Feeling that your life has meaning is fundamental to the experience of being human, and people who feel this way tend to be healthier and happier. Given the importance that most people place on meaning, how might we cultivate the feeling that life is meaningful?
For most of the 20th century, philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists argued that meaning in life is a rare, profound experience, attainable through an active search, deep self-reflection, or some other arduous way of creating meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. But we now know that most people, most of the time, report that their lives feel more meaningful than not. Although actively constructing meaning may be required in some cases—for example, when your world is turned upside down after a traumatic event—cultivating meaning in life may be as simple as detecting the meaning that is already there.
Researchers’ definitions of meaning in life typically incorporate three themes: the belief that your life and contributions matter to others and yourself, the feeling that your life makes sense, and the feeling that you are actively pursuing fulfilling goals. Other research further corroborates the idea that significance (mattering), coherence (making sense), and purpose (orienting toward goals) represent three interrelated facets of, or perhaps direct pathways to, the experience of meaning in life.
Based on those three pathways, here are some relatively simple things you can do to maintain or enhance your experience of meaning in life.
The experience of significance in life
There is great comfort in believing that your life and actions matter in the grand scheme of things. This conviction is referred to as “existential mattering” and is a strong component of the experience of meaning in life. While the concept of existential mattering often evokes images of famous (and infamous) people who have done extraordinary things in their lives—like Mother Theresa, Cesar Chavez, or Bill Gates—many people gain a sense of mattering through avenues more easily traversed.
Research shows that feeling that you have made a positive influence on others is, unsurprisingly, almost always associated with the belief that your life is meaningful. Existential mattering then is often rooted in a sense that you matter to others—from helping strangers in need and providing social support to loved ones, to simply being a reliable friend.
The feeling that your life is significant is related to more than feeling that your actions are influential to others. Significance is augmented when your behaviors, or experiences more broadly, matter to yourself. This aspect of significance is related to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s idea of finding beauty and meaning in life through lived experience. For example, the experience of meaningfulness can be found by enjoying riveting musical performances, being in awe of natural beauty, or simply appreciating an authentic interaction with another person.
One way to perceive more significance in your life is to actively seek out intrinsically rewarding experiences, like (re)connecting with nature or people who make it easy to express your true self. Moreover, many cognitive or emotional regulation strategies, such as practicing mindfulness, savoring the positive aspects of situations, cultivating a grateful disposition, or learning to evaluate your experiences more positively, naturally foster the detection of significance in your life experiences.
Although such experiences may lead the self to feel small in the context of vastness, they may also remind us that we belong to that vastness—that we are an indelible part of the wider universe in which we exist.
Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense. For most people, most of the time, understanding life isn’t a problem requiring a solution. We are natural sense makers, automatically comprehending most situations effortlessly. In fact, a likely reason we don’t think about meaning in life too much is that our lives simply feel right (that is, things simply make sense). Our lives are embedded in a natural world characterized by regularities—sunrises and sunsets. We overlay these regularities with our own routines—morning coffee or an evening walk. The regularities of life provide the rhythms that undergird the feeling that life is meaningful.
Of course, life does not always make sense. For example, you may feel a sense of incomprehensibility after experiencing trauma or, counterintuitively, trying too hard to understand why your life has meaning.
Of all of the facets of meaning, coherence likely represents a basic psychological need. Similar to the anguish we feel when our need to belong is thwarted, our world seems to fall apart when things suddenly do not make sense. Restoring a sense of coherence during these times can be challenging and often requires feedback and reassurance from others (like a therapist or parent), as well as the mysterious healing power of time to help the mind restore a sense of equanimity. Reconnecting with the natural order of the world, reinstating routines that give structure to life, and finding respite in the arts may help you make sense of life again.
Although the inability to make sense of your life can detract from the experience of meaning, simply making sense of it doesn’t necessarily mean that life will feel meaningful. It is easy, for example, to think of an individual who possesses a cynical belief about how their life has unfolded. This worldview may help the individual make sense of their situation and life more broadly, but it seems unlikely to foster the belief that their life is full of meaning. This example illustrates how meaning is not simply about “connecting the dots” but also finding beauty in the picture that emerges.
Imbuing life with a sense of purpose
“Clear eyes, full hearts (can’t lose)” was the mantra of the Dillon Panthers, the fictitious football team familiar to fans of the popular TV show “Friday Night Lights.” One reason clearing one’s eyes, and subsequently filling one’s heart, is a successful strategy for football players and, perhaps, everyone is that people in this psychological state can pursue their goals with a greater sense of purpose. Feeling a sense of purpose helps us sustain motivation though the thick and thin of everyday life, and purposeful people tend to be more satisfied with their lives and even live longer. Purpose, therefore, is tied to both the quality and quantity of our existence.
One factor that facilitates purposeful action is possessing a clear reason for engaging in whatever you are doing. Knowing the “why” of your actions can infuse even trivial behaviors with value. Nietzsche famously noted that the person “who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” By developing a clear reason for pursuing a goal, the “how” of your goal-directed actions becomes more tolerable (and often more enjoyable) because those actions are now connected with a more long-term objective. For example, although most students would rather socialize with friends than study before an exam, clearly understanding that this minor hedonic sacrifice will help them obtain a rewarding job down the line should make it easier to commit to exam prep.
Even as your nose is firmly “to the grindstone,” clear eyes can be trained on a broader life dream. The overarching reason for existence can be found in “God’s plan” or a life calling, but a sense of the why of behaviors is not limited to such grand experiences. Taking time to reflect on your life dreams—to write the next chapters of your life story—can help to connect everyday life and daily goals to broader aspirations. Instead of wandering aimlessly, having “clear eyes” gives you a sense of direction and the motivation (a full heart) to help you achieve your goals and allow those accomplishments to imbue your life with meaning.
Some reasons for goal pursuit may be better than others, though. A person who feels they should perform a task only because their supervisor asked them to do it is unlikely to enjoy a sense of purpose while performing that work. Instead, purposeful behaviors are by definition pursued for more intrinsic reasons, often related to core aspects of one’s identity. For example, people may volunteer at a homeless shelter for various reasons, but the person who does so because they feel their actions are consistent with an internalized value of helping others in need are more likely to derive a sense of purpose from the experience.
The capacity of meaning to allow us to wake up every morning and do what needs to be done requires that meaning be present even in suffering. And this is where a sense of purpose is powerful. Although all human lives matter, they all also end and, in the grand scheme, may not hold the promise of a place in history, threatening our sense of significance. Similarly, although life very often makes sense, random, senseless events do occur that can destabilize our sense of coherence—from natural disasters to random acts of horrific violence. But purpose may be the facet of meaning that is least dependent on happenstance. No matter the circumstance, purpose—the capacity to invest in goals—is available, promising to imbue life with meaning.
Although it may be common folklore that ardently searching for, and effortfully creating, meaning in life is the primary way to truly experience this sought-after feeling, research suggests that most of the time meaning is actually quite easy to detect. Trying to understand why our life is meaningful may serve a function when life becomes incomprehensible, but ultimately it may never yield a satisfying answer. Meaning is not just found in one place. It is all around us—in our relationships, work, and spiritual and religious beliefs, as well as through the appreciating of life itself.