The Quest for a Meaningful Life

Far more powerful and important than the seemingly simple pursuit of happiness, science and research (like poetry and philosophy before them)are revealing more and more that it is the pursuit of meaning that brings joy and resilience into a human being’s life. As Viktor Frankl wrote, “…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”


Meaning Is Not Necessarily Happiness

The presence of meaning in your life depends on whether you pursue life’s satisfaction. Whether you approach happiness through a belief that life is inherently meaningful or through the creation of meaning by intentionally living your life, the outcome is the same: A meaningful life is one that has a sense of purpose and seeks to live out that purpose. Regardless of trial, pain or loss, a life that is pursuing its meaningful end is one that is resilient. Happiness, on the other hand, is a response to what is occurring in life, and in general, is dependent on outside circumstances to exist. If your life is pleasurable, if it fulfills your hope and expectations, if loss does not exceed gain—these conditions make for a happy life.


Americans, for the most part, report a great sense of overall happiness, but 40 percent report lacking a sense of purpose or direction. Research has shown repeatedly that having a purpose leads to an increased sense of well-being, better mental and physical health, enhanced resiliency, better self-esteem and less depression. Also, it turns out that nothing ruins happiness like trying to pursue it.

What Meaningful Is

Meaning has four needs that must be met to be achieved:

  • Purpose. A sense of purpose in relation to your specific life is essential for you to feel your life is meaningful.
  • Efficacy. A sense of your volition and ability to control—to at least some degree—the outcome of your life makes for meaning.
  • Value. Without a belief in the inherent value of life itself—including your own—meaning will suffer.
  • Positive self-worth. Regardless of mistakes and harm that may come, a sense of positive self-worth is a buoying quality that can sustain a person’s sense of meaning in difficult times.


When these four aspects are present, you feel like your life has meaning. When you experience hardships like social exclusion, your sense of value can be undermined, causing all four of these characteristics of meaningfulness to diminish.


When you experience your life as meaningful,things like enjoying your work, feeling hopeful, being happy and having an optimistic outlook all follow and contribute to your sense of purpose, like a healthy feedback loop.

How to Seek a Meaningful Life

Seeking a meaningful life is not as simple as it may sound. Some people have an innate sense of meaning due to their temperaments, belief system, family experiences and the like, whereas others struggle for the same, and other, reasons. A few steps can help you, however, if you want to discover what it feels like to live a meaningful life:


  • Begin with being. We live in a culture obsessed with productivity and proving value. It’s easy for people to only associate their meaning with setting and meeting goals, achieving a certain ambitious distinction, making a certain amount of money and so on. To get down to the brass tacks of a life that is meaningful, you must take all the doing out of any valuation you have in relation to yourself. Notice your breath, your heartbeat. There has never been—and will never be—another you. The fact that you are at all is meaningful.
  • Cultivate meaning. The cultivation of meaning is nothing more than the cultivation of a mindfulness that recognizes the inherent preciousness and value of everything existing. Watch the grass blades as they poke through the ground in early spring. See the breath expel from your lungs on a cold winter’s night. Paying attention to what is here and now cultivates the experiences of being alive that yield meaning.
  • Move from willfulness to willingness. Gerald May wrote about two extremes in attitude that either yield or crush meaningfulness. When you have a willful attitude, you try to control experiences and reality in order to protect yourself. A willing attitude is an open one, ready to be available to whatever a life will have in it. A willing life is one that knows circumstances cannot detract from anyone’s or anything’s value.


No matter what befalls you, a meaningful will makes for a good life. From a healthier heart to a more satisfied professional life, pursue the path of meaning, and all will go well—even if it doesn’t.


About the Author: Ben Hamilton is a self-help blogger.

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