When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure. — Viktor Frankl
Last week, we talked about what it means (scientifically) to lead a meaningful life. And this week, I promised to discuss how (scientifically) to lead a meaningful life.
And because one of the ways I find meaning in life is by keeping my promises, let’s cut the initial, long-winded-Jake-style introduction and get right to how you can live a life with more purpose, mattering, and comprehension (i.e., the three components of a meaningful life).
PURPOSE: CONNECTING TO THE SELF
In order to have a sense of purpose, research suggests that it’s important to have a connection with your self—or a strong sense of your own identity. Having a clear idea of who we are helps inform what our direction our lives should take. Thus, one way to help develop this connection to the self is through trying to engage in activities that produce special memories. The more examples we have of specific and unique experiences, the clearer and easier it is to form a sense of individualized identity.
Another way to develop that sense of purpose is to engage in activities that reflect your goals and aspirations. As one practice, think about your past-self: What are some goals or aspirations that version of you had that you still have today? Making progress—even just minimal progress!—toward goals that are important to you (i.e., goals you’ve had for a long time) can enhance your sense of purpose and thus your meaning in your life.
MATTERING: CONNECTING TO OTHERS
On this site, I’ve regularly talked about how humans are social animals, and so it should come as no surprise that connecting to others is a big part of finding meaning in life. And in particular, family—whoever that encompasses—is particularly important for this feeling of mattering.
For example, compared to multiple sources of meaning in life (e.g., religious faith, one’s intelligence, etc.), young adults report that family is the single most important contributor to their sense of personal meaning. In fact, spending time with family members (e.g., parents, siblings, children, spouses) has been been shown to produce greater meaning in life. Relatedly, taking care of a family member has also been shown to boost this sense of mattering and thus one’s meaning in the world.
Interestingly, research shows there are also specific social acts, namely, helping and cheering up others as well as forgiving others, that also produce greater meaning in one’s life. So, if you have the opportunity to try to make someone’s day better (especially if that means forgiving them for something they did to you), it can help give you a greater sense of meaning in life.
COMPREHENSION: CONNECTING TO THE WORLD
Although it’s certainly important to connect to the self as well as those closest to us, it’s also important to have a sense of connection to the world beyond us. And in particular, committing time or even making sacrifices for causes that benefit society or the world at large promote such feelings. That is, by building a stronger understanding of one’s place in the world (i.e., comprehension), it also increases people’s meaning in life.
In fact, when wealthy people like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett are asked why then engage in such generous philanthropy, they report that it enriches their life with meaning. Of course, not all of us have the time or money to contribute to the world in this manner; however, even simple acts (like choosing to recycle) have been shown to increase one’s sense of meaning.
Whether that is actually hiking through nature or simply visiting a garden, direct and hands-on contact with the world is one of the most reliable ways to boost one’s sense of meaning. Indeed, these experiences with nature have been shown to strengthen one’s connection with the broader world, providing greater comprehension of it and thus one’s meaning within it.
MAKING YOUR MEANING
Now, in this post, I outlined a number of broad strategies to help imbue your life with more meaning. However, it’s up to you figure out how you can apply those strategies. Admittedly, nature seems to be a mostly universal contributor to finding meaning, but for the rest of those strategies, you’ll have to spend some time reflecting on what’s important to you.
To make that easier, the Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder section has a cheat sheet of all the strategies we discussed today 😉
Menaingfully (Part 2),
Psych•o•Philosophy to Ponder: Want a condensed version of what was in the text above? Here’s an outline of all the strategies I described to help bring greater meaning to your life:
Create unique and special memories
Engage in actions that promote your important life goals
Spend time with family (whoever your “true” family is to you)
Try to help others, cheer them up, or forgive them
Contribute time, effort, or money to a cause you care about
Spend time in nature!
Hinds, J., & Sparks, P. (2009). Investigating environmental identity, well-being and meaning. Ecopsychology, 1, 181-186.
Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Fincham, F. D., Hicks, J. A., & Graham, S. M. (2010). Family as a salient source of meaning in young adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 367-376.
Rudd, M., Catapano, R., & Aaker, J. (2019). Making Time Matter: A Review of Research on Time and Meaning. Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Schlegel, R. J., Hicks, J. A., King, L. A., & Arndt, J. (2011). Feeling like you know who you are: Perceived true self-knowledge and meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 745-756.