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What Is the Meaning of Your Life?

What Is the Meaning of Your Life?

“What is the meaning of life?”

I struggled with the question of life’s meaning and purpose throughout my youth. My parents tried to sell me on their view of the meaning and purpose of life. They pushed me to become a doctor or lawyer, make a lot of money, go to synagogue, and not worry about reflecting on life’s big questions.

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But I was a bit of a rebel. I didn’t really listen to them. Instead of going to synagogue, I spent long and lazy afternoons and evenings with my friends – hanging out, walking, playing cards, drinking, and arguing, often about the meaning and purpose of life. I particularly remember one conversation when I was 18. My two closest friends and I stayed up until 5 a.m., playing cards, drinking, and trying to convince each other that our individual vision of the meaning and purpose of life was the best one. At the same time as I argued with my buddies and expressed a false bravado, I always felt a certain emptiness in the depth of my stomach, a feeling that I lacked meaning and purpose in life.

Going to college prompted further thought. Listening to professors and reading great books caused me to rethink the meaning and purpose of life many times. I really gained a richer perspective, but never a clear answer to my question – “What is the meaning and purpose of life for me?” That was until discovering research about this question.

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But, before going into that, let me answer a question that some of you may have on your mind: why does my story matter? Who cares whether some guy figured out the meaning of life or not? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry in the world – hunger, disease, polarized political debate? Why even spend time worrying about the meaning of life?

Experience a Higher Sense of Well-Being

Recent research shows that people who feel that their life has meaning experience substantially higher sense of well-being and even physical health. For example, Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a strong sense of meaning and purpose have greater mental well-being in general. They are more satisfied on a day-to-day basis, as well as at work. Adolescents, in another study, are shown to feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

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A deeper sense of life meaning and purpose also predicts better physical health. Greater meaning and purpose has been associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. An increased sense of life meaning and purpose correlates with reduced risk of heart attack, the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke, another of the top five leading causes of death. Brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging indicate that a deep and rich sense of meaning and purpose decreases the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, resulting in better mental and physical health alike.

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M+P, Blog 1 - Image of Eye Chart with Quote

    Ask the Right Question About Your Purpose

    Additionally, research on life meaning and purpose shows that it does not matter how you get this sense of meaning and purpose in life. What’s most important is that you experience your life as having a meaning and purpose. The key question is not “What is the meaning of life?” In fact, research seems to show that there is no one clear answer to this question. The only question that matters is “What is the meaning of life for you?” Each of us is free to formulate her or his own answer to this question. By doing so you get a personal sense of life meaning and purpose, and thus gain a sense of agency and choice by and through understanding your own personal life goals.

    Now, should you worry about your health and well-being based on your current sense of meaning and purpose? It’s wise to evaluate it, which you can do using this handy science-based web app. If you find it lower than you want, there are plenty of science-based resources to improve your sense of meaning and purpose, such as this book, this online class, this videotaped workshop, and plenty of other resources. It’s up to you to choose to use them wisely!

    Featured photo credit: Question via flickr.com

    More by this author

    Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

    President and Co-Founder at Intentional Insights; Disaster Avoidance Consultant

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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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