What is a Meaningful Life?

“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

 

Viktor E. Frankl

In spite of all the suffering Viktor Frankl saw and was exposed to as a Holocaust survivor, he believed that what really mattered was an individual’s attitude and their freedom to choose their own way.

We often chase happiness, materialism, and hedonic pleasure, whereby we can have happiness in a box. We can focus our lives on a Teleological approach; a concept based on early mankind whereby individuals serve a purpose within a hierarchical structure, and now more so in a corporate ladder concept. There are many schools of thought on how to live a meaningful life through the ages from Medieval Scepticism, Stoicism, and a Phenomenological approach which discusses love for the sake of love.

According to Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer, a key aspect of our well-being is not necessarily the search for meaning, but actually in prioritizing meaning within our lives.

Meaning is not just an idea; meaning is integral to life itself. Our brains function in such a manner that they need to experience meaning in context.

“Developmental neurological studies show for instance how babies initially have the primary experience of dots, unstructured chaos, and few meanings, but relatively quickly they identify meanings in this chaos (e.g. Spreen, Risser & Edgell, 1995; Temple, 2014).”

 

Vos, Joel. Meaning in Life (p. 43). Macmillan Education UK. Kindle Edition.

Do we need to understand the meaning of life? Do we need to find our purpose? Or do we need to find meaning in our daily life?

 

Types of Meaning

Positive Psychology Program B.V 2020 have worked through many theories and schools of thought and proposed four different variations of meaning;

  1. Experience – What meaning can I unpeel in my current situation?
  2. Situational – What meaning can I find in events in my life?
  3. Big – What is my purpose?
  4. Cosmic – What is the meaning of life itself?

Asking the Cosmic question can be very engaging, philosophical, and enriching, and this is a question we should all explore at some point in our life. However, such a question can lead us to potentially not being present-minded with finding meaning in our current situation (point.1) and also at times situational (point.2). For the most part, it is wiser to prioritize meaning in our lives instead of searching for meaning directly. Please note this is not to say that we cannot ‘search for meaning,’ but we can uncover meaning by being present-minded and engaged with life itself. We can move in and out of these variations of meaning as and when appropriate. There is a subtle difference between going gung-ho and seeking meaning versus self-awareness and being present-minded which will aid us in naturally exploring and seeking meaning in an organic way and also allow us to move through the four types of meaning suggested.

Mindfulness is a great example of practicing being in the present moment which enables us to explore the richness of life.

 

Values

Exploring our values is a great start to help us live a life that is meaningful to us. From this, we can prioritize things in life that align with our values to increase our well-being.

Intrinsic values are motivated by learning new things and character growth. Extrinsic values can be motivated by our need as individuals to fit in and to be worthy of others. For example, an intrinsic value could be creativity and a love for art. An extrinsic value could be valuing status or promotion. There is no right or wrong answer here, however, we may find that as we learn more about people, nature, and life itself that we appreciate what is truly meaningful to us and that such meaning lies beyond money, materialism, and power.

 

Hedonic Well-Being

Hedonic well-being involves pleasures that have a theoretically limited life span. Hedonic well-being can form part of a healthy balanced life. Examples of this form of well-being could include a holiday, a new phone, or even a glass of wine or beer after a long week at work. The pleasure brings positive emotions, albeit our emotions will return to their previous state after a timeline boost. It is very important for us to understand the Hedonic Treadmill (returning to our baseline of happiness after a time frame) as it helps us to understand why we do what we do. We may assume that a big house or new car is meaningful to us, and respectfully that is subjective; albeit we could explore the idea that the special moments with our loved ones in the big house are what is meaningful to us and the adventure and present-minded road trip are what makes the car meaningful as opposed to the materialistic nature of these items alone. We can also explore whether our meaning is intrinsic or extrinsic and if something is truly meaningful to us or if we have societal pressure to live in alignment with others. Do we believe our happiness comes from a television advert or billboard advertising the perfect life?

Can we instead prioritize our values and live our lives in alignment with such values and find a healthy balance and understanding with Hedonic well-being instead of chasing happiness?

 

Eudaimonic Well-Being

Eudaimonic well-being can be seen as love for the sake of love and as more of a journey that involves both positive and negative emotions. Resting your head on your pillow at night with a warm sense of pride and helping others is a great example of this. Founding a charity or pursuing a deep passion for art are strong examples of Eudemonic well-being.

Ikigai

Finding your ikigai is a very fun and engaging way to help you explore what is meaningful to you.

  1. What you love
  2. What you are good at
  3. What the world needs
  4. What you can be paid for

The exploration of these four areas can help you live a life of passion and organically explore what is meaningful to you.

Spend time creating deep connections with others and practicing empathy. Explore nature with new eyes and practice being present-minded. Start a gratitude journal and write down three things each evening in your journal that you are grateful for that day. From these small daily habits, begin to prioritize what is meaningful to you each day and enjoy other pleasures around this. By focussing on such things over materialism and external pressures from the society of what a perfect life looks like; you will begin to live a meaningful life that is right for you, which in turn will increase your well-being tremendously.

Thanks for listening.

David Chorlton.

Positive Psychology Practitioner.

Meaningful Paths.

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David Chorlton

David Chorlton is Positive Psychology Practitioner and founder of Meaningful Paths, a platform that offers coaching and connection to meaningful community projects across the world.

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