What is a Meaningful Life?
Below is an excerpt from my #1 bestselling book Making Meaning: Counseling Psychology & Buddhist Practices to Create & Live the Life You Want, which you can get buy here https://www.amazon.com/Making-Meaning-Counseling-Psychology-Practices/dp/B09HFXS491 or read for free with Kindle Unlimited.
To solve the riddle of the meaning of life, the logical first stop is the work of the twentieth century German Jewish psychologist Viktor Frankl. Frankl made the meaning of life central to his own life, and Logotherapy, his therapeutic approach. He provided a definition and suggested one possible answer for the question of whether there is a universal meaning of life. I second his opinion, that there is no universal, shared meaning, though evolutionary psychologists, who are focused on strategies of preservation of the specie, even in humans, would disagree. Frankl said:
Meaning can be attributed to the concrete meaning of a concrete situation. It is the particular challenge of the hour. . . Every day, every hour presents a new meaning, and a different meaning awaits each individual person. Thus, there is a meaning for each and every person, and for each and every person, there is a particular meaning.
If each moment possesses a different meaning, does our life, which is the sum of all these moments, have one big constantly re-defined meaning? Social psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote that “a meaningful life is one that has a sense of purpose, and second, a meaningful life is one that matters or possesses significance”. A sense of purpose is personal, but to have a meaningful life also implies that a personal purpose can contribute to others’ lives as well.
In my teenage years, there was a clear lack for me around the area of contribution to others, or a purpose beyond me and my interests. The three years of loneliness and void I experienced in high school were defined by a feeling of being a “ghost.” I felt that I was not seen by anyone, almost as if I was floating in a cloud of limbo, seeing everything through a distant veil. I was there, but I really was not.
The only moments when the veil lifted was when I set to work on my oil paintings. I would lose myself in the art. Later, my escape became music and learning new instruments. I think I was also partially happy when I spent time with my friends outside of school, friends who were Russian immigrants like myself, newly arrived in Israel. The main things that allowed some sense of meaning and purpose in my life were art and a connection with others from my culture of origin.
Heintzelman and King wrote that “the meaningful life makes sense to the person living it; it is comprehensible, and it is characterized by regularity, predictability, or reliable connections”. The benefits of merely believing that your life has a meaning, according to Heintzelman and King, are numerous: A better quality of life, especially when you are older, including self-reported better health, as well as decreased mortality. The research findings are staggering. Here are just a few:
Having a meaning in life correlates with less age-related cognitive decline and a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Having a meaning in life lowers the frequency of psychological disorders and suicidal ideation, even in individuals with depression.
Having a meaningful life allows for more effective coping strategies and easier adjustment to new work environments.
An added bonus is that people who have a strong sense of meaning in their lives are more likely to have a strong social network.
As you can see, having a sense of personal meaning extends beyond the scope of ambiguous philosophical debate and into the very fabric of your life.
My purpose in writing this book is to help you clarify your personal sense of meaning. However, there is a twist: Within that exploration lies the possibility of dropping the question completely.
I hope that if you disregard the question “What does my life mean?”, what you might find remaining is a sense of being fully alive. When you embody your purpose, you may no longer need to be lost in heady words, in questions and answers. Instead, you may find that the experience of living is the answer to all your deepest questions.
I hope that as you continue your own journey you will remember: The map that we follow is not really the territory that we explore. Maps and guidelines have the potential to take someone on a journey, but the map cannot replace the feeling of walking on earth and enjoying the view. And yet, without maps, we would be lost, or it will simply take us longer to find our way.
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