“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.
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.
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.
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.
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