At some stage of our time on earth, we might wonder what is the meaning of our lives.
If you have ever had this thought – then take comfort that you are not alone. There is ample anecdotal evidence that people are looking for ways to live a more meaningful life.
Living a meaningful life – and deciding what is meaningful – is an age-old question (e.g., Marcus Aurelius wrestled with this question when he was Emperor of Rome from 61 to 180 AD).
If you are reading this article, then living a meaningful life must be of interest to you. However, you could be wondering what do we mean by ‘meaningful’, and whether there are any benefits to striving towards such a way of living? And are there any practical suggestions for how to achieve a meaningful life?
Here we will summarise the existing psychological research that examined this question and provide you with a starting point on your journey.
Before we get to the practical suggestions about how to live a meaningful life, we first define what ‘meaningful’ means, and we will motivate why living a meaningful life is worthwhile and what benefits are associated with this type of experience.
This article contains:
The Big Questions: How to Find Meaning in Life
The question of finding meaning in life has its roots in two fields, philosophy and psychology.
The philosophical question of ‘finding meaning in life’ is aimed at understanding the meaning of life, in general, and our role in that meaning – the philosophical slant on this question is not relevant to this discussion. As psychologists, we can’t contribute to this answer.
However, the second variation of this question – how we find meaning in life – is a psychological question and one of more interest to us. It is this question that we are interested in!
A Psychological Take
At some stage in our lives, we will be confronted with a variation of the following questions:
- Why am I doing this?
- Do I want to do this?
- What do I want to do?
These questions are also repackaged by popular psychology and leadership self-help books, such as ‘Find your why’ (Sinek, Mead, & Docker, 2017), or ‘Find your passion’ (e.g., Gaisford, 2017).
Observant readers might comment that these are questions typically asked about our vocations or professional activities – this is true. However, there is no reason why people who are unemployed or employed part-time, would not also ask questions such as these, or seek a meaningful life. These questions are easily repurposed for other spheres of our lives.
Before we can answer the question of how to find meaning, we first need to consider what is meant by meaning. For these answers, we turn to research from psychology.
Psychological researchers conduct research and measure psychological concepts, for example, happiness, depression, and intelligence. However, constructs first need to be defined before they can be measured.
Although the construct ‘meaningfulness’ is often confounded with the constructs such as purpose, coherence, and happiness, some researchers argue that these constructs are not interchangeable, but instead form a complex relationship and exist separately.
For example, Steger, Frazier, Oishi & Kaler (2006) posit that meaning consists of two separate dimensions: coherence and purpose. Coherence refers to how we understand our life, whereas purpose relates to the goals that we have for our life.
Reker and Wong (1988) argue that meaningfulness is better explained and understood using a three-dimensional model consisting of coherence, purpose, and a third construct – significance. Significance refers to the sense that our life is worth living, and that life has inherent value. Together, these three constructs contribute to a sense of meaningfulness.
In some research, coherence, purpose, and significance have been reframed as motivational and cognitive processes. Specifically, Heintzelman and King (2014) suggest a model with three components: (a) goal direction, (b) mattering, and (c) one’s life making sense.
The first two components – goal direction and mattering – are both motivational components and are synonymous with purpose and significance respectively, whereas the third component – one’s life making sense – is a cognitive component, which is akin to significance.
Together, these three components – coherence, purpose, and significance – result in feelings of meaningfulness. Knowing that meaningfulness is derived from three distinct fields, let’s look at ways in which we can find our meaning.
5 Ways to Realize your Meaning
How can we go about finding our meaning? First, there is no single panacea to the sense of living without meaning. Finding meaning is ultimately a personal journey for you – what brings me meaning might not bring you meaning. However, this doesn’t mean that the techniques used to find meaning won’t be helpful. Viktor Frankl supports the notion that finding meaning is a unique journey when he writes In Man’s Search for Meaning:
Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning (Frankl, 1959, p. 99).
With this mind, the following suggestions can be followed in your quest to find meaning:
1. Foster a passion (purpose)
Vallerand (2012) argues either motivation or passion drives our desire and interest in activities.
Motivation is useful for activities that are considered dull (e.g., washing the dishes), whereas passion is the driving force for activities that has significance for us.
Passion can be negative or positive, however. Negative passion, referred to as obsessive passions, are maladaptive and lead to unhealthy behaviors; these types of passions should be avoided. On the other hand, positive passions – that is, harmonious passions – improve our behavior and lead to optimal functioning.
Vallerand found that people who had more harmonious relationships with their passions also had stronger relationships with the people who shared their passions.
2. Develop and foster social relationships (purpose, significance)
Making connections with other individuals, and maintaining these relationships, is a reliable way to develop a sense of meaningfulness (Heintzelman & King, 2014).
People who report fewer social connections, loneliness, and ostracism also yield lower reports of meaningfulness (Williams, 2007). Vallarand (2012) also said that sharing your passions with a group of like-minded individuals helps further develop harmonious passions, which, in turn, can generate a sense of meaningfulness.
3. Relationships that increase your sense of belonging (significance)
Although social connections are important, not all social relationships are equal. Make sure to focus on relationships that make you feel like you ‘belong’ (Lambert et al., 2013), where you feel like you fit in with the members of that group, and there is group identification.
Participants who were asked to think of people with whom they felt that they belonged reported higher ratings of meaningfulness compared to participants who remembered instances where they received help or support, or instances where they received positive compliments or statements of high social value.
These findings also tie in results of the negative impact of ostracism of the sense of meaning (Willams, 2007): If you feel like you don’t belong, then you have a lower sense of meaningfulness.
4. Monitor your mood (coherence)
Experimental laboratory studies have demonstrated a temporal relationship between positive mood and sense of meaning: Inducing a positive mode results in higher reports of meaning (for a review, see Heintzelman & King, 2014).
Managing your mood can be difficult. However, there are some techniques that you can use, for example, make time for interests and hobbies, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat healthily, and consider practicing developing mindfulness (for example, through meditation).
5. Take control of your environment (coherence)
There is some evidence that a cognitively coherent environment can boost ratings of meaningfulness (Heintzelman & King, 2014).
Heintzelman and King suggest that routines, patterns (which could refer to your behavior and the behavior of your family), time-blocking, clean environments can all contribute to an increased ability to make sense of one’s environment, which in turn can lead to an increased sense of meaningfulness.
Simple ways to induce a cognitively coherent environment would be to implement a fixed routine, to schedule time for unexpected tasks (e.g., “emergencies” delivered via e-mails), to formally schedule ‘down-time’ for exercise and passions, and to maintain a tidy environment (in other words, no you should not keep all of your dirty coffee mugs on your work desk).
However, do not be unreasonable with your expectations of your environment. Unexpected challenges will pop up, your child will have a meltdown, you might drop a box of eggs on the floor, but these environments will have less of a negative impact if you already have a sense of control of your environment.
Finding Meaning As You Age
Our life circumstances and experiences change as we age: We go through various life stages, such as parenthood, career changes, and each stage presents us with unique challenges and achievements.
We are also likely to experience multiple losses as we age: We may lose our parents, our partners, face retrenchment, or develop an illness. The stereotypical concept of an older adult is of someone who is frail and requires care; however, older age is not synonymous with a less meaningful or valuable life.
In fact, many older adults live incredibly long, busy lives, and their positive psychological profiles act as a buttress against illness, loneliness, and depression. There is vast evidence that centenarians have very positive attitudes and psychological traits and few negative personality traits.
Centenarians are more relaxed and easy-going (Samuelsson et al., 1997), place a great deal of importance on social relationships and events (Wong et al., 2014), have a more positive life attitude in general (Wong et al., 2014), and report low anxiety (Samuelsson et al., 1997).
These positive aging traits and attitudes, coupled with the few negative traits, act as a protective buffer against depression, illness, and loneliness (Jopp, Park, Lehrfeld, & Paggi, 2016; Keyes, 2000), and contribute to the longevity of centenarians.
It is difficult to change your personality traits suddenly; however, it is possible to change your thinking patterns by working with a therapist trained in cognitive-behavior therapy. Your therapist can help you identify and change negative patterns of thinking and behavior, and help you to adopt a positive pattern of thinking.
Besides the psychological profile of centenarians, researchers have also shown that centenarians greatly value their social experiences and are actively involved in social events (Wong et al., 2014).
It can be difficult for older adults to make new social connections, especially after retirement, because the ‘natural environment’ for meeting new people, such as the workplace, is removed. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways for older adults to meet new people and form new relationships.
With retirement comes more free time, and possibly an opportunity to develop a new hobby or passion. We mentioned briefly in the previous section that finding a passion is one way to develop meaning. Vallerand (2012) provides an excellent summary of the role that motivation plays in developing passion and how passion leads to a meaningful life.
If you are an older adult, then perhaps this is good time in your life to start. He does differentiate between negative and positive passions (Vallerand et al., 2003): Negative passions are maladaptive, and result in obsessive behaviors that hinder our daily functioning and thinking; these types of passions should be avoided.
In contrast, positive passions are born from the positive association made with particular activities – and consequently, these passions are activities that we find time for, that we invest in, and that we embody.
For example, if you have a passion for painting then you will carve out time to paint, you experience a great deal of happiness when you complete the activity, and you may embody that passion in your understanding of your identity (e.g., you may consider yourself a ‘painter’). Embodying the activity into your understanding of your self-concept is one of the first steps towards laying habits (Clear, 2018).
This second type of passion, which Vallerand refers to as “harmonious passions” (Vallerand, 2012, p.48), plays a vital role in how we find meaning in our lives.
It is these positive passions that are worth developing, because not only do they help us find meaning in our lives, but older adults who do have a ‘passion’ also score higher on measures of psychological well-being: They report higher life satisfaction, better health, a higher meaning in their lives, lower anxiety and lower depression than adults without a passion (Rosseau & Vallerand, 2003, as cited in Vallerand, 2012).
To summarise, it appears that centenarians adopt a positive mindset and psychological traits and value their social relationships. These factors may contribute to a longer, more meaningful life, and protect against illness and depression. Fostering interests and hobbies is another way to find meaning in your life, and buttresses against negative feelings and thoughts.
So, what can you do to find meaning in your life as you age? The following list can give you some guidance:
1. Make time for friends, family, and social events
It’s easy to neglect these relationships in favor of alone-time (which is also important) or work-deadlines, but promoting these relationships will have a more positive impact in the long term. If you are the type of person who forgets to see friends or family, add a reminder to your calendar.
2. Start now to develop a new hobby or interest
Carve out some time for your own interest, and commit to that time. If you have a partner, ask your partner to shoulder the responsibilities during that time so that you can indulge your interests.
3. Express what makes you happy
If you’re in the early stages of developing a new hobby, it might help to express what you enjoy about the hobby. Consider writing a journal entry about what you enjoyed, or tell your partner/friends/family members about your new hobby.
Expressing why you enjoy the hobby helps to build and strengthen positive associations with the hobby.
4. Share your hobby
Try to find a group of like-minded individuals who enjoy the same interest that you do. If you like painting, perhaps now is the time to join an art class?
Or perhaps you want to learn a new language? Try to find people who are also learning this language and watch a foreign film in that language together.
5. Aim to engage and invest in your community
Simple acts such as greeting and chatting to your neighbors, talking to the vendors at your local stores and neighborhood markets, and participating in neighborhood events will help you to develop relationships with your community members.
With time, these relationships will deepen and become more meaningful. Furthermore, recognize that as an older adult, you can offer a great deal to your community. You have lived through numerous life experiences, career/professional/vocational decisions, family decisions, and have a wealth of knowledge that you can share with your community.
Together, these results suggest that older adults who regularly engage in their favorite pastimes, and who have a healthy, positive relationship with their favorite activity have better psychological functioning.
9 Inspiring Quotes About Finding Meaning
Each of us must become impassioned, finding meaning and self-fulfillment in our own life’s journey.
Life is difficult. Not just for me or other ALS patients. Life is difficult for everyone. Finding ways to make life meaningful and purposeful and rewarding, doing the activities that you love and spending time with the people that you love – I think that’s the meaning of this human experience.
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
Viktor E. Frankl
I don’t like work–no man does–but I like what is in the work–the chance to find yourself. Your own reality–for yourself not for others–what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.
Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.
Dalai Lama XIV
I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I’ve got.
It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us. Being a teacher is meaningful.
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
1. From Our Toolkit
The Meaning of Life Questionnaire can be used to assess the presence of meaning in life as well as the search for meaning.
In Japanese culture, to find meaning and purpose in life is to find one’s ikigai. We have a fantastic and in-depth exercise called ‘Finding your ikigai,’ which takes you through a series of steps to deeply assess and help you find your fulfilling meaning in life.
Living a life with meaning and value can make you happier, more content, more resilient through hard times, and more likely to influence the lives of others.
If you are filled with questions about what you should do with your life, and what really matters, then the Perceived Personal Meaning Scale is for you. It is a rapid assessment, taking less than three minutes to complete.
The two co-founders of positivepsychology.com shares a lighthearted podcast about passion, work, and money, and how they encourage others to follow their passion and live a more authentic life.
Meaning and Existential Positive Psychology is a podcast session with Emiliya Zhivotovskaya which touched on a number of interesting subjects, including how to live a more meaningful life.
Here is a short list of other useful podcasts that tackle issues around finding meaning in one’s life:
- The Good Life Project
- The Science of Happiness
- Optimal Living Daily: Personal Development & Minimalism
3. Physical Meeting Groups
If you are looking for social groups who share your interests/hobbies, then consider using Meetup.com.
Meetup is a ‘social connections’ site – people create groups for like-minded individuals, and these groups indulge in professional interests (e.g., entrepreneur support groups), physical activities (e.g., hiking), social interests (e.g., opera lovers, or groups for single individuals), among many other topics in your local area.
A Take-Home Message
Finding meaning in life is a journey that could start with something as simple as a pen and paper, deep reflection and one of our tools mentioned above. Or your journey could start by stepping out the door and connecting with a neighbor, making a newfound friend, or a hobby you have wanted to explore but never got around to.
During your journey, you might even find that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Or, closer to home, you might find that having meaning in life is not about yourself, but in serving others.
Selfless service is often discovered to be the ultimate pinnacle of having a meaningful life, and many an intriguing conversation with servicemen and women, nurses, aid workers, and volunteers illustrate how they enjoy a meaningful life – by serving others.
We hope that after reading this article you will also embark on this journey to find meaning in your life. We shared many different strategies you can implement when looking for that ultimate answer, and we sincerely hope that when you have found your ikigai you will make changes to actively live that life of meaning. If some of the strategies do not work for you, try another suggestion from the list.
Most important is that you must find a meaning that makes sense to you, and recognize that this meaning might change as you go through different stages of your life.
- Aurelius, M. (1697). Meditations. New York, United States: Dutton.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York, United States: Random House.
- Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Massachusetts, United States: Beacon Press.
- Gaisford, C. (2017). How to find your passion and purpose: Four easy steps to discover a job you want and live the life you love (The Art of Living). Santa Fe, United States: Blue Giraffe Publishing.
- Heintzelman, S. J. & King, L. A. (2014). Life is Pretty Meaningful. American Psychologist, 69 (6), 561 – 574.
- Jopp, D.S., Park, M.S., Lehrfeld, J. et al. Physical, cognitive, social, and mental health in near-centenarians and centenarians living in New York City: findings from the Fordham Centenarian Study. BMC Geriatr 16, 1 (2016).
- Keyes, C. L. M. (2000). Promoting and Protecting Mental Health as Flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychology, 62 (2), 92-108.
- Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Hicks, J. A., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R. F., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). To Belong Is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39 (11) 1418 – 1427.
- Reker, G. T., & Wong, P. T. P. (1988). Aging as an individual process: \toward a theory of personal meaning. In J.E. Birren & V. L. Bengston (Eds.), Emerging theories of aging (pp. 214-246). New York, NY: Springer.
- Samuelsson, S.M., Alfredson, B.B., Hagberg, B., Samuelsson, G., Nordbeck, B., Brun, A., … Risberg, J. (1997). The Swedish centenarian study: A multidisciplinary study of five consecutive cohorts at the age of 100. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 45(3), 223–253.
- Sinek, S., Mead, D., & Docker, P. (2017). Find your why: A practical guide for discovering purpose for you and your team. New York, United States: Portfolio.
- Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kahler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 80-93.
- Vallerand, R. J. (2012). From Motivation to Passion: In Search of the Motivational Processes Involved in a Meaningful Life. Canadian Psychology/ Psychologie Canadienne, 51(1), 42-52.
- Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425-452.
- Wong, W.C., Lau, H.P., Kwok, C.F., Leung, Y.M, Chan, M.Y., & Cheung, S.L. (2014). The well-being of community-dwelling near-centenarians and centenarians in Hong Kong: A qualitative study. BMC Geriatrics, 14(63), 1–8.