You’re going through the motions at work when that familiar, oppressive feeling seems to overshadow you. You pause for a moment – your hands floating over the keyboard, the grill, the cash register – and you ask yourself, Why am I doing this?
If you’re like me, maybe it’s the beautiful moments that pierce you. The night sky, the sun shining through the leaves like green stained glass, the insignificance of yourself against the horizon…and with a jolt, a sense of pain intrudes upon beauty as that little voice inside of you asks, What is the meaning of my life?
I’ve spent the last eleven years on a journey to understand my life’s purpose. I’ve lived abroad for six years, studied in the humanities at the doctoral level, and although I can’t say that my journey is done, I’d like to share with you a few steps that can help you circumvent some of the more laborious and time-consuming ruminations of finding your life’s purpose. I hereby present to you my quick, three-step approach for finding the meaning of your life. Or, if you’d like a more detailed approach, head over to my complete guide to finding meaning in life.
Step One: Define Your Epistemology
Epistemology is your method for arriving at what you believe to be truth. It’s a bit like choosing the route you will take to get to a certain destination. Sometimes there are multiple roads that arrive at the same place. Sometimes there are slower, less effective roads or dead-ends. Understanding your epistemology is key, because it forms the foundation on which you will build your entire concept of personal meaning.
There are many different schools of thought regarding epistemology, but for our intents and purposes, I’d like to boil it down to three main implications: either your meaning in life is given to you (by your “tribe” or community, by God, by fate, by the necessity of an urgent moment) or you construct your own meaning, or there is no meaning. You don’t need to go through excessive philosophical gymnastics (although you might find it necessary, depending on your temperament). You just need to begin with a clear belief about whether your meaning is given to you or created by you (if you don’t believe you have any meaning, the rest of this post probably isn’t relevant to you).
Personally, I take a somewhat mixed approach. I think in some ways, meaning is something bestowed. I’m a very spiritual person, so I think there is meaning in the fact that divinity decided I should exist, and I find it incredibly meaningful to contemplate what expectations go along with my existence. As a student of sociology, I also recognize that society gives meaning and requirements to me – that is, society creates values for us – being a “good citizen” requires certain modes of behavior that I didn’t think up but I do agree is pretty important. Living up to the basic expectations of a functioning society is meaningful. It keeps us from becoming hyper-individualistic, antisocial, or otherwise weird loners. These expectations are not made by us, they are given to us.
At the same time, I do think there are a great many things in life that give us latitude to construct our own meaning. For example, what are “meaningful” ways of showing love to your partner? What are “meaningful” ways to improve your local community? These simple questions could have a million answers depending on who you ask. In some ways, each person is responsible for creating meaning in his or her context.
You may lean more towards one approach or the other – meaning is bestowed, meaning is constructed, or perhaps a bit of both. But once you’ve decided where you stand, your expectations will be more realistic.
Step Two: Explore, and Log Your Explorations
Since 2009, I’ve made it a habit to spend the first hour of my day in soul nurture: meditation, prayer, contemplation of important goals and aims, reading, journaling, and connecting my spirit with God. I can’t say that every day is stress-free or that I always achieve my goals, but I can definitely say that this habit has helped me remain focused enough to accomplish meaningful milestones and has kept me relatively nice when circumstances were practically begging for nasty. I can’t recommend it enough.
What’s important about having a specific time every day to stop and reflect (it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the early morning) is that it keeps you in the mode of seeking that which you desire. You want to find meaning in life? It’s not like a treasure box that you accidentally discover and lug home with you once and forever, like “oh, today I just figured out the meaning of life and now I’m good to go.” Meaning is something you achieve on a daily basis, a moment-by-moment choice to live meaningfully and to live in harmony with your values. As your knowledge increases over the course of your life, maybe your values change, and then your actions adjust in response. A daily reflection on what and who is important in life helps to keep what’s most valuable at the forefront of your mind.
At the same time, intentionally put yourself out there to explore new places, people, and experiences. This will help you to realize what is important to you. Cross-cultural experiences can help you get outside of yourself and figure out where you’re spoiled, where you’re actually making yourself miserable, and where you have room to be proud of who you are (in another article I’ll share why I think short-term trips abroad are basically useless in this regard). Go abroad for a year or more. Volunteer with organizations that are doing something they believe in, something you can believe in. Help them clean the ocean, do free eye surgeries, teach English, or raise awareness. As you navigate various roles, you’ll figure out what you believe in and what is most meaningful to you.
If you can’t travel, read. Turn off your time-stealing television (my disclaimer about digital minimalism here) and read about people who have made a difference in the world. Here’s a great list of books about finding purpose in life to get you started. Log your thoughts. What did they do that inspires you? What makes you feel hopeful? Longing? Energetic? Passionate? Why do certain missions and motives appeal to you more than others?
If you are a spiritual person, I recommend reading and meditating on religious passages that grapple with the meaning of life. Somehow it’s comforting to know that human beings were asking the same questions thousands of years ago.
At a very minimum, get involved in a local community. Any community. A bowling league, a Rotary Club, a church, a parent group. Peter Callero, author of The Myth of Individualism, writes the following:
The myth of individualism may be most disruptive and unsettling in the way it legitimates social isolation and contributes to an increasingly alienated lifestyle. Sociologists have collected overwhelming evidence that community involvement, civic engagement, and social activity in general has been on a steady decline in the United States since at least 1970.
You’ll have to take my word for it, but believe me when I say that you’ll never find meaning anywhere except outside of yourself. A cause you believe in, people you love, Divinity you adore…don’t isolate yourself in your search for a meaningful life. Engage on every hand with as many people and causes as possible and see where you find your calling.
Step Three: Start Rearranging Life to Reflect Your Values
Some changes are better made slowly and deliberately. If you want to become vegan, you’ll want to first make sure you know how to cook, then you’ll want to wean yourself off the meat slowly (common to quick-switch vegans is a sudden increase in weight because they fix their meat cravings with sugar). Job changes – like forming a startup or trying your hand at freelancing – might be more successful with a slow transition.
Other changes require a fast, sharp axe. If you’re ready to quit your job, just quit. Quit smoking. Quit cheating on your partner. Quit letting yourself be alienated from your mother/father/sibling. Living life meaningfully sometimes requires you to be tough. Millions of average people are average because they aren’t willing to do the hard work of aligning their actions with their values. Make a timetable for yourself and decide which changes need to be made, and when. Then do it. How can you do it? See my second step above, the hour-per-day principle.
Finding meaning in life is, I believe, a constant process of negotiating new information and experiences, developing values, and fulfilling commitments. It’s a process of relating purposefully to the environment, to people, to God, and to causes that move you. It is a day-by-day choice to face life actively rather than passively. I hope something in this short article helps give you some ideas about how to pursue the sense of meaningful living that your heart desires. Stay consistent and you’ll get there.