What gives your life meaning™(1)? Nietzche, Kant, Sartre, Aristotle and other humans with great big brains stumbled over the question and failed to agree on an answer. Siri may have come closest to the true meaning of life with her response, “all evidence points to chocolate.” It is hard to argue with that kind of wisdom.
Today we leave the weighty matter of the meaning of life in general to Siri and her fellow philosophers, and focus on those things that bring meaning to your own life.
The meaning of meaning
At the risk of wading out into philosophical deep grass again, what do we mean by meaning? Researchers at the University of Leuven defined meaning as value, purpose or significance. (2) So, repeating today’s challenge with some synonymous substitutions: what gives your life purpose? Significance? Value?
There is no right answer to what gives your life meaning. Stephen Hawking would say work (3), Tolstoy would have pointed to service (4). Raising a family, being kind, loving someone, excelling in some area of life, communing with nature, championing a cause, believing in God, caring for those in need, being a public servant, enjoying music, appreciating beauty, thinking deeply, making a mark on the world, etc., all qualify as things that bring life meaning.
Not a bed of roses
Interestingly enough, having a meaningful life does not necessarily equate to a happy life. Recent research shows that those things that bring meaning often bring stress, hardship and difficulty. For example, raising a family is often identified as a very meaningful behavior. But the same adults that ranked caring for their kids as high on the meaning scale also reported that interacting with them brought them less happiness in general than exercising, eating and watching television.(5)
Why do we search for meaning in life, then, if it isn’t all sunshine and roses? Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl recounted his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He concluded that the difference between those who survived and those who did not was meaning–those who perceived meaning in what they were suffering (and in life itself) made it out alive. (5) The principle here is that meaning transcends happiness. It endures, makes us stronger, creates survivors, forges people who learn in life and not just seek pleasure along the path.
More like a bed of really thorny roses
Frankly, it is disappointing that lives with meaning don’t always equate to happy lives in the moment. The good news is, however, that having a life that is perceived as high in meaning is associated with greater overall well-being. Research indicates that those who perceive that their lives are high in meaningfulness also score high on life-satisfaction scales. Chronically ill patients who rated themselves high on having meaning in their lives experienced greater psychological well-being than those who perceived their lives to have less meaning. Finally, meaning in life has been shown to be inversely related to depression and positively correlated with acceptance and optimism. (2)
Happiness alone tends to be related to health, money, comfort and the present moment. Those who rank high on meaningfulness in life tend to have a broad view that encompasses past, present and future. While happiness can be fleeting, meaningfulness creates well-being and positive self-perception that lasts. (6)
- Dezutter J, Casalin S, Wachholtz A, Luyckx K, Hekking J, Vandewiele W. Meaning in life: An important factor for the psychological well-being of chronically ill patients? Rehabil Psychol. 2013 Nov; 58(4): 334–341.
- “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” Written by Leo Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894.
- “Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.” Stephen Hawking to Diane Sawyer in June 2010 on ABC News. It was the second point of three pieces of advice given to his children.
- Smith E. There’s more to life than being happy. The Atlantic online. Published Jan 9 2013. Accessed Aug 9 2017.
- Marsh J and Suttie J. Is a happy life different from a meaningful one? Greater Good Magazine: Science-based insights for a meaningful life. Published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Feb 25 2014. Accessed Aug 4 2017.
- Grewal D. A happy life may not be a meaningful life. Scientific American. Feb 18, 2014. Accessed August 4 2017.
- S. Oishi, E. Diener. Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613507286