Dr Maike Neuhaus
3 Ways to find MEANING (what does that even mean?)
Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life?
Or how to find meaning in your life?
Rest assured, you are not alone. The meaning of life is a topic that is as ancient as it is relevant today. And, at some stage during the course of their lives, most people stop and ask themselves what their life is all about.
So, let’s take a quick look at this fascinating topic and what psychological science has to say about it.
Why are we concerned with meaning?
A short answer to this question is because we are psychologically wired to make sense of our lives and the world around us. We also have an innate need for safety. So, if we can find meaning in life, then we are much more at peace.
The search for meaning is possibly the biggest reason why humans have religious beliefs, too. Because on the back of religious beliefs, everything makes sense and can be explained. In fact, religious people report a higher presence of meaning and lower search for meaning.
Meaning has several functions:
Purpose: It lends itself as a means to strive towards a highly valuable goal.
Coherence: It allows us to make sense of our lives.
Significance: It enables us to perceive our lives as worth living.
Or, if you listen to Professor Paul Wong, instead of significance, it’s more a combination of responsibility and enjoyment. According to Wong, a life can only be a good life (or a life worth living), if it is not only satisfying for oneself but also contributes to the wellbeing of others. However, once it does, you will automatically feel good. Wong writes,
“Feeling good is the inevitable outcome from doing good in light of one’s highest purpose and best understanding. One can feel satisfied with the decision and action even when one fails to accomplish the desired result.” (Wong, 2011, p. 74)
Arguably, meaning is connected to wellbeing and eudaimonia – the happiness and life satisfaction that goes beyond a mere feeling of pleasure. When we are no longer happy and become dissatisfied, we are forced to reevaluate our purpose in life and change our course of action.
According to Wong, meaning is, together with virtue, resilience and wellbeing, one of four key factors of a good life.
But what exactly is meaning?
While there is still somewhat id a lack of consensus regarding a definition, Schlegel and colleagues define meaning as
“a sense that life has an authentic purpose, and experiencing feelings of legitimacy, importance, and value to… aspects of life, such as relationships, behavior, goals, and work” (Schlegel, Hicks, Arndt, and King, 2009, p. 474)
However, unfortunately, there is still a lack of consensus among experts on how exactly to define it. Is it the answer to
‘Why are we here’? or
‘Why am I here’? or
‘Why did this happen to me’?
And can it even be found through cognitive enquiry or is it just the feeling you get when you’re in the right place at the right time and just feel like ‘this is it’?
The answer is: all of the above.
We even have different names for them: cosmic meaning, big meaning, situational meaning and small (experiential) meaning (in order of the questions above). The first two refer to meaning OF life, the last two to meaning IN life.
And research shows how important meaning is.
Meaning has been linked to positive affect, wellbeing, and successful aging. Studies have shown that people who perceive meaning in life are less likely to feel lonely, have thoughts of suicide, excessively consume alcohol, and experience depressive symptoms and stress.
On the other side, lack of meaning has been linked to lower quality of life, including a higher prevalence of substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, and adjustment disorders.
So how can you find meaning?
Here are 3 tips.
1. Look inside yourself
One way to get closer to finding meaning in life is by expressing yourself. That means understanding who you are, your strengths, interests and passions, and your values (if you need some help with this, download my free ebook). And then, identify opportunities to express them.
Think of the tip of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In fact, Maslow once wrote,
“Self-Actualized individuals focus their energies on a particular task, one they often regard as their mission in life; this mission in life requiring much energy, as it is his sole reason for existence.” Maslow (1956, p.161)
2. Identify your primary source
Think about where you usually draw most meaning from: Is it through your work, family, hobbies, your religion, or romantic relationships? think across all life domains and also activities you do. For most of us, there is one domain or activity that stands out and where we find most fulfilled and aligned with our purpose.
3. Engage deeply
Once you have identified your primary source to find meaning, engage deeply with it. Take your time and pay undivided attention to it. Allowing for deep connections with a task or other people has the potential to allow you to fully express yourself while losing track of time as well as your ego.
Do you perceive life as meaningful? Where, when and how do you find meaning?