“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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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, 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.
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.
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.
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 , 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.
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:
- 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 .
“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.
“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:
“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:
- 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