We all crave meaning and purpose in our lives, but many of us have difficulty finding it.
Often times without meaning, we can fall into a “nihilistic trap” of thinking nothing in our life really matters and we are just mindless machines going through the motions.
However according to the new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith, there are many potential sources to find meaning in our lives. This article will breakdown these into 5 different pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence and growth.
Interestingly, psychology research is beginning to discover that finding “meaning” is just as important as finding “happiness.”
In one study, participants were asked over a 10 day period to either do an activity that was related to “pleasure” (sleeping in, playing video games, going shopping, or eating sweets) or do an activity that was related to “virtue” (forgiving a friend, studying, thinking about one’s values, and helping or cheering another person).
Those who were placed in the “pleasure” condition reported an increase in positive emotions right away, but those positive emotions often faded quickly. Those who were placed in the “virtue” condition didn’t report as much positive emotion, but they did report more increased well-being in the long-term.
Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to draw a distinction between “hedonism” (life of pleasure) and “eudaimonia” (life of meaning):
- “To Aristotle, eudaimonia is not a fleeting positive emotion. Rather, it is something you do. Leading a eudaimonic life, Aristotle argued, requires cultivating the best qualities within you both morally and intellectually and living up to your potential. It is an active life, a life in which you do your job and contribute to society, a life in which you are involved in your community, a life, above all, in which you realize your potential, rather than squander your talents.”
This is a good summary of what it means to live a meaningful life. It often requires being able to connect and contribute to something that is larger than ourselves. It’s more than just chasing pleasurable feelings.
The rest of this article will describe these 5 fundamental pillars behind a meaningful and purposeful life.
One of the most essential pillars behind a meaningful life is a sense of “belonging.”
We rarely find meaning alone in a vacuum, but instead often derive meaning based on the relationships in our lives.
“We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners. We all need to give and receive affection. We all need to find our tribe. In other words, we all need to feel that we belong.”
It’s difficult to find meaning if you are surrounded by people who don’t seem to accept you or appreciate you. As social beings, we depend on finding a group or tribe that we can “fit in” with and contribute to.
This need for “belonging” extends not just to family, friends, and romantic partners, but also to coworkers and bosses in the workplace.
One of my favorite examples in The Power of Meaning looked at how janitors get a sense of “belonging” from their job at a hospital. While typically this isn’t viewed as the most “glamorous” job – the way people are treated by their coworkers can make a huge difference.
“The cleaners told some two hundred stories about their time at work. When the researchers analyzed those stories, they discovered the powerful role that belonging plays in how people experience their jobs. Brief interactions, they found, could be deeply hurtful. When cleaners felt devalued by their colleagues, their work felt less meaningful. The most common way the cleaners felt devalued was by being ignored. Doctors were particularly egregious offenders. One cleaner named Harry said, ‘The doctors have a tendency to look at us like we’re not even there, like, you know, we’ll be working in the hallways, and you know, no recognition of what you are doing whatsoever.”
In this setting, even just a simple moment of recognition often made the cleaners feel more accepted and appreciated – it made them feel that they were a part of the “tribe.”
As you can see, it’s important that we find people in our lives who we can feel connected to and call a part of our “group” or “tribe.” Without this sense of belonging, we can often feel lost, alone, and unappreciated.
Another important pillar behind a meaningful life is a sense of “purpose.”
To have a purpose means to serve something other than yourself. One of the most common purposes people find is to start a family and raise children. This is a great way to “step outside of yourself,” take responsibility for something, and care for another’s well-being and happiness.
Raising a family isn’t always fun, easy, or pleasurable – sometimes it’s the exact opposite – but the meaning you can get from it can give your life a greater sense of purpose and duty that you can’t find just mindlessly seeking pleasure.
Of course, there are many other ways to find purpose too. Many people find purpose through their work or career by recognizing the ways they contribute to society and make the world a better place. You can also find purpose through social activism, volunteer work, religion, or helping others.
The main goal to finding “purpose” in your life is to find something to serve. That’s it.
One fascinating study looked at nursing homes and assigned one group of people to take care of a plant. Here’s what they found:
- “After a year and a half, psychologists followed up with both groups of people. They found that those who cared for a plant did remarkably better than those who did not. They were more social, alert, cheerful, active, and healthy. Most surprising to the researchers was that those who took care of a plant actually lived longer. Over the eighteen months of the experiment, fewer of them had died compared to the other group.”
So even something as simple as taking care of a plant can give people’s lives some sense of purpose and vigor.
Taking care of a plant may seem trivial, but for these elderly people it gave them something to care for and something that depended on them to survive and flourish. And that can be a powerful feeling.
To find purpose in your life you must ask yourself, “What do I serve?”
The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith is a fantastic book about why we need meaning in our lives and the many sources we can get it from, such as belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence, and growth. If you feel like you’re struggling to find meaning in your own life, I highly recommend you check it out.
We all tell stories about ourselves and the direction our lives are taking.
When we look back on our lives, we don’t just see isolated facts – we form a narrative around those facts to help make coherent sense of them and make everything fit together.
Storytelling is an inherent part of being human. Our distant ancestors would often look up at the stars and create stories about them to give their lives a greater sense of meaning. In many ways, this was the beginning of mythology, religion, and philosophy.
“Our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. We have a primal desire to impose order on disorder – to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them; we couldn’t function otherwise. Stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it, and understand why things happen the way they do. ‘Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning, whether we tell tales of the creation of the earth or of our own early choices,’ writes [Gregory] Baterson.”
One important way we create meaning in our lives is by taking control of how we tell our own life story.
Do you see your life as a depressing tragedy or a triumphant victory? Often times it depends more on how we make sense of the events in our lives (and the perspective we look at them) rather than the specific events themselves.
Psychologist Dan P. McAdams calls this our “narrative identity.”
“McAdams is a psychologist at Northwestern University and an expert on a concept he calls ‘narrative identity.’ McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself – a personal myth, as one writer puts it, ‘about who we are deep down – where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means.’ Like fictional stories, it contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges that we overcome, and suffering that we have endured. When we want people to understand us, we share our story or parts of it with them.”
To take control of our story, we may need to reframe our past, present, and future from a new perspective.
In my article Rewriting the Story of Your Life: A Process of Self-Exploration Through Writing, I share a step-by-step exercise you can follow to begin taking more control over your story.
No matter who you are, we all create stories about ourselves. Some of us look back on our past and see our memories as a collection of all the bad things that happened to us that created who we are and determine our hopeless future, while others look back and see their memories as the beginnings of opportunity, growth, and inevitable triumph.
How do you tell the story of your life? It could make a big difference in the meaning you are extracting from your life events.
Another pillar discussed throughout The Power of Meaning is “transcendence.”
To transcend literally means “to go beyond.” It’s an experience that makes us feel that we are connected with something larger than just ourselves.
As you can tell by now, to find “meaning” we must often learn how to step outside of ourselves. When it comes to transcendence, individuals directly experience a feeling that there is something beyond themselves – and this can often be both inspiring and humbling.
There are many ways to create feelings of transcendence. One of the most common ways is to look up at the night sky or the vastness of the ocean.
“Since the dawn of human consciousness, me and women have looked up at the night sky, marveling at the stars, wondering what they were and what they represented. Studying they celestial spheres, they sought answers to the biggest questions of human existence. How did the world begin? Will it end? What else is out there? They sought omens, wisdom, and hints of ancestors past. But what they really sought was meaning. The same is true today.”
Feelings of transcendence can also be found through meditation, prayer, fasting, psychedelic drugs, and religious ceremonies. Many people report feeling connected to a “divine power” or “God” when they practice these things.
When someone has a transcendent experience, it can often give them a new sense of identity or purpose. It changes how you view yourself and thereby changes your values and priorities in life.
“During transcendent states, two remarkable things happen. According to psychologist David Yaden of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on transcendence, first, our sense of self washes away along with all of its petty concerns and desires. We then feel deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists in the world. The result is that our anxieties about existence and death evaporate, and life finally seems, for a moment, to make sense – which leaves us with a sense of peace and well-being.”
Transcendent experiences create feelings of awe, gratitude, and humility. It can diminish our selfish tendencies and get us to focus on new priorities and values that serve something bigger than ourselves.
For example, one interesting study showed how feelings like “awe” can promote more altruistic behavior. When you feel the power of something bigger than yourself, you often become more motivated and inspired to help others – because you realize that not everything is just about you.
Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily need to be religious to experience feelings of transcendence. Even something as simple as walking through nature (or even watching a nature documentary) can elicit feelings that there is much more to the universe than you think there is.
The last fundamental pillar of meaning is a feeling of “growth” or moving forward.
This can be particularly difficult for people after going through a negative event or crisis, but that doesn’t mean that growth isn’t possible.
Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina are experts of a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth.”
The basic idea behind “post-traumatic growth” is that people can often take a traumatic experience and turn it around to improve the lives of themselves and others.
For example, a war veteran with PTSD can use their experience to help other veterans manage their mental difficulties and reintegrate into everyday civilian life, or a victim of sexual assault can use their experience to help prevent other sexual assaults in the future.
While no one should ever wish to be the victim of a traumatic event, it’s always encouraging to see strong people rise above their negative experiences and turn them into fuel to make the world a better place.
“Tedeschi and Calhoun use the metaphor of an earthquake to explain how we grow in the wake of crisis. Just as a city has a certain structure before a major earthquake, so too do we have certain fundamental beliefs about our lives and the world. Trauma shatters those assumptions. But out of the rubble comes an opportunity to rebuild. In the aftermath of an earthquake, cities aim to erect buildings and infrastructure that are stronger and more resilient than what now lies in ruins. Similarly, those who are able to rebuild psychologically, spiritually, and otherwise after a crisis are better equipped to deal with future adversity, and they ultimately lead more meaningful lives.”
This is a great metaphor for “post-traumatic growth” because it shows how sometimes we can take a destructive experience in our lives and use it as an opportunity to build something even stronger and more resilient.
According to Tedeschi and Calhoun, there are 5 major ways people can grow after a crisis. These include:
1) Relationships strengthen – After a crisis, individuals often begin to prioritize their relationships with friends and family more because they understand the importance of social support.
2) Discover new paths and purposes – After a crisis, individuals often start to re-focus their priorities in life which could lead them to pursue new paths that are more centered on helping people and making the world a better place for others.
3) Finding your inner strength – After a crisis, individuals learn just how resilient and strong they can be during difficult times. They begin to think, “If I can make it through that terrible experience, then I can make it through anything!”
4) Spiritual life deepens – After a crisis, many individuals become more interested in religion and spirituality to help deepen their understanding of life and connect themselves with a “higher power.”
5) Renewed appreciation for life – After a crisis, individuals learn how to appreciate the small, everyday things in life more, like spending time with family, eating a good meal, and being able to go outside and enjoy nature.
The truth is that no matter what our past experiences are, they can be fuel for growth and improvement. And being able to take these past experiences and use them as motivation to improve ourselves (and improve the world) can be a fantastic way to build more meaning in your life.
Overall The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith is a fantastic book about why we need meaning in our lives and the many sources we can get it from, such as belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence, and growth. If you feel like you’re struggling to find meaning in your own life, I highly recommend you check it out.
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