Features

How to find meaning in life

What’s the most important thing in life? Happiness,right? Wrong. The most important thing in your life is meaning. Once you find meaning, happiness will follow. 

Emily Esfahani Smith has just written a book called The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters (Crown, January 2017) explaining the importance of meaning and how to find it in your life. A good synopsis of the book was published by Eric Barker on time.com on October 11, 2016 (http://time.com/4524909/4-ways-to-find-more-meaning-in-life/?xid=newslet...). 

The widespread preoccupation of our times is the pursuit of personal happiness and the acquisition of ever more personal freedoms, rights and choices, with little or no emphasis on the duties, obligations and responsibilities inevitably associated with these freedoms, rights and choices. 

This is not conducive to building meaningful lives. People who lead meaningful lives tend to be ‘givers’ while people who pursue happiness tend to be ‘takers’. Many things that bring meaning to life can be burdensome and do not produce happiness in the short term, e.g. having children.  

Parenthood is an extreme form of giving - getting little sleep in the first year of your baby’s life doesn’t make you happy, but it does bring huge meaning to your life. And, in most cases, lasting happiness will come later. On the other hand, if you pursue happiness directly, the resulting good feelings tend to be temporary. Lasting happiness is a by-product of living a meaningful life. How do we achieve meaningful lives? Smith recommends four evidence-based steps to get there.

1. Belonging: A surprising finding about suicide illustrates the importance of belonging. Unhappiness does not predict suicide but lack of a sense of meaning in life does. Early research on suicide threw up seemingly contradictory results: war reduces suicide rates; educated people are more prone to suicide; Jews are well-educated but less prone to suicide. The common factor that explains these findings is belonging. War bonds people together. Education often means leaving hometown and friend and family ties to go to college. Jews tend to live in strong communities.

It is important to feel part of a community. Friends and companions are a wonderful asset. You should be a member of a group that meets regularly. If you are not in a group, join one. If there are no groups, start a group yourself.

2. Purpose: Smith explains that purpose has more to do with how you see what you do and less about what you actually do. She tells the story of President J.F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1962. He met a janitor and asked him what he did. The janitor replied, “helping put a man on the moon”.

The janitor might have said “emptying dustbins” but instead he described his work as contributing to a stable and far-reaching goal and as contributing to the lives of other people. If you are a teacher or practise medicine, and so on for example, it is easy to see how your life has purpose and helps others. If not, you can do like the janitor and redefine your work to find more meaning.

3. Storytelling: Our brains are structured to make sense of the word through stories. Research has shown that many people with meaningful lives tell themselves a ‘redemption story’ about their lives where they move from suffering to salvation, i.e. a negative event in their lives is followed by a positive event that resulted from the negative event and that gives their suffering meaning. 

For example, harsh early childhood conditions could motivate a child to make the most of educational opportunities to rise above poor circumstances and attain a satisfying adult life.

Appreciation

On the other hand, people who lack meaning in their lives tend to tell ‘contamination stories’. In these stories, tragedies and hard times don’t produce growth and no good comes from the bad. So, tell yourself good stories.

4. Transcendence: This means cultivating an appreciation of how big and wonderful life is, causing you to look on the totality of existence with a feeling of awe. Astronauts report having this feeling when they look back on planet Earth from space. 

Most of us will never fly in space crafts but we can still cultivate awe by simply contemplating the majesty of the natural world - rivers, oceans, mountains, deserts, frozen polar regions, the myriad animals and plants that live in these environments, the variety of races in the human family, the vastness of the universe and the smallness of Earth, the evolutionary history of life on Earth, the evolution of the universe starting out with the ‘big bang’, etc.

This feeling of awe diminishes your feelings of self-importance, encourages you to become more generous and helps you to step outside yourself and connect with others.   

You are not the center of the world but you are a part of a marvelous unfolding universe. The world is big – your problems are small.

It is certainly not necessary to be religious to create meaning in your life but practicing Christianity should help greatly. Christianity is a belief system practiced in a community and carries an automatic sense of belonging. Christians are givers, with obligations to fulfil as well as benefits to enjoy, eg. the peace of mind of believing you are pleasing your God who loves you. 

Christians are obliged to have concern for their neighbour, to help the less fortunate and to live honest, modest and industrious lives. Christians are obliged to transcend themselves by acknowledging that they are only a small part of God’s vast and marvelous universe. The Christian purpose in life is to grow in wisdom and love.

Ireland is suffering from a suicide epidemic, particularly amongst young men, because many see little or no meaning in their lives. Many more Irish people commit suicide annually than die on our roads (166 people died on Irish roads in 2015, but 451 people committed suicide). 

We are forever talking about road deaths and taking measures to prevent them. But where are the programmes to train young people on how to find meaning in life?

 

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC  http://understandingscience.ucc.ie