In the daily grind, it’s easy to forget why we do what we do. We focus on the daily hassles and short-term deadlines and fail to see the bigger picture and meaning behind our actions. Should we look at the bigger picture, anyway?
I think we should. Of course, there are days when you just have to do what you have to do, and you don’t have time to think about the greater meaning or purpose of your actions. The rent has to be paid and that’s that. But overall, living meaningfully and knowing your purpose, makes for a happier, more fulfilled life.
But how do you find your meaning in life? Read on, because, in this article, I’ll take a look at what a meaningful life means and how to achieve it.
What is a meaningful life?
If we went down the philosophical route, we could be here all day trying to define “meaning” and “meaningful life”. Instead, let’s make this short, using the definition from the field of positive psychology:
“a meaningful life is a life lived with purpose, significance, and satisfaction”
Most theories in psychology focus on the purpose part: to live meaningfully, you must pursue a personal goal. However, as researchers David Feldman and C.R. Snyder discuss in their 2005 paper, accomplishing those goals is less important than having them.
To be fair, there is a certain logic to it. For example, I chose to study psychology because it interested me and I wanted to help people. Now, I work as a psychologist because I want to teach people how to make sense of and find meaning in their lives (very meta, I know). Being helpful is what gives my life meaning and it’s also closely related to my personal goal of living mindfully and meaningfully.
I also have a bucket list of activities and travel locations and crossing off items from that list also gives me a sense of purpose and meaning in a more specific way.
Will I ever achieve these goals? No idea. But they make my life worth living.
So, to put it shortly, to live meaningfully is to live with purpose.
Does everyone need a meaningful life?
“But,” you may say, “I don’t have a lofty personal goal or a sense of purpose. Do I even need one?”
Well, I suppose you don’t. After all, perhaps a certain kind of spontaneous wandering with no specific purpose is what gives your life meaning.
However, there is more to a meaningful life than just purpose. For example, it seems to have quite a few health benefits. A team of psychologists from Poland and the US found that living meaningfully can boost feelings of harmony, peace, and well-being, which in turn promote physical health.
And that’s not all: another study found that having a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of mortality.
According to researchers Kleiman and Beaver, having or looking for a meaning in life predicts lower levels of suicidal ideation and lower suicide risk.
So while having a purpose in life isn’t a necessity like food, water and shelter are, it has quite a few benefits.
Your meaning in life is not equal to that of someone else
This doesn’t mean that you have to feel bad if you haven’t found your meaning in life yet or if you’re not actively searching for it.
Meaning and purpose are very individual, and so is your timeline in finding them. There are some people who find their purpose in their teens and some who find it in their 60s. There are no milestones to follow and deadlines to meet when it comes to seeking meaning.
Besides, it’s your life and your meaning. While I have found meaning in helping others, you may find it in taking care of yourself instead. For some people, saving the planet can be a meaningful pursuit, while others dedicate their life to pursuing technological breakthroughs.
And for some, being happy is a purpose in itself.
Your meaning in life is entirely up to you. Trying to imitate others is counter-productive: while being a part of a club may feel good, it stops you from finding your true meaning in life.
How to find your meaning in life
So how do you find your meaning in life? How do you find your why? Let’s take a look at some actionable tips.
1. Stop looking
Yes, I know how stupid this may sound, but bear with me. The key to finding a purpose may be to stop looking for it. As psychologist David Feldman writes:
“The secret to a meaningful life may be to remind ourselves every day to do the right thing, love fully, pursue fascinating experiences, and undertake important tasks, not because we are trying to increase our sense of meaning in life, but because these pursuits are good in themselves.”
Focus on living fully, and the meaning will come.
2. Make a list
If you have no idea where to even start, try this exercise from Verywell Mind. It’s meant for people struggling with borderline personality disorder, but it works on anyone.
The exercise begins with making a list and ends with defining meaning. It’s a good place to start if you’ve never thought about your purpose or meaning in life before and need a structured way to gather your thoughts.
This exercise might seem at odds with the previous tip, but sometimes, you just have to get started somehow. Where some people need to stop looking, others simply have to take that first step.
3. Step out of your comfort zone
Comfort zones are great, but unfortunately, development can only happen once you take a step into the discomfort zone. Sometimes you need to look at life from a new perspective to find meaning and purpose.
If you feel like you’re stuck in a mindless, purposeless rut in life, shake things up a little. Whether it’s traveling somewhere new and exciting, or trying to see life through someone else’s eyes, it may help you discover your meaning.
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While meaning in life isn’t a necessity, it does make life worth living. Having a sense of fulfillment and purpose can also be beneficial health-wise. Despite this, you shouldn’t stress about finding your why, because like all things worth having, it takes a bit of time and effort. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to stop consciously seeking meaning and concentrate on living your life to the fullest instead. Eventually, you’ll stumble upon something that makes your life worth living.