Most people want their life to be meaningful. Sometimes they are successful; things just seem to fall into place. Other times they may struggle finding what will give them that special feeling of meaning.
Adolescence is a time of life when you first begin to ponder where you are going and why. Times of transition and change can be an opportunity for creating a new sense of meaning in your life. As you get older, you may wonder why some people live lives full of zest, commitment and meaning while others drift along feeling life is meaningless.
First consider the conditions that are necessary to give meaning “within” life. How would you answer the following two questions?
How do I want to live?
What choices do I need to make to have a happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?
How you answer these two questions indicates whether you will live passionately or withdraw from life and its challenges. After much research and study, Jonathan Haidt describes three conditions needed for feelings of meaning and fulfillment to exist (The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006).
Haidt found that one of the most important conditions necessary for you to flourish is love. It begins in the early stages of life in the form of parental love. Love is necessary so that you will form attachments that help you feel secure and brave enough to explore life during childhood and adolescence.
In addition, everyone needs to belong. A sense of belonging is necessary for healthy self-esteem. As adults, experiencing passionate and compassionate love can lead to “true” love in marriages and relationships. “True” love is defined as compassionate love between two people who are committed to each other with some passion added.
Some of the benefits of healthy relationships are a stronger immune system, a speedy recovery after surgery, and a lower risk of depression and anxiety problems. As a single person, compassionate love is shown to others with similar benefits, being healthier and happier.
The second important condition is having and pursuing goals that allow you to use your strengths to create states of flow (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi) or engagement (Martin Seligman). This is often referred to as a need for competence or mastery. Pursuing goals allow you to become competent by interacting with or controlling your environment. It is why you get more pleasure from making progress toward a goal rather than achieving it.
Choices you make while you are pursuing your goals can help you experience more meaning in your life when they engage your strengths. For example, Ann realized that she could use her strengths of creativity and love of beauty to take flowers from her garden to a shut-in during the summer. Recently retired, Mike was not using his strengths of fairness and leadership. He joined a committee to create a handbook for new residents at his retirement facility. These choices have helped both of them experience more meaning in their lives because they are engaging their strengths.
It is possible to experience meaning in your “work” or what you do. How you view your work will determine how meaningful it will be to you. If you feel your work is a calling rather than a job or career, you will feel more fulfilled. It might be having a career, volunteering, being a student, or a full-time parent. Whatever you call “work” gives you the opportunity to meet the basic drive of “making things happen” or achieving your goals. If it allows you to use some of your strengths, it will make your life even more meaningful.
The third condition is to know that you are making a contribution to something greater than yourself. This might by a political or faith issue or a cause that is important to you. It is something that allows you to use your strengths as you strive to make the world a better place.
By establishing the following three conditions, life becomes more meaningful:
Connect with others showing compassion.
Use your strengths in your “work” and /or personal life.
Make choices that contribute to something greater than yourself.
Committing to getting the right relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work or environment, and yourself and something larger than yourself brings a sense of fulfillment and meaning in your life. Happiness will follow. It is a by-product of the choices you are making.
What steps will you take now to establish these conditions to make your life more meaningful?