Finding Meaning

Meaning in life is an important factor in human well being.

You probably won’t be surprised that research has shown that people who have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life are happier than those without that sense of meaning (Duh!).

However, more than that, people who have a sense of meaning and purpose seem to live longer, cope better with the losses and difficulties of life  and have greater sense of life satisfaction. Having a sense of purpose even seems to protect against cognitive decline as we age.

So if having a sense of meaning is a good thing. What do you do if you want to live a meaningful life?

The first step is to recognise that:

‘Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of …your affections and loyalties…out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account’ – John Gardner

Meaning doesn’t come from a search for some big sign that says ‘This is meaningful’.  Meaning is instead built gradually through the many small choices you make, through the values you choose to express.

‘Values are intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’ Steve Hayes

(If you are uncertain about your values  – there are some good values clarification activities here.)

You can make a conscious decision to treat whatever you are doing as meaningful. An opportunity to live your values. For example, a hospital cleaner can choose to see themselves as an important part of the process of healing patients (which, of course, they are) and as a result express values of kindness or conscientiousness in their work.

However, if your work really doesn’t align with your values. If it genuinely feels meaningless, then you might want to start to work on a career change. It might just save your life!

If you are feeling a bit uncertain about what is meaningful for you, then I recommend ‘The Photojournalist’ activity described by Steger et al in Mindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology. It is a great way of unearthing the meaning that is already present in your life.

Here is what you do:
Take 10-12 photos of “What makes (or could make) your life meaningful.” It is okay to take photos of places, people, things, mementos or even other photos. As you take the photos, keep a note of what each photo represents and how it contributes to your life’s meaning currently or how you hope it will contribute to meaning in your life in the future.

When you have done – notice what you photographed and what you wrote under the photographs. Notice what stands out. Notice any recurrent themes. Craft yourself a meaning statement.

I choose to make the following meaningful….

Now as you go through your day, notice when there is an opportunity to treat an event as meaningful and see what happens.

Here is one of my photojournalist images. The photo is of my partner fixing my chicken pen. A small moment but it has deep meaning for me. It is about relationships, caring, family tradition.

To learn more about the research on meaning, watch Michael Steger’s TEDx talk on What Makes Life Meaningful.

9 thoughts on “Finding Meaning

  1. Thanks for this, Rachel…

    I’m happy that you use this metaphor:
    ” unearthing the meaning that is already present in your life”,
    as for me this highlights that this work is not just a top-down approach – the latter being a perspective that some people might derive from how valueing is frequently presented (IMO…) in the ACT literature.

    In addition to the affirmation you suggest, at times a more explicitly questioning approach could also be helpful: “How can I make this meaningful?” and observe what shows up in response.

    The suggestion of using pictures for this I find priceless.

    All the best,

  2. Great post, thank you.

    Marcos A. Quinones, LCSW Psychotherapist and Life Coach 30 Broad St. 14th FL. New York, NY 10004 t. 646-289-2053

  3. Have you ever thought about the impact of being a “meaning pusher” is? It seems to be the great panacea but the only challenge is that there are no proven interventions (Mike Steger acknowledges this). And reserach suggests ,the more you pursue meaning the unhappier you will be.

    There is also research suggesting people stumble on meaning.

    Pleass be honest in your promtion of meaning

  4. Thanks Oz,
    I agree, this is a complex area.
    I am not sure that the best response to the pain of pursuing meaning is to decide not to pursue it. That sounds like experiential avoidance.
    I was quite careful in choosing the interventions I suggested. Values interventions do have research to support them in terms of improving performance and wellbeing. I think The photojournalist activity is something that most people would enjoy – and, of course, it is only a suggestion. Our readers don’t have to do it!
    Could you give me the link to the research on stumbling on meaning – sounds interesting.

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