How to cultivate meaning

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on meaning. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

When we talk about the meaning of life, we often use words like “figure out” or “discover” or “understand,” as if the meaning of life is hidden out there somewhere waiting to be found. But that’s not the only way to envision it.

“It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning,” writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life,” writes Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.

How do people make meaning?

One clue about how to cultivate meaning comes from observing people who seem to have grasped it.

When William Damon surveyed 1,200 young people, he started to see a pattern among the highly purposeful ones. Many of them had had an inspiring interaction with someone outside their families, which planted a seed in their heads. For example, when she was five years old, one talkative girl met a man who had lost his voice box due to cancer; she would go on to help create the American Cancer Society Teens Board.

The young adults from Damon’s survey who had discovered their purpose had had role models of purpose, people who clearly experienced work as a calling. At some point, they had experienced two successive moments of revelation: They realized that the world needed improving and that they were capable of improving it.

In other cases, a negative experience or trauma seems to propel people toward their purpose. Csikszentmihalyi cites the example of someone who was hit by a car, whose driver promised he would pay for all the medical bills – and then later refused. This man went on to become a lawyer, to protect people from going through what he himself had experienced. As we saw in our month on resilience, many people who overcome abuse, disease, or accidents find a new purpose in life helping other survivors.

21 questions for making meaning in life

If we create meaning, rather than discover it, that meaning will have to come from inside. Try reflecting on some of the questions below to see if they inspire new insights.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, encourages us to think about the big questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What is my life for?
  • Where do I fit in?
  • How do I live virtuously?

If those questions are too abstract, Damon’s questions for kids work equally well for adults:

  • What’s most important to me in my life?
  • Why do I care about these things?
  • Do I have any long-term goals?
  • Why are these goals important to me?
  • What does it mean to have a good life?
  • What does it mean to be a good person?
  • If I were looking back on my life, how would I want to be remembered?

Susanna Halonen, author of Screw Finding Your Passion: It’s Within You, Let’s Unlock It, takes a more concrete approach:

  • If I were a brand, which brand would I be and why? Brands exemplify certain qualities, and the one we choose can give us a hint about what qualities we are drawn to.
  • What qualities do I want to be known for or associated with? It can help to reflect on moments we are particularly proud of from the past.
  • What do I want to create or contribute to that makes the world awesome?
  • What positive impact do I want to create?
  • What people do I admire or inspire me and why?
  • How do I want to be remembered when I’m older?
  • What speech would I want someone to make at my 80th birthday party?

At this point, Halonen suggests, our purpose might start to coalesce, and we can try to capture it in a few sentences. For example, her purpose is “to educate and inspire people to choose happiness, passion, and success in their lives.” Then we can reflect on:

  • How am I living my “why” already? If a purpose truly resonates with us, we’re probably already taking small steps toward it.
  • How can I embed this “why” into my daily life? We can consider doing more activities that incorporate this “why,” expressing it in other domains of life (e.g., family, work, hobbies), creating daily habits around it, and removing obstacles to it. 

In the article below, psychologist Rick Hanson offers a final question to reflect on – and how to incorporate the answer into our everyday life:

Read “Just One Thing: Find Your North Star”

3 exercises for making meaning

These exercises can boost our sense of meaning in life – and also give us some direction for our New Year’s resolutions. Once a week for the next few weeks, pick one to try: 

1. Best Possible Future Self. In the Best Possible Self exercise, developed by University of Missouri professor Laura King, you take 15 minutes to write about an ideal future life (1-10 years from now). Imagine everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings.

This exercise, which we’ve already used to cultivate optimism and figure out our goals, is also useful for meaning. Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things. When you identify a goal, you can take another day to journal about the steps you have taken to achieve it, imagining you’re already there. And goals are signposts on the way to purpose.

2. Life story. In this exercise, based on work by Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, you are prompted to write the story of your life as if it were a book. You divide your life into chapters, and describe its highs and lows and turning points. You recall scenes from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, as well as the “characters” who have played a role in your life story. You reflect on your greatest challenge in life and how your future might turn out (for good or ill). In the end, you may gain some clarity into your life’s overarching theme. 

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs tells the story of his life and his purpose – and how he discovered it through dropping out of college, being fired from Apple, and facing the prospect of death:

3. Awe. When Viktor Frankl was living in a concentration camp, he made a curious observation. Sometimes, his fellow prisoners organized “cabarets,” where they would sing songs, read poems, and tell jokes. And starving as everyone was, some would choose to skip meals in order to attend or participate.

The smallest beauties took on special significance for the prisoners. During a long march, they would sometimes marvel at a striking wintry vista and point it out to each other. Amidst the horror, there was still a thread of the spiritual. Frankl concluded that one way to find meaning in life is in the contemplation of art, beauty, and nature, which imparts a pleasure similar to the contemplation of one’s beloved.

These days, the science of happiness is studying such experiences under the name of awe. We feel awe when we’re faced with something greater than ourselves that we can’t comprehend with our current knowledge. For example, we might feel awe on top of a huge mountain, or in the face of a revolutionary idea or a heroic person.

One study found that people feeling awe (induced by looking up at huge trees) felt less self-important and less entitled, and acted kinder and more generous (asking for less money to participate in the experiment). Other research has shown that even brief experiences of awe increase modesty, humility, intellectual curiosity, and happiness, while having a physical effect that no other positive emotion does – lowering cytokine levels (associated with disease).

Various studies out of Stanford have shown that awe makes us feel like we have more time on our hands, even more than feelings of happiness do. For example, writing about awe makes people less impatient and more likely to volunteer their time (but not their money) than writing about happiness. People feeling awe report being more satisfied with life and are more likely to choose to buy an experience (vs. a material good), which requires time to enjoy.

Awe seems to take us out of everyday, mundane experience and connect us to something bigger and more beautiful – more meaningful, you might say. If you’d like to experience awe, try one of these practices:

  • Take an Awe Walk: Take a walk somewhere that’s new and vast, like hiking up a mountain, heading to the rooftop of a building, or exploring a historic cathedral. Turn off your cell phone, and try to cultivate a sense of wonder at the sights around you. (Then, if you can, bring this sense of wonder and curiosity to everyday life.)
  • Write an Awe Narrative: Have you felt awe recently? Spend 15 minutes writing about a recent experience of awe, describing where you were, what you saw, and how you felt.
  • Watch an Awe Video: If you can’t get outside, watching a video like this one of Yosemite National Park should reliably induce awe.
  • Read an Awe Story: Or, take 10 minutes to read this story about climbing the Eiffel Tower.

If meaning is truly made, not found, it’s not something we’re going to happen upon eventually. The choices we make today – of how we spend our time, what we prioritize, which paths we take – will affect what our lives mean tomorrow. Don’t leave the question to the philosophers, because they can’t decide what meaning your life has to you.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What is meaning? 

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of meaning

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum