How can you find meaning in life?
Are you confused by weird opinions from religious and philosophical sages? Do online resources feel too vague or unspecific to help you really put your finger on it?
Finding meaning in life isn’t impossible. The problem is that people give up too soon, and they don’t follow a methodical path that helps them understand the really important foundations.
I’ve been seeking for meaning and purpose in my life since my teenage years. While my peers were talking about boys, movies, and fashion, I was holed up in my bedroom, trying to figure out if nihilism would be a viable life path (spoiler alert: it isn’t).
I’ve been at this task for the last fifteen years, and although I don’t claim to have all the answers, I think I’m definitely a few steps ahead. That’s why I’ve taken every concept that has helped me over the years and I’ve compiled it in one big article, just for you.
I always felt that if I ever got to the point of making sense of my life, I wanted to freely share that with others. During my years of living abroad, taking a PhD, encountering thousands of potentially helpful ideas, and going through deep valleys of difficulty, I always kept in mind the desire of one day packaging all these gems of insight in a way that would help others.
So here we are with the complete guide for finding meaning in your life. As promised, it’s methodical. It’s systematic. It’s going to help you finally put your finger on what will really make your life meaningful.
Altogether, if you work your way through this article, it’s going to help you lay the right foundations and work through the right exercises for gaining a healthy sense of purpose.
Setting Realistic Expectations
Let’s start with an obvious observation: finding meaning in life is not easy, and it’s not something you magically do once and then you’re set for life. I love how the no-nonsense blogger Mark Manson puts it when he writes,
People believe that all you have to do is find the thing — that one bloody thing! — that you are “meant” to do, and suddenly, everything will click into place. You’ll do it until the day you die and always feel fulfilled and happy and prance with unicorns and rainbows while making a million dollars in your pajamas.Mark Manson
This is, obviously, a severely mistaken way to think. But it illustrates the fact that many people have overly simplistic ideas about finding what makes them tick.
To avoid oversimplifying, we’ll start out with three core concepts that help us create realistic expectations and lay the foundation for success. The three fundamental beliefs are:
- There is a difference between “meaning IN life” and “meaning OF life”
- Meaning involves multiple strategic layers
- Meaning is fluid and context-specific
Let’s check out each of these foundational expectations in more detail.
Fundamental 1: There Is a Difference Between “Meaning in Life” and “Meaning of Life”
Anyone who begins their journey to finding meaning in life is sure to come across the the now-famous segment from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which they ask the ultimate question: what is the answer to life, the universe, everything?
If you haven’t seen it, let’s start this segment off with a little brain-bending chuckle. Go ahead, take a minute and watch it:
The answer to life is “42?” What kind of answer is that…?! 😡
Of course, the point is well-made that our core problem is asking the wrong question.
That’s why it’s important to differentiate between the meaning IN life versus the meaning OF life. If we are searching for the meaning OF life, we’re asking the same question the fictional pan-dimensional beings asked the supercomputer: give me one short, pithy, final solution that explains everything.
If there weren’t so many human beings throughout all of history who have tried to answer this very illogical question, it might be laughable.
A few reasons why searching for the meaning OF life is ultimately unfruitful
- Searching for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything presupposes the ability to actually KNOW everything. You don’t. You’re not omniscient and all-knowing. You know about 0.0000001% of all there is in the universe to know.
- Thinking that you can understand this elusive, single answer “of” life is actually a very arrogant and prideful endeavor. It revolves around you belief in your personal philosophical abilities, which are probably not better than Plato and Aristotle, who only knew about 0.0000002% of all there is to know.
- Thinking that there is one single meaning of life ignores the complexity of the universe. The meaning of a rabbit’s life, for example, revolves around eating, procreation, and not getting eaten by a hawk. We could even say the meaning of a rabbit’s life is to be beautiful (aesthetics) or to fulfill its role in the food chain (teleology). There are also various spiritual explanations for why a rabbit would exist and have meaning — for example, perhaps we would say the rabbit mirrors the gentleness and quiet presence of God. But all of these ways of explaining the meaning of a rabbit’s life are different from how we would explain my life. Therefore, since we see that there are at least two possible and valid explanations of a meaningful life (the meaning of a rabbit’s life versus the meaning of my life), we wouldn’t want to look for one single answer, but rather a multifaceted and nuanced answer.
If you’ve followed me thus far, you’ve basically digested the first core assumption when searching for meaning in life.
We’re searching for meaning IN life, not the ultimate meaning OF life.
The good news is that there aren’t endless possible answers to finding meaning in life. For each person, there are usually a limited number of attributes that contribute towards a sense of meaningful existence, and I’m going to walk you through the major ones.
As I stated before, finding meaning in life is a systematic process, like putting puzzle pieces together.
And our first core assumption is that we are seeking meaning IN our lives, not the ultimate answer to the existence of the whole universe. Leave that discussion to the cosmologists (who, by the way, are always refining and adapting their theories anyways). Don’t fall for the fallacy of omniscience that suggests you need to explain the meaning of the entire universe when you’ve never even left your country.
So what is this comprehensive guide on finding meaning in life going to do for you?
If you work through all the exercises, you won’t find the ultimate answer to the universe (God only knows). But you’ll be able to achieve what’s called eudaemonic well-being — a sense of meaning and purpose in your own life. You’ll be able to wake up in the morning with a sense of direction, a healthy feeling of rootedness, and confidence that you have a reason for being.
If you’re the kind of person who is looking for a crystal ball answer to the meaning of everything in the universe, this guide isn’t for you.
But if you’re the kind of person who is interested in deeply personalizing a sense of meaning and purpose in your own life, you’re definitely on the right track. Keep reading.
Fundamental 2: Meaning in Life Involves Multiple Strategic Layers
In my home, nothin’ gets cooked without breaking out an onion.
And of course, you’ve got to peel back the skin and maybe an outer layer or two before you get to the good part of the onion.
Meaning in life is like that. There are layers.
And since we’re being systematic and methodical, we’ve got to be prepared to peel back all the layers to strategically get to the answer that will really fulfill us.
There are four layers of meaning that influence your eudaemonic well-being — your healthy sense of meaning and purpose:
On the surface, we’ve got the outer layer of passion and purpose. These are “task” questions. What am I going to DO with my life? Am I going to be a doctor? A stay-at-home mom? An environmental expert?
Beneath this is a layer for values. What do I value in life? How do I define “success” — earning a lot of money, or making a difference in the world? Do I value community ties or independence? Artistic expression or corporate productivity? Time-tested traditions or alternative lifestyles?
A third and deeper level involves identity and causality. Who am I — what am I? Am I lovingly created in the image of divinity, or am I the fantastic byproduct of a dying star? Am I an extrovert or an introvert? What foundational traits make me who I am?
The final and deepest layer is the most complex. It relates to epistemology — your very own philosophy of how you determine what is true, meaningful, and valuable in life. This layer answers the question of, what method do I use to decide these important questions? How do I arrive at my beliefs?
Recognizing the multiple layers of meaning is one of the most important core foundations you can lay for finding meaning in your life. Many people try to solve the outer layer — task — without having sufficiently clarified the layers underneath. They can’t figure out what their purpose and passion in life is, because they haven’t dug deep to lay the right foundation.
They haven’t been systematic.
Thankfully, working your way through these layers of meaning in life — starting at the inner core and working your way out — can lead you to a much clearer and more coherent understanding of your life’s meaning. And we’re going to do it right here, together.
Fundamental 3: Meaning Is Fluid and Context-Specific
Repeat this a hundred times: meaning in life can CHANGE.
This especially relates to the outer layer of having meaningful “tasks” in life.
If you’re really serious about crafting a meaningful life, I recommend at least the first half of the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He was an Austrian psychiatrist who ended up in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. His unique perspective is that of a medical professional who actually survived the horrors of the holocaust and wrote a now-famous book detailing the psychological phenomena of the victims.
Frankl wrote that the ones who survived the concentration camps were the ones who maintained a sense of meaning and purpose.
However, he did not have a rigid understanding of meaning. He recognized that meaning is fluid and changes constantly as life throws new challenges at us. He said,
…it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
This shift in thinking is important. It means we are not looking for a generalized holy grail of meaning that we can ascertain or achieve once and for all. As life throws new curveballs, we respond by arranging our priorities, thought processes, and actions in a way that is meaningful to us.
Thus, meaning in life is fluid and context-based.
For example, I grew up in a three-generation home with both my parents and grandparents. My grandmother was on hospice when I went on a trip to deliver a series of lectures over a period of two weeks. I hoped she would still be there when I came back so I could tell her about the trip.
But she didn’t make it. My mother sent me the news of her passing. She told me exactly on the day I was supposed to deliver a lecture about death and how we respond to and cope with the passing of loved ones.
At that point, I had two options: stay home and have a good cry, or go deliver my lecture. Life was sending me a challenge and demanding that I make a decision.
I decided to do both. I had a big, healthy cry, and then I went to deliver my lecture. It ended up being a rather emotional delivery, but I was able to relate my subject matter to a very real incident happening in my life. As I made my lecture personal, I felt a deep connection with my audience. They empathized with me in a way I’d experienced in no other speaking engagement before. In many faces I saw my pain reflected as their own losses came to the surface. Some of them wept with me.
I consider that bittersweet moment one of my most meaningful moments of public speaking, and I keep it in my memory as a tribute to my dear grandmother.
It’s an example of constructed meaning.
Through an act of personal effort and intentionality, it is possible to take the random, shattered pieces of life and construct something useful and meaningful.
But think about this. My grandmother passed away almost a decade ago. What if I was to attend a friend’s birthday party this weekend and start regaling the guests with the sad and gruesome details of what it’s like to have a family member on hospice care? Would it be as meaningful?
Definitely not — it would be inappropriate and not meaningful at all at a festive occasion. Remember: meaning is context-specific.
No matter how important something is in your life, it’s not meaningful in all contexts.
However, based on the belief that meaning is often very fluid, you have the ability to construct something meaningful in every context.
Another example: when I was taking my BA in Education, I did a course on curriculum strategy; for a whole semester our professors trained us in a method called 4MAT. It’s one of those nerdy curriculum planning techniques with a small but cult-like following of educators. I can still remember sitting in the cafeteria, geeking out over 4MAT homework with my education classmates while our friends from other disciplines wondered what was wrong with us.
At that time in my life, I really wanted to be a teacher. I still do. When my husband got a job in the Middle East, I was crushed that my career in teaching wouldn’t work out the same way I had always imagined.
Being a teacher was what I viewed as “meaningful,” and that career option was gone.
But meaning wasn’t gone.
All that 4MAT training? Well, I transferred it to new domains. Turns out, principles from the curriculum planning frameworks like 4MAT aren’t only for the classroom. I started using the basic framework in preparing presentations, structuring book chapters, and drafting strategic plans.
And so the spirit of what I found meaningful lives on, in a more fluid form, weaving in and out of the demands of life over which I have only limited control.
You see, if we recognize that meaning in life is often fluid, we’ll give up that rigid devotion to “the one” thing that will make us happy.
Do you ever feel that there ought to be a yellow brick road (preferably a straight one) that leads out of your current situation to a life of meaningful happiness?
Right here, right now, you’ve got to bury that assumption. ⚰️
Don’t cheat yourself of the chance to see meaning blossoming in new and unexpected forms in your life because you insist on having it the way you always dreamed. Ground yourself in your current context — not a past or future one — and seek the meaning that is already there, whatever form it may be.
Finding Meaning in Life: A Systematic Search
Now that we’ve laid some important foundations, we can take a systematic, step-by-step approach to gaining a sense of meaning in life.
Finding your passion and purpose in life isn’t complicated, but we often overlook the big picture. For whatever reason, people like the quick route: just tell me what I’m supposed to do with my life that’ll give me passion, unicorns, and millions of dollars.
It’s not that easy. But at the other extreme, it’s not as bad as mining coal with your fingernails. In this section, we’ll peel back the layers of the onion and get to the core of where you can find meaning in life. And guess what? I’ll even give you WORKSHEETS! 💃🏼💃🏼💃🏼
In this section, we’ll look at three layers:
- How your epistemology serves as the fountainhead for all you find meaningful in life
- What to do to craft your unique identity, and how it propels the manifestation of your life purpose
- How to identify your personal values and understand how they contribute to your sense of meaning in life
After covering these three core layers, we’ll also go into five contributing factors that influence your sense of meaning, and by that time, you’ll be lightyears ahead of the pack. 💫
Layer 1: Epistemology — The Fountainhead for All You Find Meaningful in Life
Let’s not have a lecture about philosophy.
Let’s cut the fat and zoom straight to the ideas that are absolutely critical for you to know. I’m going to give you this concept of epistemology in laymen’s terms. What is it?
Epistemology answers the question of HOW do you know what you know? What is your METHOD for gaining answers? Through a test tube? Divine enlightenment? The writings of famous philosophers? Your own experiences? Epistemologies are like different tools in the toolbox. However, some people lean more towards one method or another, while some people make pretty equal use of multiple epistemologies.
I apologize to any pro philosophers who are reading this, as I have greatly simplified. But for our purposes today, I’ve broken things down into just five main tools in the epistemological toolbox:
- Authority (History, Archaeology, Field Experts, etc.)
- Reason (Logic, Philosophy)
- Divine Encounter (Revelation, Mysticism)
- Science (Empiricism)
- Personal Experience (Constructivism)
Why does this matter in a discussion about meaning in life? Depending on your epistemological leanings — depending on which “tool” you use most often — you will end up emphasizing one of the following positions.
- Meaning is BESTOWED
- Meaning is CONSTRUCTED
- Meaning doesn’t exist
In my view, each of these points are valid at certain moments in life. Extreme views occur when your epistemology is so one-sided that you end up taking only one position all the time. For example, a very religious person may believe that every detail in life is “bestowed” with spiritual meaning. A hardcore scientist might drift into nihilism, believing that meaning doesn’t exist. A postmodern artist who believes that all meaning in life is constructed subjectively may feel adrift in a sea of unlimited choices.
I want you to build your sense of meaning in life from the ground up. So let’s go into a little more detail as you crystallize where you feel most comfortable.
Option 1: Meaning in Life is BESTOWED.
There are a few different sources of bestowed meaning. It may come from:
- A divine being (very popular in spiritual and religious circles)
- Community and role fulfillment (such as belonging to a family and bearing children)
- Civic responsibility (a bit more abstract, but involves contributing to a greater good and being recognized for that contribution)
People who regularly apply an epistemology that leans towards revelation or authority are more likely to come to the conclusion that meaning is bestowed. These kinds of mindsets center ultimate authority outside the self and are willing to receive meaning rather than create it.
This option has its positives and its negatives. On the positive side, it promotes a trend towards making decisions as a group, forming meaning in community with each other, forming opinions based on heroes from the past and heroes within our own family, and building strong tribes (religious, familial, or civic).
On the downside, it can get a little extreme.
I’ve known individuals with severe religious obsessive-compulsive disorder. For them, everything in life is saturated with meaning — a kind of superstitious, spiritual meaning. Stepping on cracks, failing to perform rituals properly, even innocent social behaviors — everything contains religious meaning. These people live on an anxious edge, fearing that their every act is telling for or against their salvation.
Is everything in life bestowed with meaning? I don’t think so.
Are some things bestowed with meaning? I believe yes.
Let’s keep all things in perspective: the opposite of bestowed meaning is anarchy. Imagine that neither God nor family nor society could bestow meaning or morals or expectations. What is the logical conclusion? For philosophers like Albert Camus, the answer was anarchy. 😳
Option 2: Meaning in Life is CONSTRUCTED.
Another option, favored by those who rely most heavily on personal experience and reason is that each of us construct meaning in life. Constructivism was a very influential school of thought in areas like art and education during the twentieth century. It emphasized the subjective role in knowing what we know.
For example, most people have schemata for things like “father,” “bike,” or “popcorn.” But each individual will build the schema for “father” with the details that are available to them: whether their own father was abusive or loving or absent, books and movies they encounter that portray fatherhood, or conceptualized ideals about how fathers should be.
Thus, everyone has a file in their brain for “father,” but not everyone’s file contains the same information. This is where the subjective aspect of constructivism fits in.
Not surprisingly, many people suggest that meaning in life is purely subjective, something that each person must construct for themselves. Like the previous option, this perspective has its pros and cons.
- Saying that meaning in life is personally constructed honors the unique diversity of human experience
- It is empowering, as it suggests that we have the ability to create meaning where there is none
- It can lead to too much independence in areas like morality — for example, the person who finds personal fulfillment in blood sacrifices or child pornography
- It can make self the ultimate center of life, which becomes egocentrism
Option 1 and 2 are not foolproof. They’re more like a burger patty and a bun — together, they make a sandwich, but they have a hard time standing alone. My view is that sometimes, with some things, meaning is constructed. Other times, for other things, meaning is bestowed. And, as we will see, there may also be occasions where meaning doesn’t exist!
Option 3: Meaning Doesn’t Exist.
To be frank, I don’t believe nihilism is a viable life path. Hopefully throughout the courses and articles you encounter on my website, I can persuade you that there IS meaning in life, even though not 100% of everything in life has meaning.
The ones who are most likely to lean towards this option are those whose epistemology is very empirical. “Meaning” in life is something that can be studied qualitatively but not very quantitatively. It can’t fit in a test tube. This is why many scientists believe there is no inherent meaning in life. For some of them, this is a comforting thought.
One woman lost her husband at the age of 47. Well-meaning friends told her that his death was somehow part of God’s plan or that the Universe had something to teach her. She later wrote,
“These thoughts caused me great fear, anger, and confusion. What sort of God, even if he had a plan for me, would separate a fine, kind, gentle man from his children? Why would God or the Universe look down and pick on our little family for special treatment? Why a good man with not a bad bone in his body who had never raised a hand to anyone?
One day as I was sitting on his memorial bench in the local park I suddenly thought, What if no one is to blame? Not God. Not me. Not the Universe. What if he’s gone and that’s all there is to it? No plan. Just dreadful circumstances. A minor disturbance in his heart led to a more serious and ultimately deadly arrhythmia, and that killed him in a matter of moments. It is a purely scientific view of it. I may seem cold or callous but I found comfort in that. I cried and cried and cried, but that made logical sense to me and brought me great peace.”Jan Doig
Sometimes there is no explanation, no meaning. Some things just are.
But it probably isn’t viable to say that all things in life lack meaning. Again, this would lead to anarchy, survival of the fittest, and despair. But for me, I always leave open a sliver of possibility for some things to be truly meaninglessness.
Summary of the Three Options
We’ve discussed three main directions that your epistemology can lead when it comes to finding meaning in life:
- Meaning is BESTOWED
- Meaning is CONSTRUCTED
- Meaning doesn’t exist
What I’d like to suggest is that each of these three positions may be valid, depending on the context. Taking only one view may indicate a somewhat skewed epistemology.
I believe that family, society, and a moral/divine power outside of myself all have a lot of say-so about what should be important, valuable, and meaningful in my life.
At the same time, the responsibility doesn’t rest on them to make me happy and fulfilled with life. There’s a lot resting on me to take action and construct my life in a way that prioritizes those values.
And sometimes, things happen in life that can’t be explained. We shouldn’t feel a burden to somehow explain or understand everything that happens to us.
But these are my views. You’ll need to make your own. To help you out, I’ve created a free downloadable worksheet on finding meaning in life that starts with these very important core questions.
Once you fill out this worksheet, you’ll have a powerful core to start building upon! And now on to the next layer: personal identity.
Layer 2: Identity — The Spark that Propels Your Passion
Understanding who we are and where we came from are really fun questions! I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment in this area as I’ve pondered and pursued meaning in life.
Part of the fun is that we’re shooting at a moving target. Identity questions change over time. Who you are as a teenager is different from who you are as a husband and father of three children (see the fundamental about “meaning” being changeable and context-specific).
But to feel a sustainable sense of meaning and purpose in life, we’ve got to make a bullseye on that moving target. Identity is the spark that propels you forward in fulfilling your passion.
Who are you? Where did you come from?
Then we could ask ourselves where we come in more recent times. Who are our ancestors? Do you know the story of your grandparents, your great-grandparents, or beyond? What do your ethnic roots say about you? How do their stories impact you — are you struggling to live someone else’s dream, or are you staying true to a long line of family heroes who came before you?
If you don’t know very much about your ancestry, it isn’t hard to find out, and you don’t even need to pay anything. I’ve discovered more than 30 generations on my family tree for free just by using free online resources like familysearch.org, findagrave.com, and various national archives.
What happens when you begin discovering your family heritage is that you piece together a broader identity, a wider context for yourself. You find out what their dreams were — did they emigrate somewhere? Did they pursue certain careers? What did they want their children to achieve? What legacy did they pass to you?
You might decide that you want to carry on their legacy. But then again, you might want to break a chain of negative generational weaknesses. You decide. But in the process of deciding, you discover who you are and how you want to arrange your life.
To help you navigate these questions, here’s another free, downloadable worksheet on discovering your core identity.
By now, you’re chugging along full steam ahead and you’re making GREAT progress! Keep up the great work! 🚂
Layer 3: Personal Values – The Keys to Unlock Meaning in Life
Do you know what your inner values are?
It’s surprising how many people don’t know.
I’ve observed that people with jumbled-up or ill-defined values usually fall into one of two camps: those who have never taken intentional steps to define what they value, and those who have had their values derailed by negative life experiences. The former are passively floating along, absorbing skewed values from the media and materialistic society. The latter are struggling to make sense of confusing and painful events.
But that’s not how you want to live.
You want intentionality.
You want every moment to count.
You want to be able to get to your deathbed and breathe a sigh of satisfaction, saying, “It’s been a life lived well.”
So the best thing to do is to move your values from the subconscious level to the conscious level. Get thinking: what’s really valuable to you? Not what’s valuable to society, to your mother-in-law, or to the girls at the office. You.
Values help us find meaning in life because they steer us away from things and activities that would otherwise leech our energy and time from us without giving back feelings of satisfaction.
Values steer us through life.
Have you ever gone to the corner store when you’re really hungry and bought a cheapish bag of chips, only to find that they’re poor quality, tasteless, and do little to satiate your hunger? How disappointing!
Many times in life, this is what we do when we’re casting around for a sense of meaning. We throw ourselves into activities that aren’t aligned with our values and we hope to get a feeling of satisfaction. Then we wonder why we go home at night feeling disappointed. We put all our energy into an activity, person, or purchase that wasn’t aligned with our true values.
Values are the hidden ideals of what’s ultimately good and right and important. You might have jumbled-up values if you have:
- Grown up with authoritarian or helicopter parents who have done all your thinking for you
- Experienced trauma that confuses you about what is ultimately good and right (for example, being molested by clergy)
- Had long-term addictions that have prevented you from deep, sustained thought
- Felt compelled to consistently act against your values (for example, lying frequently to protect a mentally ill family member or stealing to feed your family)
- Been in a long-term relationship with an abusive, manipulative, or gaslighting individual who makes you doubt your own values
The good news is that none of this has to hold you back. You can intentionally craft a list of most important values, no matter what has happened to you in life. It’s as simple as making a list and then choosing meaningful activities that support these values. Here’s miniature catalogue of values to get you started, or for a more detailed version, download the core life values worksheet for a full list of 350 of life’s most important values. Just a few to get your mind working:
- Global Awareness
- Hard Work
- Sense of Humor
How does this work?
To see how this works, let’s imagine a few case studies. Sam’s top values are patriotism, citizenship, and freedom. Jane prefers simplicity, thrift, and collaboration. Ben appreciates creativity, expression, and wonder. How would these three individuals elevate their values to a place of priority so that they are living in harmony with what they hold most meaningful and important?
Sam might express his values in tangible ways, like putting up a flagpole in his front yard, setting off fireworks on the 4th of July, or building a memorial bench at a local VFW. He might engage in good citizenship activities that support his local community. If he’s had life experiences like fighting for our country, he might find meaning in sharing his story in schools and libraries or writing a book about it.
So how about Jane, who likes simplicity, thrift, and collaboration?
She can also express her values in tangible ways — for example, in pursuing a sustainable home. Perhaps she can collaborate with her community (either her physical or online community) by sharing the tips and tricks that she’s learned. Or she can push the limits to see how simple, thrifty, and sustainable she can become, always allowing her values to unlock new goals.
Ben likes creativity, expression, and wonder, so he will thrive by engaging in activities that allow him to get artistic. He can join classes that allow him to pursue his creative interests, whether that be hip hop, pottery throwing, painting, interior design, musical composition, home building, or graphic design. But because he values the ability to enter into experiences that cause a sense of wonder, he should also make time to experience the creations of other artists.
Defining and clarifying our deeply-held values will help us to gain a sense of the sources of meaning that we can add into our lives. The values themselves do not give us a sense of meaning unless we act on them, prioritizing and honoring them as important members of ourselves.
Before moving to the next section, make sure that you’ve worked through the previous three worksheets:
- What are my foundational beliefs about meaning in life?
- Who am I? Where did I come from?
- Defining my life values
If you’ve worked this far through the article, you’re almost ready to graduate with honors! Now we’ll look at five factors that influence your sense of meaning in life. These are the rooms that you can build on the sturdy foundation you’ve just laid.
Factors Influencing Your Sense of Meaning
People are far too diverse to prescribe one magic answer for everyone. However, there are a series of important categories you can analyze to help you pinpoint yourself in the vast ocean of possible meanings. In this section, we’ll look at the implications of:
- Emotional Intelligence
Life Stages: How Age Influences Meaning in Life
“What should I do with my life after college?”
“Finding my passion at 30…”
“Finding meaning in life after 60…”
These are just some of the popular Google searches that relate to age and finding meaning in life. If you’ve ever found yourself at a stage in life where you realize the years are passing and you still haven’t found what gives you a sense of meaning, you aren’t alone. Every month, thousands of individuals search online for answers to questions like these.
Age is a tricky component to discuss. Age makes us feel vulnerable. Mortal. Unfortunately, American culture has done a lot to make the elderly feel unimportant and to pressure the youth to outperform their years. Youth is deified while age is vilified. This is in contrast to many Asian cultures, where it is considered bragging to call yourself “old” and the elderly are deeply venerated.
Frankly, we don’t always have very reasonable or balanced views of age. But yet all of us are on the same unstoppable journey towards our own deaths, so age is important to discuss.
A Psychological Model of Life Stages
During the latter part of the 20th century, a psychologist named Erik Erikson published what became a hugely influential theory of psychological development. It’s helpful to our discussion, because his model breaks down human life into 8 discrete stages — each stage having a specific challenge and a specific task.
Knowing where you are in your development can really help you.
Sometimes just knowing that your current struggle is the right struggle for your age category can be reassuring.
According to Erikson, the eight life stages can be conceptualized as follows:
- Infancy (birth – 18 months): Trust versus Mistrust. During the first year of life, the most important challenge that we face is learning to trust our caregivers. Attentive, loving parents help us to accomplish this task successfully. Negligent or abusive caregivers can leave us with a lingering sense of mistrust that we carry into intimate relationships at later stages.
- Early Childhood (18 months – 3 years): Autonomy versus Shame/Doubt. As young children, we are faced with opportunities to develop a sense of selfhood. We realize that we are a separate entity from mommy, and begin making forays into the world through explorative play. If we are encouraged, we will become confident in our sense of autonomy. If healthy exploration is discouraged, we may be left with a sense of shame or self-doubt.
- Preschool (3 – 5 years): Initiative versus Guilt. In this stage, we begin understanding that we have the ability to act on our environment. This is learned through playtime and observation. When we successfully act out our initiatives, we develop a sense of purpose. If we are constantly obstructed from making choices or trying new things, however, we will lack a sense of initiative and thus a sense of purpose. For the child who cannot take initiative, guilt will take hold as they fail to reach their potential.
- School Age (5 – 13 years): Industry versus Inferiority. In this stage, we make leaps and bounds in maturity and gradually are able to handle more abstract concepts. We learn to accomplish tasks and might ask for more challenging assignments in hopes of recognition. If we are successful in our desire to be industrious, we will gain more confidence in our abilities. If we have tasks that are too challenging or if we lack proper support, we may develop feelings of inferiority.
- Adolescence (13 – 21 years): Identity versus Role Confusion. As teenagers and young adults, we begin to solidify many aspects of identity and our role in society. We learn what is age-appropriate and what is considered “childish,” as well as what preferences make up our own unique identities. Successfully navigating this stage lays the foundation for adulthood.
- Young Adulthood (21 – 39 years): Intimacy versus Isolation. Once we have successfully formed healthy identities, we are ready to commit ourselves to another person in long-term relationship. If we can’t form intimate relationships or if we don’t find another person that matches us, we can end up feeling lonely and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
- Middle Adulthood (40 – 65 years): Generativity versus Stagnation. This is the period most often associated with mid-life crisis. We begin to recognize that life is not all about us, and we develop the ability to care for a wider sphere: family, society, and important causes. Establishing a meaningful legacy leads us to feel successful; failing to do so leads to feelings that we haven’t done anything significant.
- Maturity (65 and above): Ego Integrity versus Despair. When the previous stages have been successfully conquered, a feeling of integrity and nostalgia is felt at old age. This is the sense of having lived life well. But if life’s challenges have not been met successfully, regrets can cause a sense of despair.
Stages in Life
Where are you in the stages of life? Are you 30? 45? 70?
Feelings of crisis because life doesn’t make “sense” or doesn’t feel “meaningful” can sometimes be a call for you to face the unique challenge of your current life stage. Are you a single 30-year-old who feels insignificant? Have you thrown away your family connections and now, as a retiree, are feeling despair? Are your children cutting the apron strings and leaving you feeling purposeless? These are all very normal challenges to our sense of purpose and meaning in life.
And, if you’re a young adult, take heart: one study found that it is more common for young adults to be on the search for meaning more than middle-aged or older adults.
If you recognize that your feelings of insignificance and purposelessness are related to a specific life stage, celebrate! You’ve solved half your problem already just by identifying it. But there might be a few other contributing factors, so keep reading to check out the rest.
Personality: How Your Unique Temperament Influences Your Sense of Meaning
Not everybody sits around pondering existential questions all day. I was reminded of that by my dear husband, who is very practical. Once while sharing some of my musings, he gave me a rather quizzical look and said, “I never ask these kinds of questions. I just live life.”
Well, fine then.
But some of us do operate in a realm where meaning and purpose is important — and that’s totally fine! Much of this can come from our innate personalities or temperament. According to one study, 16% of variance in people’s levels of perceived meaningfulness is related to personality factors. Furthermore, the same researchers were able to predict 52% of “sources of meaning” (things that make you feel that your life is meaningful) merely based on personality type.
So what is temperament? This video from Khan Academy defines temperament as “a person’s characteristic, emotional reactivity and intensity.” It’s basic structures are pretty much set by the time you’re born, but many aspects can be activated or inactivated by environmental factors.
Finding Out More About Personality
So how do you find out more about personality?
I’ve taken a lot of personality tests, and by far the best one (in my opinion) is the Briggs-Meyers personality profile. You can take it for free at 16personalities.com. A paid profile based on the “Big 5” personality indicators that was highly recommended to me is Jordan Peterson’s Understand Myself assessment. These kinds of profiles can give you unique insight into the way you operate, and what you actually need in order to achieve a sense of sustainable purpose in life.
For example, when you take the Briggs-Meyers assessment, you’ll get a result with a series of 4 letters. I’m an INFJ, which already predisposes me to existential musings. But note how much you can discern about purpose from these four letters. If your last letter is a P, you’ll need to prioritize a career and lifestyle that gives you flexibility and spontaneity, otherwise you’ll feel boxed in and purposeless. But if your last letter is a J, you’ll need to create structure and goals, otherwise you’ll feel adrift at sea and purposeless.
Knowing your personality type is key to recognizing what’s getting you stuck.
There are certain personalities that seem to be more prone to questioning their purpose in life than others, particularly the intuitive/feeling types (INFJ, INFP, ENFJ, and ENFP). If you take the assessment and find yourself fitting one of these four types, celebrate! By musing about meaning and purpose, you are doing exactly what you are supposed to do. You can feel confident that these thoughts are not a crisis, but rather the catalyst for you to emerge as your best self.
Another point is that personality can help you to define your task. Remember, “task” is only the most surface level of meaning in life, but it’s the one we think about every day. Being stuck in a career that’s at odds with your personality can feel miserable. Your abilities, personality, and talents are what needs to guide you in the choice of your lifework. However, if you don’t know much about your personality other than, “I’m outgoing” or “I’m shy,” you’re missing out on a huge chunk of potentially helpful information.
So go ahead. Take a personality test.
Anything else related to personality I should know?
Another factor to consider when analyzing personality is the possibility that you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. A “Highly Sensitive Person” is a title used to designate individuals who score high in Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), a genetic trait that causes us to perceive stimuli up to ten times more intensely than others. It is not a disorder. Rather, studies suggest that 15-25% of the population has Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
Highly Sensitive People are more likely than others to be very deep processors who think a lot. They might think a lot about things like meaning and purpose. You can find out if you’re an HSP by taking the Highly Sensitive Person Test. This aspect of temperament, if it applies to you, will be a huge eye opener to helping you gain a sense of self-understanding and meaning in life.
Culture: The Influence of Your Heritage on Meaning-Making
You and I both grew up surrounded by specific cultural expressions. Do you like your cornbread salty or sweet (or, like my German husband, do you not eat cornbread at all)? Did you grow up celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, or Ramadan? Did you grow up eating dinner with your family around the table, or in front of the TV?
Culture does a lot to shape who we are.
However, most people never stop to analyze their own culture. It’s like asking someone to look at their own eyeballs. “Culture” is the lens through which we see the world, and it’s very difficult to view ourselves.
But what if I told you that culture influences your search for the meaningful life?
A good working definition of “culture” is “learned and shared values, beliefs, and behavior of a group of interacting people.” You learned your culture from the people around you, like a sponge soaking up water. And that very cultural lens influences the “sources of meaning” that are relevant to you. Remember the layers in our onion? This takes us back to the layer for “values.” To a great extent, culture tells us what is valuable in society.
For example, some cultures tend to find meaning in family. Others find meaning in achievements. Naturally, people who wish to go against the status quo — what society says is valuable — may have great difficulty. The Arab woman who wants to postpone childbearing in order to pursue a career, or the American teenager who wants to drop out of high school in order to get married and have a baby would both face challenges.
During my time working with Syrian refugees, I met a number of families that married their daughters off at age 15 or 16. Even as refugees living in dire financial situations, these girls were expected to bear a child during the first year of marriage. The continuation of life and extension of the family is so highly valued in some cultures that nothing is allowed to stand in the way. And, although the West tends to have a negative view of young marriages, in most cases these Syrian girls were quite pleased.
Culture does much to shape our view of what is meaningful and important in life.
In what ways does culture make a difference?
There are a few main categories of cultural variance that can make a big difference in where you find feelings of meaning and satisfaction in life. From my PhD courses in culture and anthropology, let me try to summarize the most important:
- Individualism versus collectivism. Are you from a family that prioritizes group successes, or individual achievement? If your family is from a Hispanic, Filipino, African, or Arab background, you’re more likely to have a tad (or a ton) of collectivist ideals influencing you. You’ll have a harder time finding significance in “achievements” and will instead find more satisfaction in connections. However, if you’re from a European or some Asian backgrounds, or if your family has been in the US for more generations than you can count, you’ll probably tend to be more individualistic (perhaps even hyper-individualistic). In this case, meaning will be more easily obtained in pursuing personal freedom and individual opportunities.
- Materialism versus supernaturalism. Western cultures tend to place a much higher emphasis on the accumulation of material goods (house, cars, white picket fence, and a garage full of stuff). Many non-Western cultures prioritize religion and the sacred. If you’ve ever visited southeast Asia or Latin America, maybe you’ve been surprised at how many religious shrines you find along the streets. The famous sociologist, Emile Durkheim, believed that religion serves a crucial need of providing a sense of meaning and coherence in society. A recent study found that “religiosity” is physically and emotionally beneficial; but it is beneficial only for the deeply devoted. Nominally religious people are actually less happy than both the deeply religious and the non-religious. The cultural question is what is ultimately real — the material world we can see, or the immaterial world of the sacred?
- Past, present, or future time orientation. The book The Time Paradox argues that people function on one of three orientations to time: past (nostalgic or neurotic), present (hedonistic or mindful), and future (motivated or neurotic). The CEO, for example, lives for future prospects, the musician lives for present joy, and the grandmother relives her satisfying past. All are valid, all can be pushed to unhealthy extremes, but all will shape what you value most. And what you value is where you find meaning and fulfillment.
- Limited versus global awareness. In some cultures, awareness and responsibility is limited to the immediate family or clan. For other cultures, however, responsibility is understood globally — perhaps influenced by a realization that our economic choices have ramifications all around the world. Global awareness is good, but it can easily become overwhelming. Using goods from who-knows-where can also lead to a kind of disorientation, a splintering of the self. To combat this tendency, many people are choosing to shop local and invest in small businesses and farmer’s markets. Here, they can ground themselves in a local reality that is small enough to be meaningful.
How does your culture impact what you view as “important?” Recognizing cultural trends is another big building block in our journey to discovering meaning and purpose in life.
Experiences: How Life’s Curveballs and Victories Influence Your Sense of Meaning
Another factor influencing your sense of meaning in life is the experiences you’ve had.
Have you had a lot of good ones? Too many bad ones?
Our good and bad experiences stay with us forever, influencing the way we perceive reality. These include:
- Successful or damaging relationships
- Professional opportunities
- Travel opportunities
- Exposure to new and diverse people
- Beautiful moments
- Religious experiences
- Addictions made or broken
- Life stages: marrying or becoming a parent
If you can check off any of these, you can be sure that your sense of meaning and purpose in life is at least partially influenced by your past experiences.
An example: the power of life experiences
I once knew a teenage girl who was a Syrian refugee in the country where I live, Lebanon. She and her family experienced a lot of discrimination because of their refugee status. Once, her father was riding to work on his bicycle when a Lebanese woman hit him with her car, hard enough that he flipped up over the hood of her car. The woman drove off without stopping.
These kinds of experiences made my friend very upset. She was upset to see her country at war. She was angry at injustices. At age 15, she told me she wanted to become a judge one day.
She later emigrated to Canada and we lost touch. But I heard recently from a mutual friend that she’s now in university, studying law to become a judge, just like she always wanted.
Her experiences of trauma, injustice, and loss led her to have a clearly crystalized vision of what she wanted to do in life. She didn’t lose sight of her goal, because her life experiences were strongly imprinted in her mind, constantly reminding her of what she could do to make a difference in the world.
So — what life experiences have you had?
Not all life experiences have to be traumatic in order to give us a sense of meaning and direction. Having a child can be a beautiful kind of catalyst to give you a sense of purpose. Going abroad and gaining exposure to other kinds of people and cultures can give you new vision for what you want to do in life. Volunteering to help people who are less fortunate can give you appreciation for the life you already have.
As discussed in the section on personality, the Intuitive-Feeling personality types are more likely to be the ones seeking meaning in life. They are also the ones who are more likely to be advocates or campaigners for causes they believe in. But having a cause is not something you pull out of a hat. It’s something that grows up slowly out of the life experiences that have made you who you are.
That means that if you want to have a clearly crystalized life goal, you need to have a diversity of experiences.
That doesn’t mean you have to actually try to have a trauma or loss — but it can be very helpful to expose yourself to new people, new experiences, and new places. In this way, you open yourself up to the experiences that will help you to find what you’re passionate about.
How can you find the right experiences?
Maybe you’ve already had the right experiences in life to help you establish a healthy sense of purpose.
Make a list. Write out every major life experience you’ve had — good or bad — that has significantly impacted you. For the good ones, ask yourself how you can replicate such good experiences for others. For the bad ones, think of how you can prevent them from happening to people in the future. This will help you to make progress in determining which life experiences can make the biggest impact on your sense of life meaning.
When I was just 12 years old, my Dad was on the board of directors for an orphanage in Haiti. Those were the days before massive earthquakes made headlines in Western media. Back then, Haiti was just known as a really poor island in the Caribbean. On one of his trips, he decided to take me with him. It was my first time to leave the US.
During the week or so that we spent in Haiti, I played with the children in the orphanage and helped the nurse treat emergency wounds in the community. As we went out into the village, I was shocked by the living conditions, the lack of basic facilities, and the poverty on every side.
I think it was a good experience for a 12-year-old.
Life seemed so unfair. How could there be so many children without parents? How could people live without shoes, toilets, and access to basic medicine? (Yes, I know…as a student of anthropology I’ve learned that these kinds of musings can easily take on a colonialist flavor, but I’m relating my little-kid story as it happened.)
Then and there, I vowed that when I grew up, I would do something in my life to help people. I didn’t know exactly what, but the experience was enough to shock me out of the materialistic tendencies of our American culture.
As an adult, this childhood pledge has often come back to my mind. I’ve since spent a number of years working with Syrian refugees, volunteered in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Belize, Lebanon, and Egypt, and donated to causes in India and Niger. And I still feel the little-girl urge in my heart, pushing me to do more.
But let’s imagine that you grew up in a small town bubble and haven’t experienced anything out of the ordinary. Don’t let that stop you from seeking meaning in experiences! Read books about other people’s inspiring, angsty battle with finding meaning in life. Here’s a great list of books about finding purpose in life to get you started.
Our experiences are a key to unlock what gives us meaning in the present. Don’t miss this.
Emotional Intelligence: Making or Breaking Our Sense of Meaning
Now, let’s get real honest.
You could go through a thousand-dollar course on how to find meaning and passion and purpose in life, but if your emotional intelligence is on the rocks, it will be a waste of money.
Maybe you’ve already had this experience. Maybe you’ve read books and taken courses, perhaps spent a few thousand dollars on life coaches.
But it’s not working.
Why not? Isn’t it strange that some people can have all the information in the world yet feel like they aren’t benefited by it? How come some people seem stuck in a slump of chronic dissatisfaction?
If you feel like this diagnosis describes you, let’s just swallow the nasty spoonful of medicine all at once and be done with it: dear friend, you may have low EQ.
What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ)?
Emotional intelligence is your ability to manage your emotions rather than letting your emotions manage you. It includes a few elements, like
- Recognizing your own emotions
- Recognizing the emotions of others
- Labeling emotions appropriately
- Using emotional information to guide thinking and behavior
- Managing and adjusting emotions to adapt to environments
- Managing and adjusting emotions to achieve goals
If you’re the kind of person to automatically flip the bird anytime someone cuts you off in traffic, or if you have a really tough time talking about emotions, if you argue frequently, if you struggle to identify your key strengths, or if you frequently let people take advantage of you, these are signs of low EQ.
Now, don’t worry. EQ is not like IQ. It’s not something that is permanently fixed from birth. You actually have infinite abilities to improve and grow your EQ.
However, if you have low EQ, you’ll have a terribly difficult time establishing a life full of passion and purpose. You’ll be the kind of person who starts new endeavors and gives up as soon as the going gets tough. You’ll be the kind of person who has such low confidence in your own abilities that you never make a success out of anything, even if you do have terrific innate talents.
Travis Bradberry, writing for Forbes Magazine, says that
…people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70% of the time…Decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack.Travis Bradberry, Forbes Magazine
Emotional intelligence is absolutely key to achieving or not achieving a sense of passion, purpose, and meaning in life.
By now, you’re wondering if you have low or high EQ. You can actually take a free emotional intelligence test from Psychology Today. It takes a bit of time to complete, but it will give you a raw score of how well you’re doing with emotional intelligence.
Do keep in mind that EQ tests have not yet been through a heavy round of scientific validation, so the results are not exact. But a test can at least give you an idea of the right questions to ask yourself to understand your own emotional habits.
Of course, no one wants to admit that they have low EQ. It sounds embarrassing. Just break the ice, let me share with you my own experience. 🙈
As a child, I didn’t have a lot of emotional role models. I wasn’t abused or traumatized or anything like that, but there wasn’t anyone I could look to who had their emotions under control. Home was a bit chaotic and I stayed by myself a lot.
I internalized everything, learning to act ok even when I wasn’t. I learned a lot of bad emotional habits — like negative self-talk, belief that I am powerless to change my feelings and surroundings, and self-doubt.
Despite having low EQ, I was a high achiever throughout high school and college. But I was always walking a tightrope, and in moments of high stress, I would drown in emotions. I couldn’t control my feelings; they controlled me.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere on my blog, I went through a crisis during my mid-20’s when I developed deep clinical depression. It was in that time of dark hopelessness that I began encountering resources that would help me to grow my EQ.
I’ve never liked taking pills. I always gag on them. So before fulfilling my SSRI prescription, I determined to try every other possible intervention that could help me get out of my depression.
That’s when I went to a depression recovery program, read books like Telling Yourself the Truth, and started working with a therapist who helped me to identify key mistakes I was making in my emotional life.
After a few years of hard work, most of the emotional potholes I’d been tripping over were gone.
Yes, that’s right: gone.
You can actually improve and change your emotional constitution. I’m living proof of that.
I’m not perfect. I still get impatient, bitter, and frustrated. Sometimes I argue and I sometimes say things that come out a lot more awkward than I intended. And sometimes I fail to feed myself positive self-talk.
But you know what, I’m doing amazing compared to a few years ago. Turning off negative self-talk is almost automatic now. Learning to reframe situations that would have previously caused great distress is now second nature.
That’s the power of plasticity. We CAN change. If you feel like you don’t have a very strong EQ, I really recommend focusing in on this aspect. It could be a major reason for feeling a chronic lack of purpose and meaning in life. And thankfully, with hard work, it’s something you can change.
Summary and Conclusion
In this article, we’ve looked at three realistic expectations, four layers of meaning, and five factors that contribute to your sense of meaning. The only thing we haven’t done is told you specifically what “task” or career or passion you need to follow.
That’s your job to figure out.
But now you have the tools to get out there and make it happen. I hope that my research over the last fifteen years will help you take shortcuts straight to the answers you need. I hope you’ll actually do the work I’ve recommended.
Believe me, you’ll get results.
With perseverance and systematic effort, you can definitely find the life of passion, purpose, and meaning that you want. You can wake up and know that your life matters. You just need to put in the work.
I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave me a comment below. Let me know what your biggest struggles and concerns are as you seek deeper meaning in life.
I wish you the very best in your journey! See you around the blog!