I would wager that most of us, at one time or another, have asked ourselves one or more of the following questions.
- Why am I here?
- Where am I going?
- What is life all about?
- What is my purpose in life?
- What makes life worth living?
All of these questions have a common thread. They require that we engage in the search for Meaning in our lives. Meaning with a capital M brings us into existential territory. And these are existential questions that seem to have no real answers. What makes us ask such questions?
I think it’s because we know, with certainty, that life is very fragile. Time lost is never recovered. Time is easy to waste and hard to use wisely. How much time we have left is unknowable. One of our greatest fears is facing death with remorse and regret. You could say that Meaning is a matter of life and death.
Or put another way, what would your life be like without Meaning? It depends. It depends on how much you care about it.
A life without Meaning is empty.
One way to define Meaning in life is the extent to which you understand and make sense of or see significance in your life. This, along with the degree that you perceive yourself to have a purpose, a mission, or an overarching aim in life.
Life without Meaning would just be a list of events that don’t join together into a united, sensible whole. A life without Meaning is a life without a story, with nothing to strive for, no sense of what might have been or what has been.
So, what about Meaning?
- How do you know if you have it?
- What does it look like?
- What does it feel like?
Instead of asking what the meaning of life is, ask what is the meaning of my life?
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Meaning, in my context, is a big philosophical concept that describes a relationship. It’s the relationship between you and humanity. Between you and planet Earth. And if you‘re so inclined, and I recommend it, it can also be the relationship between you and the universe.
If this sounds too new agey for you, there is quite a bit of research that shows having Meaning is correlated with improvements in longevity, depression, personality traits, medical conditions, income and general wellbeing.
A Meaningful life cultivates positive, healthy functioning such as in life satisfaction, enjoyment of work, a positive outlook, a feeling of hope and a higher level of well-being.
Other research suggests that Meaning in life is associated with higher scores for memory, executive functioning, and overall cognition. In other words, you think better, especially at an older age.
In positive psychology, a meaningful life is a construct meaning it’s man made. It has to do with the purpose, significance, fulfillment, and satisfaction of life. Purpose is the need to do something. The need to act. Significance is the need to make sense. It’s the integration of your life into a coherent whole.
You may have heard about a famous book that was written about Meaning. The title, Man’s Search for Meaning was written in 1946 by Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who became a neurologist and psychiatrist. He said:
“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”
He created Logotherapy whose main beliefs are:
- Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have freedom to find meaning in what we do and what we experience.
The good news is that anyone can do it. The not so good news is no one can do it for you. You have to do it yourself. You have to make your own Meaning. But it’s no secret. There’s no mystery. Meaning is all around us all the time.
What makes life Meaningful?
In order to find Meaning, we must question how we attain a positive sense of well-being, belonging, and purpose. And we must do it from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than ourselves.
Looking for Meaning requires curiosity about yourself, our world and the universe. Curiosity cultivates creativity, learning and discovery, which are essential for personal growth.
Looking for Meaning requires thinking big. You won’t find it in your city or country. One must expand the search to include our planet and, ideally, the universe as a whole.
In my next blog, I’m going to suggest a framework that may be helpful.