“What is the meaning of life?”
I struggled with this question throughout my teenage years and young adulthood. My parents tried to convey their more religious-themed meaning of life to me when I was a teenager. Yet my contrarian streak prevented me from really listening to them. Instead, I thought and talked about the meaning of life with my friends. I remember long conversations when we would discuss and debate this topic with each other. I particularly remember one conversation when I was 18 – my two closest friends and I stayed up until 5 AM, playing cards, drinking, and trying to convince each other that our individual vision of the meaning of life made the most sense.
Going to college prompted further thought. Listening to professors and reading great books caused me to rethink the meaning of life many times. I really gained a richer perspective, but never a clear answer to my question – “What is the meaning of life?” That was until discovering research about this question.
But, before going into that, let me answer a question that some of you may have on your mind: why does my story matter? Who cares whether some guy figured out the meaning of life or not? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry in the world – hunger, disease, polarized political debate? Why even spend time worrying about the meaning of life?
Recent research shows that people who feel that their life has meaning experience substantially higher sense of well-being and even physical health. For example, Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Additionally, research on life meaning and purpose shows that it does not matter how you get this sense of meaning and purpose in life. What’s most important is that you experience your life as having a meaning and purpose. The key question is not “What is the meaning of life?” In fact, research seems to show that there is no one clear answer to this question. The only question that matters is “What is the meaning of life for you?” Each of us is free to formulate her or his own answer to this question. By doing so you get a personal sense of life meaning and purpose, and thus gain a sense of agency and choice by and through understanding your own personal life goals.
So let me ask you a question: “What is the meaning of life for you?” How did you reach your answer?
P.S. For additional resources, check out this workbook with exercises on finding meaning and purpose using science-based strategies; this free science-based web app to evaluate your current sense of meaning and purpose; this free online class on finding meaning and purpose using science; and the wide variety of other resources on meaning and purpose available at Intentional Insights.