Many people drift aimlessly through life or keep changing their goals, running around chasing whatever they choose to call happiness. While some others live the life that their parents or their religion/caste/creed/cult or spouses have in mind for them. One finds ultimate fulfilment in life when one has a deep sense of living meaningfully. Before we begin, let’s understand the difference between meaning of life and meaning in life.
When we look at the stars and wonder where they all came from, we are asking about the meaning of life. When a tragedy strikes us like when someone we love leaves us, or when bad things happen to a good person and we wonder why such a thing could happen, we are asking about the meaning of life. Meaning of life is about the big questions, the answers to which we must take on faith or inference.
Meaning in life is about what makes our own, personal lives worth living. It is answerable, it is livable, it can help us find solutions to problems we face now, and it expresses what we imagine we can do in our lifetimes. Whether or not there is any meaning in life, we can always strive to create meaning in our lives.
Leading experts on meaning in life, psychologists Frank Martela and Michael F. Steger, defined in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2016, meaning as having three, interrelated elements, that contribute to having a sense of meaning in our lives. This definition is useful because it highlights three central components of meaning:
1. Coherence – This is how one ‘thinks’ of meaning in life, putting it all together in one’s mind, making sense of it all. Finding coherence means feeling that we can make sense of our lives and how the parts fit together. It is the sense that one’s life is characterised by predictability. It is an understanding of the world around us, how it works and how we fit into it.
This is an understanding that things happen in your life for a reason. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can fit new developments into your narrative the moment they happen, but you usually are able to do so afterwards, so you have faith that you eventually will. If one feels conflicted when one sees how meaning operates in one’s life then there is a dissonance.
2. Significance – This is how one ‘feels’ about the meaning in life in one’s context. it is the feeling that we have inherent value. It is the degree to which a person believes his or her life has value, worth, and importance. It is the confidence that we can make a difference in some small or larger ways and that life is worth living or fulfilling. “To the world, you might just be one person but to one person you might just be the world.” This is how I feel when I see my daughter; I see my significance. This is the sense that your life matters. If you have high levels of significance, you’re confident that the world would be a tiny bit—or perhaps a lot—poorer if you didn’t exist.
3. Purpose – This is how meaning in life reflects in one’s behaviour and one’s actions. It is to have a sense of direction in life and having personally important longer-term aims we strive towards, or a higher purpose that drives us. The purpose might show up as our goals, but not necessarily. It could be more general deeply felt intentions or values, such as to be a good parent, friend or romantic partner. Purpose can mean dedicating your time, attention and focus to helping others in your community or joining a cause that can make the world a better place. Purpose is the belief that you are alive in order to do something. Think of purpose as your personal mission statement, such as “the purpose of my life is to share the secrets to happiness” or “I am here to spread love abundantly.”
One may ask how seeking happiness can be different from seeking meaning in life. Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues suggests that satisfying basic needs promotes happiness, but not meaning. In contrast, linking a sense of self across one’s past, present, and future promotes meaning, but not happiness.
Meaning and purpose in life have deep ties to our sense of identity, belonging, agency, worth, hope, and many other ways that we feel OK in the world. On top of this, meaning helps us integrate all of these individual domains into one coherent experience of life. When this integrated sense of meaning is lost, we feel alienated from ourselves and the world around us, and struggle to find reasons why anything is worth investing in and striving for.
Understanding and Introspection for meaning in life in these three interrelated layers of coherence, significance and purpose helps us better understand where we stand in our lives, where we have made progress and where we need to focus and work. I feel fortunate to have found meaning through my spiritual pursuit which is nourished by a diet of these three necessary macro ingredients. At least it feels I have taken the first steps on this fulfilling journey. To have meaning in life is to live fully, where your thinking, feeling and actions integrate fully. Integration is the key; they can simply be disconnected from each other. And yes, this meaning could be different for each of us and it’s an initiative and effort that each of us needs to take. We can’t live with a borrowed meaning or marketed meanings that we are surrounded with all day long. We need to craft it ourselves, reflect on it, feel it and live it. Only then can it be fully savoured.