Everyone has gone through experiences that leave us wondering if it’s actually necessary to find meaning in life or if we could continue living without purpose.
So, have you ever wondered why this question comes up and why looking for meaning in life is one of the most important journeys a person can take?
Today, we are going to explore why it is important to find meaning in life and ways to help you reach that goal.
by Atul Gawande
⏱ 16 minutes reading time
🎧 Audio version available
It’s fair to say that people go to great lengths to find meaning in life and to make sense of what’s going on. But, what they might not realize is that meaning isn’t the same for everyone; this isn’t a one size fits all situation. Or they may find that their purpose changes over time — it’s not set in stone. Meaning in life is subjective and is based on one’s experiences; there isn’t a single straightforward answer.
Take Greek philosopher, Aristotle, as an example; in his book, Ethics, he delved deep into the question that has puzzled humans for thousands of years. He believed that everything in life has to have a meaning or a purpose, and that the ultimate purpose for human beings is to find something that we long for, for the sake of that thing.
If we lost you there, try to imagine a conversation with a child who constantly asks why to every question asked. Why are you going to college? To earn a degree. Why do you want a degree? To be able to find a job after graduation.
Why do you want to work? To be able to buy things I need and be financially stable. Why do you want to be financially stable? To be happy. Why do you want to be happy? Now, by this point, you will realize that you probably don’t have an answer. You want to be happy for the sake of happiness.
So, Aristotle also believed that this is the exact case of finding meaning in life. Humans want to find meaning for the sake of it. And in case you’re wondering, he came to the conclusion that the meaning of human life is to find happiness and attain it.
Aristotle isn’t the only one who searched for and discovered his meaning in life. At this point, it’s an old age question that has piqued the curiosity of countless philosophers, theologians, and artists for centuries. So, why is it so important that we search for meaning in life?
The story of Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, will give you a new perspective on why it’s important to search for meaning in life, and most importantly, why he advised against searching for it.
In 1942, Frankl and his family were forced to move to the hybrid concentration camp Theresienstadt Ghetto, where he lost his father six months later. Frankl, his mother, and his wife were sent to several camps in the following years and he lost both his mother and wife during this time period.
He explained that if he hadn’t held on to the thought that there’s meaning and purpose in life, he would have never survived these experiences and would’ve certainly have lost his sanity. Frankl even dedicated his life to emphasizing how important it is to find meaning in life and that that meaning will lessen suffering and is the road to happiness.
He discovered that, for him, the meaning in life came from work, love, and courage in the face of suffering.
So, it might come as a surprise that, despite spending his entire life talking about the importance of the meaning of life and how finding it helped him survive, he also said;
“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”
He went on to explain that you shouldn’t have searching for meaning in life as a goal; the more you pursue it, the more likely you are to miss the goal. And, according to Franklin, the only way you’ll find meaning in life is to not care about it and let it come to you as a side-effect of other goals. His secret to living a meaningful life is to live life to the fullest, do the right thing, gain experience, and do what you love.
So, searching and finding meaning in life isn’t an aha moment — it’s much more than that. It’s true that it’s easy to feel lost and miserable when you don’t know what the meaning of life. The good news is that it’s never too late to search for meaning in life, and while it’s something that you shouldn’t be focused on finding, as Viktor Frankl explained, there are ways to help you find a sense of purpose and meaning.
You might think that finding meaning in life is going to happen as a result of meditating for days, traveling around the world, or doing something drastic. According to a study done by psychologist Laura King, chances are, the meaning of life is already within us, and that all it takes to find it is to pause and reflect on your experiences.
And, as much as you might think it’s important to find meaning in life, it’s equally as important– if not more so– to not overdo it. Over fixating will lead to stress and anxiety, and it’s probable that it will rob you of joy for the little things in life—the very things that could lead you to the discovery of your meaning.
Enjoy the Ride
It’s true that plenty of people search single-mindedly for meaning in life with only that goal in mind. They’re looking for a deep, profound meaning that will make sense of everything and they’re so focused on it that they forget to actually live their lives.
Finding meaning in life can, and does, take time. If you spend your life only focused on that, you’ll miss out on many things.
So, it’s not all about reaching the end goal of this journey, it’s more about enjoying the journey. And, who knows? You might be able to find your meaning in life within the journey itself.
Find What You Truly Enjoy Doing
I think we can all agree that we’ve had that moment where we’re so involved with an activity that we don’t notice the hours zipping by. Isaac Newton is a prime example of this; it’s said he was so focused on his work that his mother had to remind him to eat and drink because otherwise, he would have gone without for days.
Whether it’s painting, writing, singing, or even learning, find the things that you truly enjoy doing and look beyond them. You’ll find that it’s the cognitive principles that capture your attention and that these principles aren’t only found in the activity you’re doing– they can also be applied elsewhere.
Ask Yourself What’s Important to You
Our lives are influenced by others, starting from birth. This influence can take you to the point you forget what your own core values are– values that make you you. You need to make time to stop and think about your own values and what’s truly important to you.
Some people define success by the amount of money they have and their status. But, defining success by those things will ruin any opportunity you might have to find meaning in life. And let’s not forget; your values will never be exactly the same as anyone else’s. They’re based on your own experience.
All in all, whenever you find yourself asking what’s the meaning of life, know that you’re the only person who’s capable of answering the question. In addition, keep in mind that finding an answer won’t be a walk in the park– it’s more of a long journey filled with ups and downs and twists and turns; a journey that tells the story of the life we lived.
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