A burning question that plagues many people in today’s society, possibly more than ever before in history, is how one goes about finding meaning in life. The irony of this quest is that it is not in the act of pursuing meaning that one finds it. It is actually a byproduct of pursuing other goals. As Emily Esfahani Smith states in her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, she states that Aristotle had developed a concept of Eudaimonia, which in Greek means “human flourishing.” Aristotle believed that to achieve eudaimonia, it was necessary to nurture the best strengths and qualities within yourself and use those qualities for the greater good by “living up to your potential.” It comes from contributing to society, being involved in the community, and working toward one’s full potential. So, how do you go about pursuing the goals that will elicit the byproduct of a felt sense of meaning? The following tips may help:
- Develop your personal identity and don’t be afraid to express yourself. You are the only one like you in the world. Your unique combination of lived experiences, genetics, and influential relationships in your life make you the only one like you to have ever set foot on this earth.
- Develop a sense of community. Finding meaning in life includes simple things like finding your niche and feeling comfortable being yourself, which provides a sense of connection with others around you. Get involved in community organizations such as volunteering at a hospital or school, becoming involved in a church or synagogue, or volunteer for a cause. This is not only going to foster a feeling of community, but you will forge new friendships, and be contributing to the betterment of the community.
- Learn from your past and be able to apply it to your present and future experiences. We learn from challenges. Taking those experiences and applying the wisdom gained from them into your present and future experiences is rewarding much like summiting a tall mountain. Research has shown that many of the happiest people in life have gone through intense struggles or suffering that resulted in a deeper search for meaning. No one wants to suffer or struggle, but it does leave one with the opportunity for tremendous insight and wisdom. Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was also a survivor of Nazi concentration camps. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote about his hypothesis that “Suffering without Meaning equals Despair.”  Although no one ever invites suffering, when it happens, it is good to know that by reaching deep down to search for greater meaning it can lead to happiness, depth and a stronger sense of wisdom and perspective.
- Be a giver rather than a taker. It is lots of fun to receive, but the deepest satisfaction comes from giving. We are relational beings and fostering happiness in others is deeply gratifying for most people. When people make it a priority, they feel a sense of purpose and gratification as they spread a little sunshine. Try “paying it forward” at least once every day and see how you feel. Ironically, I suspect you will feel you receive more happiness and satisfaction than you ever imagined when you focus on Much like the pursuit of meaning being the byproduct of other goals, feeling good about receiving is most often the byproduct of giving.
- Having values that are greater than simply your own satisfaction or happiness. As author Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick states,“There is more to life than feeling happy.” Developing distress tolerance and a willingness to endure some discomfort and foster perseverance in the pursuit of goals ,or in the process of navigating through challenging experiences actually leads to a greater satisfaction in life. Have you ever noticed that some of the most successful people work countless hours? It is their pursuit of a goal of which they are so passionate that they are willing to devote themselves to it. They don’t mind working tirelessly or enduring some discomfort in the process. Someone once told me that true success comes from finding something you are passionate about and pursuing it, enjoying it and working hard at it. The success will follow. The pursuit of success itself is often fruitless. Once again, it is the byproduct of a goal that holds deeper meaning.
- Cultivate a sense of spirituality or belief in something greater than yourself, which fosters a sense of peace and comfort that is unlike that found through other means. By developing a system of beliefs that put importance in something greater than oneself, suffering has less despair associated with it as it ties into the bigger picture, even if we are not sure about howit fits into it. There is greater altruism associated with a sense of spirituality and there is deepened trust in perspective that is gained through challenges. Generally, having spirituality in life acts as a moral compass, enhancing our interest in making decisions to act with kindness, pursue enriching experiences and to grow in our wisdom and integrity over the years.
Still stuck pondering the meaning in your life? Ask yourself: What are the toughest times you have had in your life and what did you learn from them?What are your inherent strengths? If you could imagine using those strengths in other meaningful ways, how would that look? Remember, that the goal is investing yourself in values, goals and community, while working toward your full potential. Finding meaning along the way is the just the byproduct of that pursuit.
[1,2]Esfahani Smith, E. (2017) The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. Penguin Radom House, LLC: NY, NY.
Frankl, Victor (1992) Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press: Boston.