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8 Pathways to a Life of Meaning and Purpose

Throughout the ages of time, people have sought to discover the meaning and purpose of life. A wealth of research in Positive Psychology suggests that happiness and meaning are, essential elements of well-being.

Roy F. Baumeister, author of “Willpower” and “Meanings of Life,” noted, “Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.”

Psychologist and well-being expert, Todd Kashdan, stated “Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and virtuous activities.” When we are deeply engaged in an activity that is in accordance with our best self, our values, and our highest standards, we often report the highest levels of life satisfaction.

Happiness and meaning are words that are often used together and sometimes used interchangeably, however there is a difference between the two. Happiness is an emotion that is felt in the here and now. Happiness, like all other emotions, is fleeting and can eventually fade away. Meaning, on the other hand is enduring. It connects the past, the present and the future. Meaning also has a lot to do with giving, while happiness is typically more about receiving.

Martin Seligman, commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology, defines the meaningful life as one in which you are “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.”

Research shows that there are numerous ways in which people can find and enjoy meaning and purpose in life. Here are 8 of those pathways:

Gratitude:  Studies indicate that gratitude can heighten the quality of life. Gratitude helps people find meaning in life because it sets their focus on abundance and what’s good in life, rather than dwelling on perceived scarcity. Studies in Positive Psychology indicate that practicing daily gratitude helps people enjoy more positive emotion, more resilience, improved health, stronger relationships, and greater life satisfaction and meaning.

Spirituality and/or Religion:  Psychologists have studied the effects of both spirituality and organized religion and have found that both can bring about feelings of increased purpose in life. They each can provide people with perspective, hope, and a deeper sense of meaning. Both spirituality and religion inspire people to believe in something greater than themselves. This has been shown to help people stay positive in times of sadness, and foster resilience as a coping strategy.

Time magazine recently posted an article discussing the benefits of spirituality in children:

A strong new body of science, developed during the last decade to what we now consider to be a level of certainty, demonstrates, first, that any sort of spirituality becomes a source of health and thriving for kids and, second, that the lack of spirituality in families and youth culture can be a big source of suffering. Among other things, our research demonstrates that spiritually plays a significant role in child social, emotional and cognitive development. Kids with a strong spirituality overall have greater grit, higher grades, more optimism and persistence than kids without a strong sense of spirituality.

Studies show that organized religion also provides increased well-being as it provides a support system and opportunities for people to join with like-minded individuals who work together to serve and believe in something larger than self.

Altruism:  The idea that helping others is part of a meaningful life has been around for thousands of years. Aristotle wrote that finding happiness and fulfillment is achieved “by loving rather than in being loved.”  In a recent study, author Kathleen Vohs reported  that “happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.”

Relationships:  Studies show that developing and nurturing positive relationships is the number one predictor of meaning and happiness in life. Relationships provide us with opportunities to get outside of ourselves and build meaningful connections with other human beings. Relationships also give us opportunities to sacrifice our own wants and needs for the happiness of another. In fact, people who report having high levels of meaning in their lives also report finding great satisfaction in serving others.

Family:  Family life can be a great source of meaning. It’s not to say that it’s always easy and or that family members are happy 100% of the time. Yet research indicates that people derive great satisfaction from family life. Speaking of family life and parenting, Sonja Lyubormirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside and a leading scholar in positive psychology, noted,

“We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning. Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, people may find solace that parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life.”

Post Traumatic Growth and Meaning in Life: A new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology noted that even though negative events may decrease happiness, they, paradoxically can contribute to and increase meaning in life. That’s because traumatic or emotional experiences can teach us hard lessons and thereby build character, give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, and help us become more compassionate. Viktor Emil Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. (1905 – 1997) was an Austrian neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a Holocaust survivor. He taught that even in life’s most difficult challenges, meaning and purpose can be found. He believed that suffering could be turned into human achievement and that life’s transient trials provide an opportunity to help people grow and discover meaning and purpose. He is often quoted as saying, “That which doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.”

Achieving Goals:  Setting and achieving goals is another source of meaning and purpose in life. Studies indicate that people who have reported feelings of satisfaction and purpose in life spend more time thinking about and planning for the future as they work to accomplish their goals.

Meaningful Work:  Research shows that there are three different levels of job satisfaction. Those who consider their life’s work as merely a job – one that merely pays the bills, report the least amount of meaning in their work. The next level in reported meaning are those who consider life’s work a career. These people gain satisfaction through their work as it brings them advancement, prestige and status. The highest level of meaning is found by those who consider their life’s work as a calling. In other words, they believe their work to be an end in itself – one that contributes to the greater good.

A meaningful life is not beyond reach but it does take effort. When you set the intention to find and live your life’s unique purpose, you will begin to find that your life truly is full of great meaning. Enjoy the journey!