In this episode we are talking about the “meaning” part of a meaningfully productive life. Although the meaning of our life may change over the years, discovering what makes our lives meaningful can contribute to our productivity and overall happiness.
The search for meaning in life
I was inspired recently by a thought-provoking conversation with a group of women about purpose and meaning in life. It got me thinking about how this fits into productivity, about what I’ve referred to in past episodes as “meaningful productivity,” and the ongoing conversations about making a life that matters–and what that means. I started researching what has been said about this–how do we find meaning in our lives, and why does it matter?
Sources of meaning
Surveys by the Pew Research Center asked Americans what makes their lives meaningful, satisfying, or satisfying; the most common answer was family. After that, the surveyors noted that:
“ One-third bring up their career or job, nearly a quarter mention finances or money, and one-in-five cite their religious faith, friendships, or various hobbies and activities. Additional topics that are commonly mentioned include being in good health, living in a nice place, creative activities and learning or education. Many other topics also arose in the open-ended question, such as doing good and belonging to a group or community, but these were not as common.”
The question of meaning
Many of us run into questions of meaning and purpose at various milestones in our lives–whether positive or negative milestones:
- Finishing college
- Becoming an empty nester
What these have in common is change. Something that has been a major part of our identity–student, spouse, parent, professional–and gave meaning and purpose to our days has come to an end. And we begin to question that identity and ask ourselves, “Who am I now?” It’s a very human question, something universal. Plato offered one definition of humans as “a being in search of meaning.”
Why is the question of meaning so universal?
One writer suggests these reasons: “meaning provides a sense of purpose to our lives. According to a research study that looked at meaning in life, the study expressed the positive psychological and physiological benefits linked to humans feeling meaningful. For instance, meaning reduces the risk of mental health problems and improves physical health. Besides the concept that meaning boosts one’s general well-being, the sense of purpose and that life matters and is significant are other reasons why humans look for meaning.”
An article titled Why Meaning in Life Matters for Societal Flourishing cites various studies’ conclusions about the importance of meaning: “Meaning in life reflects the feeling that one’s existence has significance, purpose, and coherence. A growing body of research identifies meaning in life as a fundamental human need that strongly influences both psychological and physical well-being. Individuals who perceive their lives as full of meaning live longer, healthier, and happier lives than those less inclined to view their lives as meaningful.” (citations omitted but available in the article linked at the beginning of this paragraph)
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor on Nazi concentration camps during World War II, often quotes Nietzche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Why do we feel like we or our lives lack meaning?
At some stages of our life, our days might be filled with mundane, even monotonous activities–changing diapers, cleaning up messes, tending to paperwork–that can seem meaningless when we’re in the midst of them.
When we are tired, it’s hard to feel positive about anything.
When we move from one stage of life to another and “lose” the thing or the role in which we found our purpose, our meaning.
When we are struggling with the question of meaning, we can also lose motivation–to keep moving forward in life, we as humans need to feel that what we’re doing is meaningful, and that it serves a purpose.
How do we find meaning?
In an article in The Atlantic, writer Arthur C. Brooks suggests that to find the meaning of life–or at least the meaning of our own life–we can assess our lives by looking at three dimensions identified by psychologists in a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology: coherence, purpose, and significance. Brooks refers to these as “ the elements that we need for a balanced and healthy sense of meaning in life.”
Another article, on the School of Life website, defines the meaning of life this way: “The meaning of life is to pursue human flourishing through communication, understanding and service.”
- Communication: “some of our most meaningful moments are to do with instances of connection: with a lover, for example, when we reveal our intimate physical and psychological selves, or when we form friendships where substantial truths about our respective lives can be shared. Or on a journey to a new country, when we strike up a conversation with a stranger and feel a thrilling sense of victory over linguistic and cultural barriers. Or when we are touched by books, songs, and films that put their fingers on emotions that are deeply our own but that we had never witnessed externalised so clearly or beautifully before.”
- Understanding: “This is about the pleasure that can be felt whenever we correct confusion and puzzlement about ourselves or the world. We might be scientific researchers, or economists, poets or patients in psychotherapy; the pleasure of our activities stems from a common ability to map and make sense of what was once painfully unfamiliar and strange.”
- Service: “One of the most meaningful things we can do is to serve other people, to try to improve their lives, either by alleviating sources of suffering or else by generating new sources of pleasure.”
As I mentioned above, Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp inmate during WWII, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning; summarized in an article in Psychology Today, Frankl said that meaning can be found through:
- Experiencing reality by interacting authentically with the environment and with others.
- Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and,
- Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.
Frankl is also quoted as saying, “The point is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.”
“Meaning is like the water of our psychological health. Without it, our hearts and minds will shrivel and die. And like water, meaning flows through us—what is important today is not what was important years ago, and what is important tomorrow will not be the same as what is important today. Meaning must be sought out and replenished frequently.
Manson says we can find meaning in two ways:
- Solve problems. He cautions us: “It’s easy, when we start thinking of how insignificant we are on a cosmic scale of the universe, to start thinking there’s no point in doing anything unless we’re going to save the world or something. This is just a distraction. There are tons of small, everyday problems going on around you that need your attention. Start giving it.”
- Help others. I love what he says about this: “As humans, we’re wired to thrive on our relationships. Studies show that our overall well-being is deeply tied to the quality of our relationships, and the best way to build healthy relationships is through helping others. In fact, some studies have even found that giving stuff away makes us happier than giving stuff to ourselves. . . . As such, it seems to be a “hack” in our brains that helping out other people gives us a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Just the fact you can say to yourself, “If I died, then someone is better off because I lived,” creates that sense of meaning that can propel you forward.”
Philosopher Iddo Landau, from Haifa University in Israel, believes that “people are mistaken when they feel their lives are meaningless. The error is based on their failure to recognize what does matter, instead becoming overly focused on what they believe is missing from their existence.” [cited in The secret to a meaningful life is simpler than you think]
The article goes in more detail into different philosophies of meaning, but I interpret what he says to be that we find meaning by reflecting on and being grateful for the things in our life that matter to us rather than focusing on what we think we’re missing.
Frankl goes even deeper in Man’s Search for Meaning, admonishing us that “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.”
He goes on to say, “Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete.”
To him–and I think to me–the question of meaning isn’t wholly philosophical, but very practical. Not “what is the meaning of life,” in the abstract, but why am I doing what I’m doing today?
How do we apply this in our own life when questions of its meaning plague us?
Maybe when we’re in the midst of the mundane, or when we’re facing one of those transition periods of life, the answer is to look beyond what we’re doing to ask ourselves why we’re doing it–there is meaning in the constant repetition of diaper changes or laundry if we think of them as acts of love for those we love and share our home with. There is meaning in the seemingly trivial administrative tasks of our job if we look at them as contributions to the mission of the business to somehow make the lives of its customers a little better.
If we’re at one of those crossroads in life, perhaps we can assess our life in one or more of the areas mentioned and look for ways to cultivate the communication, the connection, the understanding, the creativity, the service, that various researchers and philosophers have found can result in a sense of meaningfulness in our lives. Sometimes simply getting out of our own heads and looking around us for a need we can fill–however small it might seem–can lead us into a new phase of meaning.
Some final thoughts
I recently read, for the first time, Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. I found much inspiration from the conclusions he reaches in the book and his ability to find meaning even in the suffering he and others endured. He reminds us that there is meaning in the mere fact of one’s existence. No person is replaceable.
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
We each can find meaning in the knowledge that there are people who love us or that we have a work to do in the world.
Perhaps the most significant thing I read in Frankl’s book, in terms of answering my own questions about meaning, is a reminder that my own experience of life is more within my control than not: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
I can choose to find meaning even in the most mundane aspects of my life.
What do you think?
Have you pondered the questions of meaning and purpose discussed in this episode? What answers have you found for yourself? Post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Links
- Three Simple Ways to Find the Meaning of Life – The Atlantic
- Meaning of life – Wikipedia
- What Is the Meaning of Life? – The School Of Life
- What Is the Meaning of Life? | Psychology Today
- What is the real meaning of life? A study found the answer
- What Is the Meaning of Life? | Mark Manson
- What Is the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Living a Meaningful Life – Lifehack
- What is the Meaning of Life for You? – Intentional Insights
- Frontiers | Why Meaning in Life Matters for Societal Flourishing
- (41) Lao Tzu – 6 Ways To Be In Flow With Your Life (Taoism) – YouTube
- The secret to a meaningful life is simpler than you think
- Where Americans Find Meaning in Life | Pew Research Center
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
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