Believing that your life has a purpose, or that there is a meaning to your existence, has a strong connection to Wellbeing. Some people find this meaning through a connection to religion, some through commitment to family, some through a self-defining connection to a social group or charity, but those who feel connected to something greater than themselves reap a benefit in terms of life fulfilment. Meaning involves belonging to and serving something bigger than yourself, understanding your highest strengths and using them in service of this greater purpose. When we have a compelling purpose, we are filled with energy, we have strength to persist in the face of obstacles, and reaching goals in service of this purpose motivates us to aim higher again. Without meaning, we are at risk of, as Seligman puts it, “fidgeting ourselves to death”.
Image credit: http://www.funnyjunk.com/Meaning+of+life/funny-pictures/5698026/
Importantly, meaning is subjective – only you can define the things that are meaningful in your life. Some people find a single, all-consuming meaning and sacrifice everything else to it:
- Vincent Lingiari, the Gurindji leader whose principled stance on Indigenous equality led to the formalisation in law of Land Rights for Aboriginal people in Australia;
- Nelson Mandela who suffered political imprisonment for 27 years for his work to end apartheid, before achieving freedom and leading South Africa to equality and reparative justice;
- Elon Musk, whose passion for making humanity a multi-planet species has led to new developments in energy and transport technology; or
- Malala Yousafzai, whose advocacy for female education in Pakistan led to death threats and then an attempt on her life, before her recovery and subsequent award of a Nobel Peace Prize.
However, this kind of laser focus is rare due to the sacrifices it demands.
Others find meaning more sporadically or accidentally, randomly connecting to a source of meaning which is experienced and then passes, as another source of purpose arises. At one stage of life a person might be committed to an educational pathway, then to the development of a family, later to a supporting a charitable organisation, and later still to the next generation of family. The overlapping and multiple purposes and connections act to structure a life worth living.
So how does a person connect to sources of meaning in life?
Remember that it’s what is meaningful to you that is important. So take some time to reflect on what it is that you, personally, find significant and important. What does it mean to think about the purpose of your life? What kind of people do you admire, when you hear about people who have dedicated their lives to a significant cause? Are you one of the rare people who will sacrifice everything for a single purpose, or are there ways of connecting with your passion that require less commitment while still bringing meaning to your life? For example, just because you can’t travel to Syria with Medicins Sans Frontieres (https://www.msf.org.au/donate) doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to donate to Syrian children in refugee camps (http://www.unicef.org.au/appeals/syria-crisis-appeal).
Learn about your strengths and think about how to use them in service of your life’s purpose/s. Just as we discussed in the post on Engagement, linking your strengths to your purpose can provide great benefits. When you give the best parts of yourself to the world, doing things that you care about, you will find more meaning in the things you attempt.
Find a way to be of service to others. Once you’ve determined the things that you care about, seek for volunteering opportunities. Service to others has long been recognised as a path to meaning and purpose in life. To serve means to help others, and it’s a way to connect to something larger than yourself.
Find meaning in challenging experiences. Look back over circumstances in your life that you identified as negative or damaging, and see if you can identify something positive that came out of the experience. What did you learn about yourself, or the world? What did you discover about your own resilience or coping skills? Are you stronger from having survived the experience? Identifying the unexpected or un-looked for positive outcomes from challenging or traumatic experiences can increase your sense of meaning and purpose in life.
A meaningful life is worth pursuing in and of itself. Find ways you can do things that align with your values and use your strengths.
Struggling with the idea that life has little meaning? Talk with a psychologist about how to find and prioritise activities that link you to a strong sense of meaning in life.