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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

    Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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