When it’s hard to cultivate meaning, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 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. 

If you feel like you’re searching in vain for meaning in life, you’re not alone.

Making sense of our lives – putting an ultimate meaning (or at least a temporary one) on our very existence – is no little self-help exercise we can complete in an afternoon. Sifting authentic goals and desires from inauthentic ones when we’re constantly barraged with messages about what we should be doing is a feat of great discernment. Sitting with the uncertainty of the discovery process takes courage.

Before are some tips for dealing with three common obstacles you might encounter on this journey – namely, you’ve been chasing the wrong meaning, life feels meaningless, or you don’t know where to find meaning in the first place. 

Problem: I’ve been going after the wrong goals 

In Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change, happiness researcher Shawn Achor reveals that something else is probably motivating our actions besides meaning: “hijackers.”

“Our mental maps can become corrupted by hijackers, which are negative attitudes in our lives that lower our overall levels of happiness and derail our paths to success,” explains Achor. The problem is when they’re disguised as values or “meaning markers.”

Achor gives a few examples: wanting to lose weight because we don’t like ourselves, a negative motivation that only makes us feel worse. Career advancement for the sake of climbing the ladder. Worrying about negative comments on our upcoming book. Instead of pursuing positive meaning – e.g., becoming our best selves or contributing our knowledge to the world – we are running away from something negative, such as low self-esteem.

In all these cases, we’re pushed forward by what feels like a motivator; we think we’re moving toward something we value, toward a meaningful life. But our mindset is actually negative: we’re trying to avoid some painful reality, not seek a positive one. We’re motivated by fear, not love. 

“Fear is a map hijacker because when you activate the Jerk [the amygdala], you shut off the Thinker [the prefrontal cortex] and thus waste your valuable and finite brain resources on avoiding and fleeing from that fear instead of pursuing your goals,” Achor explains. 

To discover your hijackers, Achor has a few suggestions: 

  • Write down five triggers that consistently lead to unproductive or destructive behavior. For example, seeing that your colleagues are still working past 5 pm might compel you to stay late, even though you have no work to do and promised your family you’d be home. In that case, you’re clearly motivated by reputation rather than doing good work.
  • Ask yourself: Do certain activities tend to make you unhappy or distract you from your goals? Going to the gym might make you unhappy because you end up envying everyone’s photoshoot-ready bodies. That might be a clue that becoming healthy isn’t your only motivation for working out.

Luckily, hijackers can be ditched and replaced with positive meaning. Instead of fearing ridicule, we can focus on our desire to be healthy, have energy, and stay fit. Instead of being annoyed at wasting time, we can focus on taking time for the things we really enjoy. Instead of being perfect, we can focus on being happy.

In this TEDx talk, Priya Parker of Thrive Labs offers seven tips for quitting your life and rebooting, or giving up on old meanings and pursuing new ones:

Problem: Life feels meaningless

As Roy Baumeister explains in Meanings of Life, societal forces are now making meaning difficult to achieve. Whatever your beliefs, a culture that devalues religion and family life will necessarily leave many people – who would otherwise find meaning in those two domains – feeling adrift.

Life can also feel meaningless after we lose a source of meaning in life – for example, by changing careers or ending a relationship. If the break is sudden, such as an unexpected divorce or getting fired, then we can feel disoriented and confused. Such losses are often a blow to our self-worth, as we start to question our value as workers or partners.

The only way to fill this vacuum, Baumeister explains, is with more meaning. Ideally, we would have some warning that this loss were about to happen; if we decide to quit our jobs or leave our partners, we have some time to prepare for the break. In these cases, we would usually start cultivating outside sources of meaning to buffer against the impending loss, such as looking for new jobs or spending more time with friends. But that isn’t always possible. 

Another way of preserving meaning is to feel we’ve learned from the experience. If we can carry some skills and lessons forward (from the failed relationship or the former job), then our time was not wasted. We can see the past role as part of our journey toward something else, even if it’s just toward personal growth. That way, the experience wasn’t truly meaningless.

In this TEDx talk, Vic Strecher – a University of Michigan professor who also wrote a graphic novel about purpose – explains how he overcame a sense of meaninglessness after his daughter died:


Problem: I can’t figure out my meaning in life

For some reason, we humans have a drive to make sense of the world. In some cases, we look for patterns and meaning where there are none. That’s the way our brains work.

In an ideal world, every moment of our lives would tie up tidily into a clear narrative, which we could stick a bow on and give a label to. Meaning is stable, Baumeister points out, but life is inherently changing. And some everyday moments – doing chores, having a snack – are just pretty banal.

But he doesn’t believe we should give up the quest for meaning, or that we have to conclude that life is meaningless. Instead, we can search for meaning in a more flexible, playful way, in a way that allows for detours and mistakes and constant discovery. That’s the same attitude espoused by Dr. Susan Biali, who found her purpose after much experimentation:

Read “6 Keys to Finding Your Purpose”

“The search for a single meaning of all life, or even of one life, is likely to remain incomplete. Yet even if meaning must disappoint us in this respect, it is still vital in what it brings to life. Without the gift of meaning we could never fully appreciate the gift of life. For that reason, if no other, people should be encouraged to ponder life’s meanings,” Baumeister writes. “It is the question, not the answer, that is the real miracle. The quest for meaning alone enables us to be fully human.”

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of meaning

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum