The Importance of Meaning in Lifeby Nicola on 2012-05-14
The Importance of Meaning in Life
By Dr Nicola J Davies
Human beings are meaning-makers and meaning-seekers. The existence of subcultures within larger cultures, for instance, or fashionable trends in clothes, music, the arts, and societies exist because these are all avenues for expressing and fulfilling meaning. Without meaning in our lives, individuals and whole societies would feel much poorer. Meaning invigorates our lives and contributes considerably to our mental and physical well-being.
What is ‘Meaning’ in Life?
Many of the varying definitions of meaning agree that it has several components. It is, however, necessary to distinguish “meaning in life” from “meaning of life” and to recognize that subjective, personal meaning-making (rather than searching for universal, objective meaning) is fundamental to being human. In other words, the meaning in (as opposed to of) life is about comprehending experience and deriving a sense of significance and purpose from it. Meaning of life, on the other hand, is about speculating about grand, abstract questions with no definitive answers, such as “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” and “Why are we here?” Such speculating rests on the assumption that meaning is objective, exists “somewhere out there,” and is something we have to “work out” or hopefully stumble upon if we are lucky.
Meaning in life is a personal, subjective, psychological experience that is of unique significance to the individual because it is something they create.
For most people, finding meaning in life has little to do with entertaining grand philosophical and religious questions. Rather, meaning in life comes from fashioning it through everyday experience. As such, making meaning is ongoing, always available, and we can never exhaust the process. Meaning in life is also highly personal: cultivating awe-inspiring flowers might be important to one person’s sense of happiness, but might be of passing interest to others.
Understanding and Purpose
Meaning derives from, and refers to, the desire of human beings to make sense of their lives and experiences, as well as the motives that compel them to act in particular ways. It also includes a sense that there is some general purpose to one’s life, although it might not be clear for a long time. The universal need to know what one’s life is about, and how a person fits in with society, all go into meaning-making. We tend to make connections between our experiences and our interpretations of those experiences in order to derive some coherent sense of it all, while also formulating future plans to steer our lives into meaningful directions. The person growing flowers, for example, might have no clear idea why it appeals to them, except that they find it lends significance and purpose to their life. It’s also unlikely that this person will end up living on the top floor of a city apartment. Instead, being where there is space and resources to grow flowers would make sense to them.
Sense of Significance
Having meaning in life makes people feel that their lives are significant and that their lives matters. It bestows a measure of importance that’s necessary for self-esteem, and vital for psychological and physical well-being. This is why meaning is so important to human beings. Meaning in life serves as an inner force that drives our lives in a desired direction. There are strong links between meaning-making and psychological and physical health. It helps people to integrate seemingly disparate aspects of their lives, as well as to go beyond the confines of our immediate situations. Indeed, meaning in life significantly contributes to satisfaction in life.
People with meaningful lives are generally happier, experience more joy and love, and go through life with a sense of vitality. They are also more accepting of whatever circumstances life presents, and feel positive about themselves, no matter their shortcomings. The sense that they play an active part in shaping their own lives is empowering, making them less prone to depression and anxiety-related illnesses. These are people who find something satisfying about their jobs and are more interested in living authentic rather than pleasure-seeking lives.
Meaning in Life as an Innate Motivating Force
The need for meaning is so fundamental to human existence, it compels people to seek, create, and cultivate it. Individuals automatically and almost subconsciously create meaning from experience. There is the constant question of “what could this mean?” being asked in the background of daily life, especially in terms of what we observe and experience. Research shows that the need to find and make meaning is so basic that, where there is a sense of it lacking, people will search for it using substitutes like drugs, food, risk taking behavior, or almost anything, in an attempt to fill their lives with a sense of pleasure-derived significance.
People whose lives feel meaningful are driven by a sense of purpose - to design and build marvellous architecture, paint awe-inspiring artwork, become innovative chefs, care for orphaned children, give voluntary service to the poor – and so much more. This sense of purpose helps to orchestrate and sustain their actions over long periods of time. Their goals are highly valued and are sources with which to transcend the mundane distractions of daily life. They also provide energy and persistence to overcome obstacles.
Meaning in Life and General Health
Meaning is important for overall mental and physical well-being. Meaning, together with having a purpose in life, was found to be a central component in all models of physical and psychological health constructed by health care professionals concerned with the issue. Research shows a strong relationship between the presence of meaning and mental health, believing it has a protective function against the stresses and strains of daily living. It has also been observed among clinical populations that those lacking meaning tend to suffer the worst health and anxiety-related problems.
Meaning also serves as a powerful function insofar as it helps individuals to pull together the disparate threads of experiences and align these with an overarching purpose. It helps them to make sense of contradictory and confusing events, lending a reassuring sense that, what doesn't make sense now will do so eventually. As such, meaning-making aids in buffering stress and uncertainty, and forms a foundation for developing aspirations that contribute to individual happiness and fulfilment.
Meaning in Life is about Transcendence
When ordinary daily actions are surrounded by personal meaning and derived from a larger sense and conviction of purpose, it helps in lifting the spirit beyond the immediate moment. It leaves people with the certainty that small actions matter, and that the immediate moment is a vital part of something much bigger, something that embraces community and larger social causes, as well as that curbs the individual from falling into a self-centred lifestyle. To some, the sense of transcendence that meaning offers may take on religious or spiritual significance.
How can I Cultivate Meaning in Life?
Meaning-making comes automatically to human beings, yet the incessant and blind striving for instant material comfort by many people deprive them of the patience to create fulfilling meaning. Even so, the desire to feel significant, that one’s life matters, is an ever-present concern for everyone. There are several sources of meaning available in everyday life. Part of the problem is that many people look for meaning in spectacular events and happenings, or they choose to wait for it to come to them rather than taking action to create meaning.
Although there are different views on how to make life meaningful, many experts agree that the most fruitful approach is to assume there is no inherent meaning to life, but that each person’s existence can be made meaningful. There is no one universal meaning that will suit everybody else; a meaningful life is unique and personal to each and every individual. There are, however, some ways we can all add meaning to our lives.
- Daily activities as a source of meaning-making: What people do on a daily basis can serve as sources for creating meaning. Small acts, harboring small yet significant meanings can contribute to a general sense of purpose and fulfilment. A study in which nursing home residents were each given the daily task of caring for a plant immediately and considerably improved their quality of life, as well as their overall psychological and physical health. Depending on an individual’s talents, skills, and interests, similar results can be derived from spending time cultivating small but meaningful acts that contribute to the wellness and happiness of others. Moreover, more than one meaning-inspiring activity can be pursued simultaneously, although one such act also has the power to increase a person’s passion and purpose. Over time, small meanings can come to have increasingly larger effects, benefiting not just the individual, but many others living on the other side of the globe.
- Attitude to suffering and hardship: Meaning can also come from unavoidable suffering and hardship, depending on how we interpret and deal with these. Although we cannot always prevent suffering - job loss, loss of loved ones, the consequences of natural disasters, for instance - we can choose our attitude in relation to such events and happenings. Some people have learned to re-interpret their suffering so it becomes a catalyst to change aspects of their lives for the better. Often, changing the meaning of a problem helps shed new light on personal priorities and helps us to develop new perspectives about our lives and what is important to us. Through the right attitude we can impose a novel, empowering meaning on what happens around and to us.
The question remains, if meaning-making is something fundamental to human beings, why do so many people live seemingly meaningless lives, or lose perspective of their significance, so quickly? Whatever the answers, the fact remains that meaning is there to be made every day. All it requires the desire to look for and spot the opportunities from which to cull meaning, as small and insignificant as it may seem at first. The best place to start cultivating meaning is right where you are now.
Suffering, Meaning, Hope: Finding meaning despite, and sometimes because of, suffering, published on December 6, 2011 by Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D. inPsychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-flip-side/201112/suffering-meaning-hope
The Function of Meaning and Purpose for Individual Wellness. Journal article by John Savolaine, Paul F. Granello; Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, Vol. 41, 2002: http://www.choixdecarriere.com/pdf/5671/49-2010.pdf.
Experiencing meaning in life: Optimal functioning at the nexus of well-being, psychopathology, and spirituality by Michael F. Steger: http://michaelfsteger.com/Documents/_Steger,%20Human%20Quest%20chapter.pdf.
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Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/