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Last Updated on November 26, 2020

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

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 ruminate on your reasons for being, you should actually think along the lines of your values, progress, community, family, and, yes—reproduction.

Historical Perspectives on Living With 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” or “welfare.” All the great Greek philosophers—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle—believed that the good life means to live in a state of eudaimonia.

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 the good 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. 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 doing good while staying calm, focusing on what’s important and under our control, not wasting thoughts on what we can’t change.

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.

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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. It’s believed that each person gives meaning to their own life, not the 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 for 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 being emerges 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 in 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 of our failings. We want to sense that we are moving forward, progressing, and realizing our goals.

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 acknowledgement that counts. In other words, we want our actions to matter and make a difference.

You can learn more 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.

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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 Craft Your Own Purpose in 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, travelling, 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.

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 to wake up in the morning.

2. Reproduction

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.

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

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.

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We all have the capacity to influence others’ 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.

How to Lead a Meaningful Life

1. 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 the 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 stressed and depression so that we can also experience life in all its colorfulness.

2. 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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Create meaning in life by making yourself useful to your community

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

    3. 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.

    4. 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 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

    Reference

    More by this author

    Evelyn Marinoff

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

    How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life happiness and self confidence Why Confident People Are Also Happier People What Is an Existential Crisis? (And How to Cope With It) Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It) What Is the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Living With Meaning

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    Last Updated on November 27, 2020

    7 Reasons Why a Life Without Purpose is Unfulfilling

    7 Reasons Why a Life Without Purpose is Unfulfilling

    Every motivational speaker preaches the importance of having a purpose in life. They all tell you that a life without purpose is not the right way to go.

    None of them are wrong. In fact, what they say is 100% true. But it’s not the easiest when you’re struggling to find the motivation that you need to find a purpose. It takes a lot to take a step out of your life without purpose to change the way you live and think.

    What bigger motivation can there be than to tell you all the reasons why a life without purpose is hurting you?

    Here are 7 fundamental reasons that will give you just enough motivation to get on with the search of your life’s purpose because living without one is affecting you beyond your imagination!

    1. A Life Without Purpose Has No Meaning

    Have you ever dreaded living a lifeless life? If not, you probably don’t know how excruciating such an existence is.

    Imagine not wanting to wake up every morning but also not wanting to go to sleep at night. No will to work, no excitement to spend, no friends’ company to enjoy, and no reason to continue living. A blank mind with nothing to think about. The lack of emotions—negative and positive. Nothing to look forward to.

    Yes, it’s clearly a depressing life. That’s exactly what you end up feeling without a purpose in life.

    A lack of purpose means a lack of goals. This means nothing is leading you to an imaginary final destination. You literally have nowhere to go, you find it absolutely torturous to be on the way, and you don’t even like the route.

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    Why even would you want to go on such a journey?

    Even if you have goals, they are very haphazard. One goal contradicts the other. You’re all over the place with no sense of direction at all. A life without purpose is as meaningless as this.

    However, once you have a clear idea of why you’re living, you get an idea of the bigger outcome that you can look forward to. Every step of the way is meaningful. Your journey is not just a wander around without an aim. Instead, even the strolls become enjoyable because you know they’re leading you to where you’re supposed to be.

    2. You’re Full of Anxiety

    Do you find yourself stuck in a cycle of an anxious life? Well, there’s a high chance it’s because of your lack of purpose.

    A life without purpose is senseless. Nothing you do in life is connected. Since nothing seems to be coherent, your mind is unable to comprehend why everything is happening.

    Anxiety is triggered when a person’s mind thinks their life is in danger. So, in the case of a purposeless life, your brain translates the lack of connection to be a threat to your life. Anything that doesn’t seem to be a fit is automatically a danger as per your brain.

    On the contrary, if your mind can link your doings with a coherent purpose, everything tends to make more sense. Hence, you feel more at peace and less anxious. Your mind is at ease because the path to the final purpose isn’t pointless anymore.

    3. Motivation Is a Long-Lost Dream

    One thing that pretty much every human who wants to be successful needs is a lot of motivation.

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    For a clearer picture, look at it from the perspective that you do have a defined purpose in life. You trust in every way that life leads you to. What does that do? It boosts your brain to work harder. Every step of the way makes you feel closer to your final destination. This automatically encourages you to perform better.

    Without a purpose, you can never scale your achievements. Since you don’t know what it’s leading you to, you consider it to be meaningless. But when you’re well-aware of the expected results, the smallest progress is a motivation booster too.

    You can try out all the motivation boosting tips but the one that will work the best is to find your life’s purpose and live by it.

    4. Lack of Focus Keeps You From Growing

    Every field, career, part of life, and relationship requires growth. Human life is ultimately the name of progress—if nothing else, at least your mental capacity and knowledge grow.

    Where does this growth come from? You could have access to the best knowledge sources. Yet, you won’t learn a word unless your mind is in a state to absorb that information. Similarly, if you’re focused, you can learn something valuable even from the most non-happening events.

    Basically, the way this works is that a life purpose keeps you working in one direction. You may take a few turns here and there, but the ultimate output is known. So, all the hard work you’re putting in is intended for your life’s purpose in the bigger picture.

    This focus is unachievable any other way. With a purpose, you’ll choose a career path, people around you, relationships, friends, living space, and even your daily commute accordingly. So everywhere you go, your focus remains undisturbed. The end goal in mind is consistent.

    With a clear focus on the right things, you can easily get past the minor inconveniences. The important things are always in your focus no matter how small they are. So, overall, it gets way easier for a person with a defined life purpose to work well, harder, and more effectively.

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    5. Success Seems Unachievable in a Life Without Purpose

    Everything that you’ve read so far directly contributes to your success or failure. So, mental peace, motivation, and focus are all important to be successful in any part of your life. But there’s more to the picture.

    You may have a vision in mind even if you don’t have a life purpose. You might even push yourself to the maximum to stay focused in the direction that you think is right for you.

    Look at it this way:

    You head out for New York but you got on the wrong road. You’re welcomed with a narrow road that is too dark to even see around—but you keep going. Your car breaks down and there’s no workshop nearby. Yet, you push the car as far as possible. You can go for as long you want but you’ll never reach New York.

    So, without even knowing what your life’s purpose is—no matter how hard you work—it will be useless. If you know the right path for you, you might not even have to work half as hard to get to your desired results.

    6. Affects Physical Health

    A life without purpose affects more than just your mental health. It can impact your physical wellbeing too.[1]

    First of all, the strain on your mind automatically translates to your physical body. Continuous stress is likely to cause hair loss, acne, weight loss, weight gain, etc. But there can be more serious consequences as well.

    Studies have proven that people with a clear sense of purpose in life live longer than those who continue with a life without purpose. People with their life purpose well-defined were able to tolerate more pain and also had a lesser risk of heart diseases.

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    What’s more astonishing is that people without a purpose in life are 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, too.

    The reason may possibly be that people who don’t have a life purpose lose hope and don’t have anything to look forward to. So, the psychological effect gets to their physical wellbeing. Whatever the case, if a defined life purpose can save you from all this hassle, why wouldn’t want to have one?

    7. Nothing in Life Is Enjoyable

    Social inclusion is a huge part of one’s purpose in life.[2] People who are living a purposeless life tend to be more lonely. Even if they join social gatherings, they are lesser likely to enjoy it.

    Since such people do not have mental clarity, they just cannot enjoy the fun things around them. Their brain is unable to comprehend emotions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their circumstances aren’t good enough. The same environment and people can be enjoyable for a person who feels content mentally.

    Conclusion

    Every single one of these reasons is proven to be a result of a purposeless life. Every single reason leads to a chaotic lifestyle. Nobody would purposely want to live a life like that.

    We’ve been given a very short time to live in this world. So instead of wasting it living a life without purpose, it’s time you start making an effort to improve it.

    Getting out of this hurtful life is right within your hands. Go through the hassle and short-term struggle to live a worthy life till eternity!

    More Tips on Living a Life With Purpose

    Featured photo credit: Maria Teneva via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] University of Minnesota: Why is Life Purpose Important?
    [2] NCBI: Alone and Without Purpose

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