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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

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    Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

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

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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