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Last Updated on January 10, 2022

What Is the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Living With Meaning

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What Is the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Living With Meaning

“What is the meaning of life?” is one of the most fundamental and ultimate questions that has captivated the greatest minds of humankind for centuries. To live with meaning seems to be the ultimate goal.

The answers, as varied as they come, go back to the very, very beginning of things—to our existence, to the reasons why humans were “created,” to our quest for self-improvement, and, of course, to religion.

There is hardly a shortage of interpretations of what the “good life” is about, what makes us happy and fulfilled, and what we can do to get to this coveted state.

If you talk to a scientist—say, a physicist and biologist—about the purpose of our being, they will likely tell you the fascinating story of the Big Bang, the origins of the universe’s existence, and the evolution of the species to where we are today.

But evolution is not what really drives us and makes us want to keep living and persisting through life’s adversities, is it? It is a whole lot more than this. It is what makes us human—our minds, our sense of self-awareness, our ambitions, dreams, and goals.

So, when you want to find the meaning of life, you should read the works of Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus and actually think along the lines of your values, progress, community, family, and, yes—reproduction.

Historical Perspectives on Living Life With a Meaning

Before we unpack these elements of meaning, let’s take a step back and see what wise men through history believed a life of purpose to be.

The Greeks

The ancient Greeks believed in the concept of eudaimonia, which translates as “happiness” “good life” or “welfare.” All the great Greek philosophers—Socrates, Thales, Plato, Aristotle—believed that the good life means to live in a state of eudaimonia.

“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.” – Thales

The interpretations of what it means vary. Some used to think that purpose can be found in acquiring virtues (as self-control, courage, wisdom). [1]

Aristotle, for instance, believed that eudaimonia required not only a good character but taking actions and achieving excellence. Epicurus—another prominent Greek—understood human life as one of pleasure and freedom from pain and suffering.

Cynicism

The famous Greek school of thought believed that the meaning of life is living a life of Virtue that agrees with Nature. The happy life is the simple one, they taught—free from possessions, rejecting the desires for wealth, possessions, fame, or sex.

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” -Epictetus

Rather, people should undergo rigorous training and live in way that is most natural to them. [2]

Stoicism

The Stoic school of thought, founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C., considered the good life to be “living in agreement with nature.” Stoicism advocates separating good and evil and doing good while staying calm, focusing on what’s important and under our control, not wasting thoughts on what we can’t change.

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Theism

Theists believed in the existence of a deity, a God, who created the universe. Our life’s purpose, then, is aligned with God’s purpose in creating the universe, and it is God that gives our lives meaning, purpose, and values. This relates to modern-day religious studies and how and why we search for meaning beyond what is readily seen or understood.

Existentialism

According to this 20th-century philosophy, supported by famous minds such as Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all human beings have free will.

“The intuition of free will gives us the truth.” – Corliss Lamont

It’s believed that each person gives meaning to their own life, not society or religion. Therefore, everyone’s purpose is unique and subjective to their circumstances and understanding. [3]

Simply put, your life’s meaning is what you decide it to be.

What Creates Meaning of Your Life?

Based on the above brief walk through history, it seems that the interpretation of what infuses our existence with meaning and purpose somewhat varies depending on the historical period and the school of thought.

But undeniably, there are still some commonalities and recurring ideas. Our reason for emerging as something greater than ourselves—such as serving God’s will or contributing to society. At the same time, it’s all nuanced because it’s refracted through our individual prisms.

Still, the things that may be good candidates for meaning-creators in our lives can be separated into a few main categories:

Social

As human beings are social creatures, we have an innate need to connect to others, to be part of a group, to sense that we belong and that we have someone who cares about us.

According to the longest study on happiness and life satisfaction[4], which spanned over 75 years, the good life lies in the quality of our relationships. “Time with others,” Prof. Waldinger, who led the research tells us, “protects us from the bruises of life’s ups and downs.”

But it’s not only our friendships that make life worth living. It’s our families, children, and siblings. It’s all the people who we feel love and affection for and who, in turn, give us theirs.

Achievement

Although tying our worth solely to the outcome of our endeavors can create an unstable sense of self-esteem, we still want the net of our successes to outnumber that our failings. We want to sense that we are moving forward, progressing, and realizing our goals.

“Life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein

Studies have found that achievements bring greater meaning to our everyday lives. [5]

And it’s not the lure of the limelight or the desire for kudos that will make our existence worthwhile. It’s the recognition of our efforts, the appreciation, the acknowledgment that counts. In other words, we want our actions to matter and make a difference.

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You can find a simple answer about what personal success looks like in this video from The Lifehack Show:

Competence, Knowledge, and Expertise

These purpose-drivers are closely linked to the concept of achievement.

Konrad Lorenz [6], the Austrian Nobel Prize winner, best known for his principle of attachment, once said:

“Life itself is a process of acquiring knowledge.”

Becoming the best at what we do is a large part of the self-improvement movement today. It’s perhaps most famously expressed in the Japanese notions of kaizen and shokunin. Kaizen is the process of continuous improvement—through learning and gaining expertise, to better ourselves as a way of life.

Shokunin means craftsman. And it’s about taking pride in what we do and in ourselves. It’s the drive to become better—personally and professionally.

How to Live a Meaningful Life

In reality, though, there are many more shades and understandings of a life well-spent than the three categories listed above.

Here are some further ideas on where to look for your own sense of purpose and fulfillment.

1. Be Aware of What Makes You Happy

This includes your passions, the desire for connecting to others, for reading, writing, traveling, staying in shape. These activities that you enjoy, although they may not give you The One Meaning of your life, still carry a great potential to make you fulfilled and happy.

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” – Omar Khayyam

They are spurs of joy. You can call them mini-meanings, which, over time, may contribute to your bigger goals and purpose.

But today, they will still offer you something to look forward to, a reason worth living.

2. Importance of Family

Evolutionary biology provides us with the very primal reason behind our existence as humans—to ensure that human life continues into the foreseeable future. That is, meaning comes down to survival and continuance of our kin. Life is meaningful with family.

“Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” –Michael J. Fox

In this vein, having children and family and living life with them is often at or near the top spot when people talk about what makes life worth living. This is also like our basic need to belong and to have someone to share our successes with.

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3. Desire to Leave a Mark in the World

With the realization of the transience of our lives comes a natural desire to create something of value to leave to the world.

“Everyone wants to leave an extraordinary life.” – John Green

We all have the capacity to influence people’s lives. You can begin with one small thing—whatever it is that matters to you and build on it.

For instance, if you like animals, you can adopt a puppy—give it a better life. You can also volunteer at your local food shelter, or start separating your garbage to help the planet.

It is as Mother Teresa once said:

“We can do no great things, but small things with great love.”

A meaningful life is about caring.

4. Be Compassionate and Care About Yourself

According to research by the British National Health Service in 2014, there are five steps we can take to lead more meaningful lives: [7]

  • Connect with community and family
  • Physical exercise
  • Lifelong learning
  • Giving to others
  • Mindfulness of the world around you.

What these recommendations imply is that what brings sunshine into our lives is finding ways to care about ourselves and to do what makes us feel good.

There is barely a need to convince you of the benefits of giving and meditation—these are well established—to both our physical and mental health.

Being kind, compassionate, and helping others are, indeed, the winning behaviors to increased longevity and decreased stress and depression so that we can also experience life in all its colorfulness.

5. Make Yourself Useful

According to Darius Foroux, a famous entrepreneur, author, and influencer, the meaning of life is not to seek happiness, but to make ourselves useful [8].

“It comes down to this—what are you DOING that’s making a difference?”

Rather than seeking happiness and meaning through the material things, we must engage in acts of usefulness—to help and make others happy, to create something.

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    “The last thing I want is to be on my deathbed and realize there’s zero evidence that I ever existed.”

    6. Connect With the World

    Another influencer, Alain de Botton, the founder of the famous blog The School of Life, believes that the meaning of life comes down to three activities: [9]

    • Communication
    • Understanding
    • Service

    “Some of our most meaningful moments are to do with instances of connection,” he writes, be it to a person, song, or a book, for instance. It takes us out of our isolation. Understanding is our ability to make sense of the world, and service is to work on improving others’ lives.

    7. Use the PURE Model

    Finally, Peter Wong—a Canadian existential psychologist, has proposed a model known as PURE for individuals to discover meaning in their lives:[10]

    • P: Purpose and having worthy goals.
    • U: Understating—of who we are and of the world around us.
    • R: We have the sole responsibility to choose the life we want and to own our actions and their consequences.
    • E: Evaluation, to ensure we are on track with our goals.

    There are many avenues you can explore that will bring you a sense of purpose. It’s true that you may sometimes feel that your actions are just a drop in the ocean, that you are too small to make a difference.

    But it’s not true.

    Meaning is about bringing out the best in you, about doing good by yourself and others. If we all commit to the goal of improving ourselves and the world we live in—as cliché as it sounds—the single drop can grow to become a wave.

    Summing It All Up

    The quest for meaning in our lives is perhaps the most important driver behind everything that we do. It’s the reason behind all reasons. And there’s no simple answer to the question.

    Some of the most prominent ways to build your purpose is by creating your own tribe; by striving to become a better version of yourself; by helping and serving others, and by setting goals and striving to achieve them.

    What makes it challenging to put our finger on what purpose means exactly is that it’s a rather vast concept. It can be interpreted as many things by each one of us.

    Perhaps, in the end, there is no one and only meaning in life. Perhaps a better way to view our purpose and existence is more as a mosaic. Each experience, each facet in our lives—family, friends, achievements, recognition—constitutes a piece. You have to look at it in its totality to be able to say if you are happy with the picture you yourself have painted.

    Or, perhaps, it is as Viktor Frankl said:

    “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”

    And each of us has the freedom to decide on what when and how life is meaningful.

    More Inspiration About the Meaning of Life

    Featured photo credit: Donald Giannatti via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    More by this author

    Evelyn Marinoff

    A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

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    Last Updated on January 14, 2022

    Where Am I Going? How to Put Your Life in Context

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    Where Am I Going? How to Put Your Life in Context

    Are you wondering…

    Where am I going in life? Where am I supposed to be going in life?

    And to answer your questions, here’s what the great writer and thinker, Christopher Morley famously wrote:

    There are three ingredients to the good life – learning, earning and yearning.

    Where Am I Going? Is It the Right Direction in Life?

    There are many times in life where one does not know what comes next or where to go in life. The realization that you are lost and don’t know where to go, or that you don’t like where you are going often comes as an epiphany.

    Most people describe this as being in a rut. It’s like you have everything you want and still so much is missing. You could have everything in the world but something about your life still doesn’t feel right.

    Signs That You Need to Change Direction in Life

    It is important to identify when you are unhappy with your life and want to change where you are going. Some of the most common signs of needing a change in life are as follows:

    1. You feel unhappy with your life and often reminiscence about the choices you made.
    2. You feel as if you are forced to go against your morals and intuition at work or home.
    3. The situation that you find yourself in currently is causing you a lot of stress.
    4. There is a fear or dread of the future and the consequences of your life decisions that have been causing you anxiety.
    5. You feel like you had to give up on your passions and interests just to make it in this world.
    6. The future that you are currently envisioning seems nothing like what practically lies ahead.
    7. You find yourself surrounded by unhappy people who often think you’re too idealistic.
    8. You often look forward to having a ‘good day’ even when nothing is particularly wrong with the days right now.

    If you feel like most of these signs apply to you, then it’s time to re-evaluate where you are headed in life and how you want to change that.

    The 3 Key Phases of Life

    Before learning how to choose the right direction for yourself, first try to understand the 3 key phases of life:

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    The Learning Phase

    The Learning phase typically stretches from the age of five into the early twenties and its over-riding characteristic is freedom.

    Your thinking is unfettered, you are chock-full of dreams and aspirations and (happily) someone else is footing the bills. It’s not a cliché to say that schooldays, for many of us, really were the happiest days of our lives.

    Contrast it with adult life – no one expects very much of you, and other than passing a few exams along the way and you can just swing along, having a great old time …

    The Earning Phase

    The next phase is the Earning years; the period from leaving formal education (at 20-something) to retirement (at 50-something or 60-something). Welcome to the grown-up world, welcome to the tax net.

    The overriding concern in this Earning phase is the security (I spell that word as follows: $ecurity because, for many people, this phase tends to be all about generating sufficient income to pay the monthly bills.)

    Reality bites. This can require sublimating the dreams of youth as a life of routine takes over. Few in the Earning years question the choices they have made because, typically, this questioning process can be quite disconcerting – oddly, I find this is particularly true of people who are less than happy with their working lives.

    Routine generation of wealth becomes paramount and you get swept along with the current. This is fine if you made sound choices in your late teens and early twenties with regard to your career. But if you didn’t … for routine, read ‘RUT’.

    Which brings us to Morley’s Yearning phase – from ceasing your full-time occupation until … well, ceasing.

    The Yearning Phase

    What is yearning? Unfortunately, yearning is not the same as simple hankering, wanting or desire. The dictionary definition of yearning is:

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    “A feeling of intense longing for something lost, absent or unattainable.”

    A bit gloomy. So for many people, the Yearning years are about looking back over a life not quite fulfilled and saying ‘I wish, I wish. If only … if only …’

    With the wisdom of years comes regret for the road not taken, the too-conservative choices made.

    Studies conducted in the geriatric population and on terminally ill people consistently demonstrate that regrets in human beings arise as a result of decisions not taken. The wise old owls that I have talked to over the years all speak with one voice on this.

    It is better to look back and think, ‘I wish I hadn’t …’ rather than wistfully saying, ‘I wish I had …’

    Think about where you are…

    As you think about your career, your life, and your plans for the future, you are, at the very least, going to have to contemplate some uncomfortable choices about yourself, your personal style and your level of happiness.

    I make no apologies for this – that’s just life. But I contend that it is better to take the time and spend the effort now to improve the choices that you make for later, rather than to have those choices made for you at a time that may not suit you.

    Some people get these choices unerringly right and they do so early in their lives. Others come to a realization of the right path much later in life. Ray Kroc changed his whole approach to his McDonald’s business in his early 50s. [1] Colonel Sanders didn’t start his KFC franchising efforts until he was in his early 60s.[2] And the list can go on.

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    It’s never too early and it’s never too late – but you have to think about it.

    How to Choose the Right Path

    Do you know at what phase of life are you now? Once you understand where you are now, the next step is to find the direction you want to move to.

    You have the motivation and direction to take your life where you need it to be, you just need to get up and do it. The best time for change is now, and if you procrastinate any further you might miss out on a great opportunity.

    To live a meaningful life, it is important to pick a direction that brings both peace and success. Here are some things to take into consideration when choosing a new direction in life:

    1. Chose What Your Inner Child Would Want

    It is very important to acknowledge the needs and opinions of our ‘inner child’. That’s because we often have real happiness at this age and develop passions that last us a lifetime. To calibrate your direction in life, think of what the younger you would feel about your current situation and what would they want to do.

    2. Think About The Things You Want To Change

    Make a list of the things in your current life that you are dissatisfied with and want to change. Then think of the alternative options you have to give yourself a life where you find happiness and fulfillment by avoiding these things. This will help you understand what must be done to feel good in life.

    3. Find Inspiration to Follow

    Everyone has an idea of what they want in life and finding inspiration isn’t hard in this day and age. Just think about those you admire and see as role models and try to follow in their footsteps. As they have already reached a place you associate to be a goal, you will find it easier to navigate your way through life to reach that destination as well.

    4. Be Clear on What You Don’t Want To Be

    To find out where you want to be headed in life, try finding out where you don’t want to end up. This would help identify situations and placed you would try and avoid at all costs. It keeps you on the right track because if you minimize the wrong paths, then choosing the right one becomes much easier.

    5. Learn to Enjoy Where You Are

    There is no such thing as a perfect life. What you need to learn, is to work hard and to find things to be happy and grateful for.

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    Live in the moment, appreciate the things you have. Only this way you will see clearly the meaning of your life.

    6. Commit to Getting or Staying Healthy

    Nothing is more important than your mental, spiritual and physical health.

    Getting your life on the right path isn’t something you can achieve in a day. But, with hard work and dedication, you will get there!

    7. Help Others

    By helping others you will increase your sense of purpose and improve self-esteem.

    There are many ways to do this. Volunteer in your community, mentor young people, or just help neighbors.

    You will be surprised by the feeling you will have after.

    Start Making the Change Today

    After reading all this, you are surely ready to change the direction of your life. Start by making a change today instead of just thinking about it. Every difficult journey starts with a single step, and this is the sign to take yours. Once you make one change, the rest follow suit and soon your life will be exactly how you want it to be.

    Need more help to get out of the rut? Take a look at these articles:

    Featured photo credit: Johannes Plenio via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Britannica: Ray Kroc
    [2] Biography: Colonel Sanders

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