How do we find meaning in our lives? After discovering that meaning is one of the key factors that contributes to well-being, I set out to understand more about the elements of a meaningful life. Whether it’s focusing more on what we value, or simply shifting our perspective, we all have the ability to experience more meaning in our daily lives.
What does it mean ?
In the well-being theory developed by one of my psychology heroes Martin Seligman, meaning is defined as being part of, or in service of something bigger than ourselves. According to the research, our well-being increases when we cultivate greater meaning and purpose.
Though it might sound daunting, serving a larger purpose doesn’t have to involve drastic changes to our lives. In some cases, we might just need a moment to reflect, in order to recognize meaning that already exists right under our noses!
Pretty fun, right?! I won’t give it away, in case you didn’t watch the video (but you should definitely watch the video!). I’ll just say to those of you who did watch it that 50% see it, and 50% don’t (I didn’t – did you?). The surprising result, of how many of us didn’t see what’s right in front of us, speaks to what we can miss when our attention is focused somewhere else.
How does that relate to meaning? Well, we might have meaning in our lives we’re not aware of, because we’re preoccupied with other aspects. But by switching our focus, or pulling out to a wider context, we might be able to see some of the meaningful parts of our lives that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
The Meaning of Cleaning
Various studies have looked at the role of meaning at work, and the positive effects of viewing one’s role as contributing to the greater good. One inspiring example involved janitors at a hospital. When asked about their experience, one group of janitors described their job as vital to the hospital running smoothly, and essential to the healing process of the patients. That particular group was proactive, took time to interact with patients and coworkers, and reported feeling engaged and happy at work. In contrast, those who had a more limiting view of their role, only focusing on the assigned cleaning tasks, reported much lower levels of enjoyment.
It’s all about the Frame!
In the case of the janitors who enjoyed their jobs, the difference was in their perception that they were serving something bigger. Feeling valued and finding meaning greatly influenced their positive approach to the work. It’s amazing how powerful the way we frame our experiences can be! What might we be able to reframe in our own lives?
In addition to mining existing structures, we can also search outside of ourselves to cultivate deeper meaning. Based on each of our values and interests, when we dedicate time to what feels important, we feel a greater sense of purpose. Some areas that tend to increase fulfillment are:
- Connecting with Others – Quality time with family, friends, and the larger community
- Volunteering – Giving back to the community not only benefits others, but offers many benefits for the giver as well
- Religion/Spirituality – Connecting to a religious faith or spiritual practice, in whatever form that may be
- Creative Expression – Being fully immersed and entering a state of flow
- Politics – Working with others who share similar values to create impactful change
- Nature – Experiencing wonder and awe, and the interconnectedness of all beings
Meaning can also come from the challenges we face, and be a big support in getting us through hardships.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning“Viktor Frankl
Highly Recommended – One of the most impressionable and inspiring books I’ve ever read.
A post about meaning would not be complete without Viktor Frankl and his heartbreakingly beautiful book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Writing about his experience in the Second World War, where he survived four concentration camps, Frankl offers significant insight on finding hope through meaning. No matter how dire our circumstances, what he learned from his own determination and witnessing other people’s strengths was that we always have a choice.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Viktor Frankl
Frankl reminds us that we can all choose how we want to move through this life, and how meaning can be found and cultivated in any situation. It’s often just a matter of noticing what speaks to us and identifying what we value and find important.
Where do you find inspiration and meaning in your life? In what areas do you feel most connected to something bigger? Please share your thoughts and ideas – I’d love to hear them!