For millennia, philosophers and religions have offered opinions and explanations to life’s meaning. In fact, meaning in life was for long a theme that belonged to spirituality and philosophy, and only became a topic of interest for science and psychology in the last few decades. Viktor Frankl (1946) was the first to introduce meaning in life as a scientific matter, in his influential book “Man’s search for meaning”.
In their review of the Science of Meaning in Life, researchers and psychology professors King and Hicks (2021) examined 150 studies to extract the essence of what brings meaning to people’s lives. They found that we, humans, need to comprehend our past, our traumas, our present, our imagined future, and the world around us. We need to make sense of our life’s story.
King and colleagues (2006, p. 180) defined the meaning in life as follows:
“Lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.”Laura A. King & Joshua A. Hicks
Steger, Founder and Director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose, and Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University, defined it like this (2012, p.165):
“The web of connections, understandings, and interpretations that help us comprehend our experience and formulate plans directing our energies to the achievement of our desired future. Meaning provides us with the sense that our lives matter, that they make sense, and that they are more than the sum of our seconds, days, and years.”Michael Steger
What does it all mean? And how do we actually find meaning in our own lives? Let’s review the building blocks of a meaningful life, as per King and Hicks’ research.
Comprehension / Coherence
To find meaning, we need the ability to see the interconnections between people, ideas, objects, and other things. Understanding our environment, find coherence in our lives, making sense of our life’s story are crucial ingredients for meaningfulness. When you think about it, it can be quite distressing when we don’t understand what is happening in our life, when people around us act in unpredictable and incoherent ways. We need a certain order and predictability to feel safe, to connect the dots, and to make plans.
Making sense of our life story is especially important, as it gives us a sense of power and control over our own life. It’s also a key element of resilience. It’s incredibly hard to bounce back from trauma if you can’t make sense of it. Comprehension and coherence go hand in hand, as we need to make sense of the past, the present, and possible futures, to be able to see our life as a coherent whole. Life is like a puzzle, you get all these little bits and pieces, and you need to find a way to put them together in a way, to create an image you can understand and appreciate.
One question that has been especially helpful to me in my quest of finding meaning in my past’s chaos was: looking back at all you have experienced, what purpose has it served to who you’ve become today? This question has helped me connect the dots. My life story is now coherent when I see it as a series of challenges I overcame, lessons I learned, and knowledge I gathered. All of it has developed my interest in psychology and in helping others, my empathy, my resilience, my ability to form stronger and more genuine relationships, etc. And while I can’t connect the future dots that aren’t on the map yet, I can trust “something”, I can trust that it will all be worth it, and it will all make sense.
Purpose and meaning are often used as synonyms, but really they aren’t. Life’s meaning is the significance and the sense we assign to it and is rather stable. On the other hand, ‘purpose’ is the intention we assign to our existence and actions, and it can change and evolve with time. For example, you could find the mere fact of being alive meaningful, because you feel life is important, precious, and fragile. Then, your purpose would be to live it fully, to be mindful and grateful, to welcome every experience, to contribute positively, etc.
Purpose doesn’t have to be solely lived through a profession. We hear a lot about purpose in career-related conversations. Of course, it’s great to be able to express your purpose at work. But truly, your purpose is something you should live 100%, in every aspect of your life, at all times. Purpose is what fuels actions, goals, behaviors that you personally value. It’s the motivation mechanism behind everything you choose to do. So, purpose is another ingredient to meaning in life.
Find your why is also a common phrase at the moment. In his book “The speed of trust”, Stephen M. R. Covey offers a way to exploring the purpose, or intent of anything: why you do, or don’t do, something, why you want or don’t want something, etc. You find the intent by asking “why” 5 times, spiraling down to the core of it. For instance, I can explore why I wanted to create this blog:
- Why did I want to create this blog?
– Because I like sharing topics that have had a positive impact in my life.
- Why do I like sharing topics that have had a positive impact in my life?
– Because I hope it can have a positive impact on other people too.
- Why do I hope it can have a positive impact on other people?
– Because I want to help people who may be struggling with the same things as I have.
- Why do I want to help people who may be struggling with the same things as I have?
– Because I want to transform my own struggles into a positive impact on the world.
- Why do I want to have a positive impact on the world?
– Because participating to making the world a better place makes my life meaningful.
As I do this exercise with other topics in my life, I arrive at a similar core purpose. It’s feeding a sense that my life is worthy and meaningful. What this also means is that I can live and embody my purpose in every aspect of my daily life, at home, at work, with family and friends, with strangers. Every action that I take, whether it’s resting when I’m tired, taking care of someone else, investing in personal growth, consuming in an eco-friendly way, voting, … can all be infused to make my life meaningful and the world a better place.
Existential Mattering / Significance
Deep down, we all have a vital need to matter to others, to the world, now and beyond, in the grand scheme of things. At an intrinsic level, the feeling of significance can take the shape of “having a life worth living”. This piece on mattering is evidently quite important. And it is not as narcissistic as it may seem, after all, research shows that we all need it, and yet we are not all full-on narcissists.
Anyone who has experienced depression knows how hard it can be to hold on to life when you feel like you and life don’t matter. When the pain is greater than our significance, when life feels futile and worthless, how can we survive trauma and difficulties?
Someone reminded me recently of this awesome quote:
Surely, we all have at least one person in our life who loves us, and to whom we matter (the first one should be ourselves, but sometimes that takes work). We also matter any time we perform an act of kindness or generosity, and that can be to any stranger, anywhere, any time. And for those spiritually inclined, our existence matters because some Higher Power makes it so. You see, there is always a way to stimulate that sense of mattering.
Our comprehension, coherence, purpose, and sense of mattering are necessarily influenced by the environment in which we exist. Our environment is made of worldviews (social, cultural, political, religious), and it tends to provide us with a set of answers to life’s fundamental questions. Just like everything else in our life, we always have the possibility to challenge those views, explore other views, and adopt what resonates most with us.
Research also found that we can enrich our life’s meaning by:
- cultivating daily positive mood
- developing and nurturing social relationships and connections
- embodying a sense of true and authentic self
- being aware of our mortality, as thinking about death can trigger a meaningful and authentic life.
Your life has meaning! If you don’t feel it, you can work on it. Are you ready to expand it?
- Covey Stephen & Merrill Rebecca ‘Speed of Trust : The One Thing That Changes Everything’
- King LA, Hicks, JA (2021) ‘The Science of Meaning in Life’, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 72, pp. 7.1-7.24 [Online]. Available at https://www-annualreviews-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/10.1146/annurev-psych-072420-122921 (Accessed 3 January 2021).
- King LA, Hicks JA, Krull JL, Del Gaiso AK (2006) ‘Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 90, No. 1, pp.179–96 [Online]. Available at http://existentialpsych.sites.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/152/2016/08/KingetalJPSP2006.pdf (Accessed 16 September 2021).
- Steger MF (2012) ‘Experiencing meaning in life: optimal functioning at the nexus of spirituality, psychopathology, and well-being’. In ‘The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications’, ed. PTPWong, pp. 165–84. New York: Routledge. 2nd ed.