives from our lived experiences to make sense of the world. Sharing our stories lets our fellow humans understand that our journey has taken us through many emotional paths. They help us understand and connect, and keep our information alive long after we die.
At some point in our lives, we have all felt transcendence. It is an experience that goes beyond the ordinary human realm. It is mind-altering in many ways, and yet often impossible to explain in words.
As Abraham Maslow described it:
Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.— The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1971
And Viktor Frankl explains it this way:
Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence.— Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946
Transcendent experiences are some of the most meaningful events in anyone’s life. The memory of such an experience never leaves you.
Two extraordinary things happen when you are in transcendence:
- One, you forget who you are, losing all your sense of self (also called ego-death).
- Two, you feel a deep level of connection to everyone and everything in the world.
We also know transcendence as awe. (Find out more about The Little-Known Power of Awe.)
Why You Must Find The Meaning In Your Life
What would you gain by finding your life’s meaning?
Once you find the meaning of your life, it can steer you towards a higher state of satisfaction and wellbeing. It can help you create a life that others will remember. It can make you and others understand why and how your life matters.
Did it ever come to your mind why you were put here on this earth? Probably, yes. But what did you do after that — just let that thought fade away, right?
You decided it was a question best left for philosophers and spiritual masters to dive into, while you’re a normal human who can still function without knowing the meaning of your life.
However, not today. We challenge you to ask yourself now:
- Am I living a life of unforgettable stories?
- Will they say I lived a life larger than myself?
- Will they cry when you die?
If you answered No to any of or all of those, you need to find out first if your life has a meaning? Of course, it has. But you haven’t found it out yet.
We, humans, are perhaps the only meaning-seeking and meaning-making species on our planet. Almost everything about us is related to meaning. There is meaning beneath how we think and feel, how we see ourselves and others, how we figure out our lives, and how we tell our life stories.
So, stop kicking the surface waves. Instead, dive deep to find the exact things you should be doing to find out your life’s true calling. The key questions to begin with are:
- Why was life given to you?
- What is the meaning of life for you?
Meaning is the larger purpose of your life. But remember, it’s your life’s meaning that you’ve to find. Because when you leave this world, it will be all by yourself. So while you live, and before you die, make sure you’ve answered those questions to yourself at least.
There are two types of happiness: Hedonia and Eudemonia.
- Hedonia — the happiness of the moment. It has 2 elements — Pleasure and Comfort.
- Eudemonia — the happiness of our being. It has 4 elements — Growth, Authenticity, Meaning, and Excellence.
Scientifically, meaning is more than hedonia, which is the happiness of the moment. Meaning is one of the four parts of eudemonia.
Finally, here is a mental exercise from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to help you “live intentionally” and find your meaning.
- Identify your core values.
- List them in order of priority.
- Choose one or two of the most important.
- Write a sentence stating how do you intend to live your life to fulfill them.
So, give up your pursuit of happiness. You can’t catch it, no matter how good you are at chasing it. Instead, find your life’s meaning.
How about taking out a few minutes today to find the meaning of your life? Don’t wait to reach your sunset years to figure out your life’s meaning; do it today.
If you are struggling to find meaning in your life, consider seeing a mental health professional.
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In positive psychology research, gratitude has been strongly linked with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people have more positive emotions, deal better with adversity, and build stronger relationships. Find out why must you have an attitude of gratitude?
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, mindfulness, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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