Maybe you’re lonely or feeling empty, or insignificant. That’s what meaning is, a feeling of personal significance, a feeling that your life matters, that you’re important in some way.
You are. You do. That’s the bottom line.
Need more convincing? Read on.
Four Things to Know About Meaning
First of all, you’re not alone in looking for meaning in your life. All the Big Brains who study and research and contemplate meaning agree that, on some level, every single one of us searches for it. We all want to know that there’s some purpose for our being here.
Meaning, says psychologist Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., lets us make sense of our lives and lets us live purposefully in the world. “Meaning,” he says, “is a unique expression of what makes us human, and what makes us great when we’re at our best. The data from four decades of research are clear, meaning matters.”
Secondly, you matter to you. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t even be looking for answers. You wouldn’t care about relieving the pain of your loneliness, or your dissatisfaction, or your sense of insignificance. Let yourself say this to the person reading these words: “I matter to me.”
You’re important to yourself, too. You’ve set everything else aside right now just to search for some understanding, comfort and healing. You’ve let yourself be your top priority. Own it: “I’m important to me.”
A third thing to know about meaning is that it isn’t the same thing as happiness, or success, or fulfillment, or being loved. You can experience your life as meaningful even in the midst of great sadness, or failure, or loneliness, or pain. You still matter; you’re still important. There’s still a reason for your being.
“But what is that reason?” you may cry back to me.
Well, that’s where things get a little complicated. I can tell you my personal answer and I can tell you about the reasons that others have suggested, but in the end, you have to discover your answer for yourself. Because the final thing to know about your life’s meaning is that it’s personalized. Your reason for being may be the same as mine. But it may be different, too. You get to decide. Meaning isn’t something that the outside world gives you. It’s something that your life offers you through the living of it.
How to Find Your Meaning
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist from the last century who probably thought about meaning more than anybody else ever has, said that we can find meaning in three ways.
The first way is through creating something or doing some kind of activity or work. The second way is through engagement with the world or with another person. And the third way is by taking an attitude of defiance toward suffering.
Defiance Toward Suffering
Let’s start with the last one first. If you’re suffering, just by finding this article you were exercising your defiance of your pain. You had already made up your mind not to let it rob you of your meaning. You had chosen to rise above your pain, to be greater than it. And you were doing more than that, too. You were exercising courage and the will to keep on keeping on. Both of those qualities are personal strengths and clues to what gives your life meaning. You’re saying, “I’m important to me. I matter.”
I knew a woman who suffered from an incurable disease that slowly paralyzed her body. When it forced her to retire from her work, she vowed that she would do at least one useful or creative thing every day. And she did, and it gave her life meaning.
Toward the end, the only creative thing she could do was smile. And she did that, too, every day.
She used her ability to accomplish something to defy her pain and suffering. What a valiant spirit!
Finding Meaning through Work and Activity
In his beautiful article on finding meaning through work and activity, minister Lee Woofenden offers this explanation for the way that our work contributes to our life’s meaning:
“…our most real and human aspect is the love and understanding that forms our mind or spirit. This is what makes us truly human. And the world of our thoughts and feelings is the one that we inhabit most intensely and deeply.
“And yet . . . if our thoughts and feelings have no means of expression, they also lack a certain sense of reality. It is not enough for us to simply feel strong feelings and think enlightened thoughts. We humans have an innate drive to express those thoughts and feelings through our words and actions, and in our relationships with our environment and our fellow human beings.”
It’s the physical expression of our inner spirit, Woofenden says, that allows us to feel fulfilled.
I heartily invite you to read his entire article for deeper insight.
“Work” doesn’t necessarily mean the job you do for a living, of course. It can mean gardening, washing the car, or sweeping the floor. But it does also mean your job. And if you think that what you do for a living isn’t meaningful, you might benefit from looking at it a little differently. Try seeing how what you do fits into the bigger picture, how it has its place in a complex organization that, in some way, helps your fellow man.
Whatever work you’re doing, the more of yourself you can put into it, the more meaningful it will be for you.
Engaging with Life and People
Psychologists who are studying the ways that a sense of meaning shows up in our lives are discovering that when you ask people what was meaningful to them in the past couple of days, they’ll name times when they were doing things they enjoyed, whether that was a solitary hobby or having lunch with a friend.
It’s often the moments of simple pleasure that make our lives feel worthwhile.
“Finding meaning in life can be exciting when you bestow loving focus, attention and care on to what you do,” writes Naveena Gerrits in her wonderfully helpful article on engaging in meaningful activities.
She provides a big clue to extracting meaning in that sentence: give your activities your loving focus, attention and care.
Doing that will keep you rooted in the present and help you enter the flow state, that space where you’re so engaged that you lose all track of time.
If you want to find a path to meaning that suits your personality and style, Gerrits’ article is a fabulous place to go for suggestions. She lists dozens and dozens of activities you might explore, broken down into the headings:
- Creative Forms of Expression
- Hobbies – Work – Career
- Ethics – Contribution – Society
- Environment – Nature – Cosmos
- Relationships – Family – Home
- Spirituality – Religion – Philosophy
The Ultimate Meaning
Throughout the ages, humans have been trying to find the meaning of life. The ultimate reason for our being is one of life’s ultimate mysteries. The answer you choose to the question, “Why are we here?” like the answer to finding the meaning in your own life, is a personal matter and depends, in large part, on your spiritual or philosophical orientation.
You may even decide that, because it has no one-size-fits-all answer, the only honest answer is “Beats me!” It’s too big a question for most of us.
But “What makes my life worthwhile?” is a question that hits home for us all. Your answer may change as your life changes. You may find it in relationships today, in your work tomorrow, or in overcoming suffering at some point along the way. Think of discovering the meaning in your life as a day by day adventure.
Every day, try to do something that gives you a sense of satisfaction, achievement, relatedness, contribution or pleasure. Let your personal interests guide you in finding them and experiment from time to time with new things. You can print out a copy of Gerrit’s list or bookmark it and review it every now and then for ideas.
Increase the attention you give to your health, too – to the quality of your nutrition, to giving yourself adequate amounts of hydration, exercise and sleep. The healthier you are, the easier it is to feel zest for life.
Try keeping a gratitude journal to increase your awareness of the things that let you feel good about being alive today.
And every day, tell yourself “I’m important to me. I matter.” Because you are, and you do.
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