“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” – Oscar Wilde

This image represents the joy of meaningful living, symbolized by Expression and Service in the hands, as we act directly upon them.  Love is over the heart. Discovery, especially self-discovery, is the solid foundation upon which one stands. We know ourselves, but we can see in the water that there is a great depth of yet-to-be-known for us to reach toward.

This page is about the most effective, holistic, far-reaching, and longest-lasting element of well-being. It’s the most essential and under-utilized component to living well. Some people find it naturally. Others work hard to create it. And almost none of us give it the consideration it deserves.

The experience of meaning in life is foundational for overall well-being. When we have meaning, we can apply our will and energy towards purpose. As we’ll see, this aspect of well-being transcends simply ‘feeling good.’ What it provides instead is Joy, the eudaimonic aspect of well-being.

So many competing factors in a human life…
Comic from Wait But Why.

Meaning is the Core of a Well-Lived Life

Some of the earlier pages in this ‘happiness’ section clarified important concepts, like the difference between Happiness and Joy, why the word ‘happiness’ is broken, and so on. There were pages covering other 3 Elements of Well-Being, highlighting their effectiveness and optimal use, as well as their limitations. Here, in Element #4, we find what so many of those distinctions have been hinting at: the foundational power and necessity of meaning for a life well-lived.

Meaning is the most important aspect of overall well-being.

^^ Click to see the full-size infographic ^^

Check out one of the below pages for a more detailed and scientific look at the power of meaning in life.

If life were a meal—its pleasing tastes and smells representing Element #1—then meaning would be the sustenance that we seek, gain, and feel by eating our meal. It is the ‘reason’ itself for eating. The food doesn’t have to taste good to give us the nutrients we need, but it’s wonderful if it does. The substance that we gain from the meal is essentially why we sit at the table of life.

Though living well isn’t exactly that simple, the comparison of these 2 aspects is crucial. Hedonic well-being (Element #1, pleasure) is tasty, but the substance we need in our meal of life is Eudaimonic well-being, (Element #4, meaning), and the sense of purpose it brings to our eating.

Martin Seligman, often described as the founder of Positive Psychology, made this point clear in his second landmark book:

“I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish

Flourishing is Seligman’s way of framing holistic well-being—a ‘life well-lived’—the subject of this site, and it highlights the core importance of meaning in life. With this fourth element of well-being, we see life as more worth living, fitting into a larger picture, and having value.

“Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish

Readdressing the ‘Big Question’

“What is the meaning of life?” – everyone, ever

This is a great question, it piques our curiosity about existence and whets one’s own appetite for other life-sized questions.

However, it contains a couple of MASSIVE premises. For how common this question is, it’s too bad the premises aren’t as commonly spoken of:

Premise #1 – “THE”
“The” implies that there must be only one ‘meaning.’ It contextualizes the question as having a single ‘correct’ answer. Says who? With just about everyone on earth having a different answer to ‘the ultimate question,’ it’s worth calling this premise into question.

Premise #2 – “OF”
“Of” implies that meaning must be a latent, inherent aspect of life. The question is framed to consider the meaning of one’s life only insofar as it answers to some decree already proclaimed in the existence it is a part of.

The “the/of” framing has a significant role to play in countless lives. Many people arrive at answers to this question, by faith or other means. Considering the role it can play in well-being, there are pages that cover the major spiritual (and non) traditions on this site. But they only do so academically. This site doesn’t advocate for any particular faith. What you’ll find here are broader, less predisposing questions:

  • What is a life ‘well-lived?’
  • What are the qualities that make life most worth living to people?
  • What is research saying about how to feel good and love one’s life?

^^ When you realize that the ‘big question’ contains sneaky presumptions.

Meaning IN life is something that humans experience. Viewing meaning in this way—simply as a psychological phenomenon—is not contingent on any metaphysical premise. And viewed as a subjective experience, we can relate it across different people and learn about its sources across human lives in all of its diversity. It becomes more about forms of the many lived meanings, rather than any singular, secretive-yet-definitive trait of the universe.

So, here’s our much less ambitious and ethereal, much more tangible and practical form of the ‘ultimate’ question: “What is meaning in life?”

What Is ‘Meaning In Life?’

Psychologists have offered a handful of ways to conceptualize and define the experience of meaning:

  • “Existential meaning involves purpose, value, mattering, continuity, and coherence.” ¹ – Roy F. Baumeister
  • “the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to have a purpose, mission, or overarching aim in life” ² – Michael Steger
  • “We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

At the end of the day, attaching a precise empirical definition to the subjective experience of meaning may be impossible.

“[…] it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Nevertheless, there is great value in identifying those sources which find themselves common across the diversity of human experience. These models, general though they are, help guide and inform our choices.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.” – John Gardner, Self-Renewal

In a bit, you’ll see a simple way to model common sources of meaning with the 4 Cornerstones. First, it’s worth noting that meaning can often come from experiences that don’t actually feel ‘good’ in the moment. This is what makes this element distinct from Element #1: Ephemeral Pleasures.

“It’s a secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.” – Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

When we have negative experiences, we can reappraise them as positive by reframing (#3), self-distancing, and other means, like typing them to our values and finding meaning in the experience. And by doing so, our brains learn how to see the positive (meaningful) in negative experiences better. ³

There is also evidence that more emotionally extreme life experiences are more meaningful, whether positive or negative.⁴ This goes to show how resilience, Perspective (#3), and other Enablers are so helpful for living well: they beget meaning.

The interplay between positive and negative experiences, our biases, meaning in life and its importance, etc. is complex. So let’s take a step back, momentarily, and zoom out. We’re going to put these existential ingredients into a wider context to better understand our place in the mix.

A Modern Dilemma

“When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” – Viktor Frankl

There is a remarkable contrast between the world our minds evolved for and the world we find ourselves in now. We live in unique, interesting times. This contrast can’t be understated. It is ever-present in an individual’s life in the 21st century. Human society is giving rise to new and novel extremes. Depending on your sources, you may hear either that everything is terrible, or everything is better than ever. The truth is that—aside from the environment and living ecosystem(s)—humanity is experiencing both dramatic highs and dramatic lows.

The news we read in the morning paints an alarming picture: we have plenty of reasons to panic; the world is imploding. There is plenty of fodder to keep us doomscrolling. However, recall our negativity bias, and our need for control. In several significant ways, humans are actually doing better than ever.

In his book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” Hans Rosling, a statistician who has been inspiring millions for over a decade with his insights on global trends, states:

“Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.”

And he’s right. From 1966 to 2017, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from 50% to just 9%. And based on online polls, fewer than 10% of people in most countries were even aware of this.

Extreme poverty over the last 200 years, from the Guardian

In the United States, violent crime has been steadily dropping since 1990, even though the majority of Americans think it’s worse than ever. Compared to any time in the past, there is far, far less death from natural disasters, war, and disease. There is dramatically more literacy, clean water, availability of electricity, and democracy.**All of these stats and many more are fantastically available through the free, beautiful, gapminder toolset.

However, Rosling also concedes in his book:

“The world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone.”

The state of humanity isn’t all doom and gloom, but it isn’t all butterflies and roses either. Aside from the dire state of the planet’s ecosystems and habitats, Rosling’s book does not account for people’s mental health and subjective well-being.

Human psychology can be difficult to quantify. There are many subjective elements (perhaps this is one reason why it was avoided by Rosling). But when we look closely, something doesn’t look quite right…

A Crisis of Meaning

In response to this new era of relative material abundance and safety, let’s ask a question: “But are we really ‘happy’ now?” If in doing so you find a sense of irresolute discomfort with how to answer, you’re not alone. Many folks have sensed this, even since before these more modern times of the internet and social media.

“We seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross domestic product…if we should judge America by that — counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross domestic product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither wit nor courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Bobby Kennedy, 1968

In the United States, depression and suicide rates have risen dramatically since the mid-20th century, with an increase of over 30% in the last 10 years alone. Use of antidepressants rose by 400% from 1988 to 2008.⁵ And increasing availability of mental healthcare, ironically, isn’t the culprit. One meta-analysis from 2012 described depression as a “disease of modernity.”⁶

Depression is a disease of civilization
A TED talk by Stephen Ilardi echoes the models on this site and offers a number of physical health solutions as well.

Giant global studies like the world happiness report tend, like Rosling’s book and others, to sing the praises of modernity. In almost every happiness report you’ll find, GDP is over-presumed to be synonymous with ‘happiness.’ But, alas, we must return to the very idea of ‘happiness.’ Is ‘happiness’ in the grand sense—holistic well-being, feeling like life is ‘worth it,’ the subject of this site and this section—really what these reports are measuring? Not entirely. There’s something else that’s positively correlated with GDP and happiness: depression and suicide.

So, it seems the truth is actually somewhere in-between apocalyptic gloom and unrealistic hope: as society gets richer, people chase the wrong things. What do the countries with less wealth—but also less suicide and depression—have that the wealthier countries don’t? How can it be that more people with material well-being see less reason to live?

*There are now many different global indices and reports on well-being (of different kinds). Here is a handful of some of them.

Many Factors Have Led Us to a Deficit of Meaning

Religion has served as humanity’s primary source of meaning for millennia, and it continues to do so. However, religion is on the decline around the world, especially in younger generations. And especially in the United States.

This article presents other data on the decline of religiosity.

This isn’t just unique to the Western World. The decline in the everyday importance of religion is a well-known correlation with economic development.⁷ That is, wealthier, happier countries are also less religious, and have higher rates of depression and suicide.

We were brought into modernity being taught that meaning was all around us, and through faith, we saw it. We even found meaning in the struggles of a more violent, war-torn world. And now, amidst ironic material abundance, we face a most modern deficit: meaning.

Four in ten Americans report not feeling like they’ve discovered a life purpose, and almost a quarter say they don’t have a strong sense of what makes their life meaningful.⁸

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided […] If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need. While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. […] Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.” – Roy Baumeister, Stanford Business

Organized religion is on the decline in America, especially for younger people. The 2018 American Family Survey, conducted by Deseret News in Utah, found that “for millennials and GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all.”

From Statista

This may not be problematic in itself, but for centuries, religion served as a driving purpose for many people. When nothing fills this vacuum, the effect can be a negative one. A study published in JAMA Network Open found that people without a strong life purpose—defined as a sense of feeling rooted in your life and taking actions toward meaningful goals—were more than twice as likely to die between the years of the study (2006 to 2010) compared with people who had one, even after controlling for things like gender, race, wealth, and education level.

Speaking to NPR, Celeste Leigh Pearce, one of the authors of the study, said, “I approached this [study] with a very skeptical eye, [but] I just find it so convincing that I’m developing a whole research program around it.”

Alan Rozanski, a cardiology professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City, says that purpose is “the deepest driver of well-being there is.” — from Outside’s article “We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of it is Nonsense.

As this crisis of lacking meaning emerges we can see signs of people’s thirst for a more fulfilling life. From 1976 to 1996, the percentage of high school seniors who said that “making a contribution to society” is an “extremely important” life goal rose steadily from 18% to 24%.⁹ And increasing numbers of people are responding to overwork by cutting back their work hours, motivated by a desire for a healthier, more balanced, more meaningful life, with more time for loved ones and less focus on material wealth.¹⁰

“It is time for mainstream psychology to catch up with the struggles of the majority of humanity that is searching for ways to make life meaningful.” – Corey Keyes and Jonathan Haidt, Flourishing

The Power of Meaning

When we have meaning in life, we feel like our experiences make sense and matter. The clarity, sense of purpose, and coherence brought to life is like a bedrock to stand on, giving us more energy, better health, more resilience…the list goes on. And the research, which is already very compelling, is fairly new.

Psychologists and medical researchers are learning more every day about the remarkable power of meaning. If you haven’t already, check out the Power of Meaning infographic, which highlights some of the most powerful effects that meaning can have on people’s lives.

You’ll find more info on the importance of meaning in life on the Why Meaning and Science of Meaning pages, too.

*click to go to the full infographic, then click again to zoom*

Whatever our goals, our sensibilities, and our wills—throughout life and even from moment to moment—they are enhanced and validated when there is meaning behind them. Meaning is not only the most powerful and important of the 4 Elements of Well-Being, it is also the most supportive.

When we see our lives as meaningful, we find other elements carrying greater value, relevance, and authenticity. And these benefits aren’t just additive perks. We need meaning. We are constantly seeking after it, compensating when our sense of meaning is threatened, even if outside of the domain where it’s threatened.¹¹

“Humans don’t know what they’re doing. You can say we want everybody to be happy, or we want everyone to have long lives and have good health, but what kind of goal is that? That’s the goal of your family dog.” – E.O. Wilson

Meaning is related to higher social integration, better health, higher everyday competence, high psychological well-being, and lower depressive symptoms.¹²

Find and Create Meaning in Life

So how do we attain meaning in life? Is it created, or discovered/found? Where does it come from? How can we experience more of it?

Yes. All of those. The rest of this page will be about the key ways that we find and create meaning in life.

And first, let’s look at the core contexts in which meaning thrives.

People

Take a look at this comic from the fantastic Winston Rowntree at Subnormality. *Click to see the full comic in a new tab, then click again to zoom in.

This comic elegantly captures an insight that, though many people have, we often struggle to realize or put into words:

People and relationships are, by far, the most significant means for experiencing meaning in life.

You’ve probably heard it said before: “We are social animals.” From an evolutionary and biological point of view, this can’t be understated. Throughout our species’ early history, social living offered a solution to the problem of individual survival. As the species itself has survived and changed, we’ve consequently adapted emotions designed to solve social problems.¹³

Now, much of who we are and what we feel—even our values and ideological frameworks for meaning—are rooted in our social nature.

“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted, […] and meaning is not something that we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. Only through focusing on others do we build the pillar of belonging for both ourselves and for them. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

A Harvard study on social networks highlighted the benefit of having many friends: for each ‘happy’ friend you have, your odds of also being ‘happy’ increase by about 9%, while each ‘unhappy’ friend only decreases your odds of being ‘happy’ by 7%.¹⁴ Having quality relationships even makes us healthier and helps us live longer.¹⁵ ¹⁶ ¹⁷ ¹⁸

“Any time you prioritize the socioemotional components of life, you become happier […] This shift is so common, and is backed by so much empirical support, it’s been christened with its own tediously academic title: socioemotional selectivity theory.” – John Medina, Brain Rules for Aging Well

Quick Exercise: Relationship Gratitude Sharing

Think of someone you appreciate. It could be a close friend or family member, a distant friend, or even an acquaintance that you’re fond of.

Get your phone out and send them a message. Don’t worry about overstepping or being ‘awkward.’ The truth is that people don’t say these things often enough, and almost everybody appreciates being appreciated.

Your message can be short and simple. Be sure to include WHAT it is that you appreciate about them. Giving them a ‘why,’ especially if it pertains to who and how they are, can really make a difference.

Here’s an example:
“Hey Joan, I wanted to say thank you for being such a valued friend to me over this last year. Your lightheartedness is contagious and uplifting. I sense that this is a conscious choice that you make in service to others, and I want to recognize that gift you give. Thank you so much for who you are and for this friendship.”

We offer a load of resources on relationships, especially throughout the Love section, like Friendship, Listening, Vulnerability, and even Dating and other subjects. You’ll also find that much of the joy of meaningful social relationships are tied to the 4 Cornerstones, which are covered below.

One key to great relationships is to focus on what each friend DOES contribute to your sense of meaning, instead of expecting one friend or partner to do it all. More than 80% of the people in a 2006 study by Gallup reported that they contribute something very different than they receive from their closest friendships.¹⁹ So diversity is a strength for one’s social relationships, to an extent.

The keys to optimal social well-being, says Jim Harter, chief scientist for Gallup, are:

  1. Have a handful of close relationships that help you enjoy life, achieve, and stay healthy.
  2. Surround yourself with as many people as possible who encourage your growth.
  3. Spend 6 hours a day socializing with friends, family, and colleagues (this includes work and any other form of communication).
  4. Strengthen the mutual connections in your network.
  5. Mix social time with physical activity. Motivating one another to be healthy resonates with positive benefits.

“The world encourages us to ‘love things and use people.’ Instead, put this on your fridge and try to live by it: ‘Love people; use things.’” – Arthur Brooks

Practice: One Check-In Per Day

Think of a time in your daily routine in which you can spend 5 minutes to send a message. Maybe it’s right before lunch, or shortly after waking up, or perhaps before going to sleep. The goal is to make a ritual of it.

During this time, send one person a simple message: let them know that you’re thinking of them. This may be a text or an email. Ask them how they are. It’s ok if it’s simple, as long as it’s sincere.

An example:“John! What’s up? I thought about you today while in the garden. How did that trip of yours go?” or “Hey Steph what’s new? It’s been a minute and I wonder how your life is going now that the leaves are changing color.”

Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up. […] We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.²⁰” Martin Seligman, Flourish

For millennia, our brains have been shaped by social connections. This is even evident when looking at the physical brain.²¹ ²² It’s no wonder that relationships are the single most reliable place to find and create meaning in life. (More on the fundamentals of how further on this page).

Purpose

*We are only scratching the surface of Purpose here, there is so much to explore about it, and that’s why we have an entire section devoted to the topic. As always, you’ll find ample content, resources, and exercises there, starting from the landing page:

Purpose and meaning often get conflated in casual dialogue, but they are distinct (albeit related) entities. Purpose applies meaning; or put another way, being purposeful is to act in alignment with our values. You can think of it as meaning in action.

Purpose consists of three essential pieces: it is personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and impacts the world beyond the self.

Goal-oriented action and self-transcendence are essential to purpose, while the third puzzle piece of purpose is meaning.  We cultivate our personal meaning and values through the Four Cornerstones of Love, Service, Discovery, and Expression. You can have multiple purposes that are channeled through any or all of the Cornerstones; any single purpose does not need to honor every value you have.

Krista Tippett is an American broadcaster, author, and founder of the radio program On Being.

After working in the realm of geopolitics after college she realized something wasn’t quite right and took a hiatus to reflect. It was then she came fully into her passion for spirituality and theology. Krista returned to the field of journalism with vigor for discussing these topics and to this day hosts a successful radio show about them.

Meaning (“why”):
Spirituality and faith

Goal-oriented Actions (“what” + “how”):
Directing, curating, and hosting meaningful conversations over radio

Impact (“for”):
Anyone curious about understanding their faith and spirituality or relating to other people

Blake Mycoskie is the CEO of TOMS Shoes. Inspired by the dire need he discovered for safe footwear amongst children in Argentina, he combined his passion for entrepreneurship with charity and created a hugely successful model for impactful, purpose-driven business that provides shoes to children all over the world.

Meaning (“why”):
Basic human needs, compassion

Goal-oriented Actions (“what” + “how”):
Providing shoes to impoverished children through one-for-one philanthropic business model

Impact (“for”):
Impoverished children

Alice Waters is an American chef and food activist who found combined purpose and passion in transforming modern food culture. She brought focus to and enhanced the perceived value of whole, unprocessed, local and seasonal foods, pioneering what is now known as the “Slow Food” movement.

Meaning (“why”):
Culture, Pleasure, Nourishment, Sustainability, Presence, Mindfulness

Goal-oriented Actions (“what” + “how”):
Starting a restaurant, writing books, teaching classes

Impact (“for”):
Food systems, personal food practices of food-interested public, restaurant culture (especially in America)

In the example of Alice Waters above, one of her purposes is growing the Slow Food Movement. She does this with multiple goal-oriented actions (also known as “strategies”) such as running a restaurant, writing books, cooking for friends and family, and teaching.

Because Alice is living in alignment with her values (think, “acting on meaning”), she benefits from Element 4 Well-being.

Purpose both applies meaning and gives rise to meaning. In purpose, meaning gets applied through the actions we take, which are goal-oriented in nature. This means that we are working towards specific things. While the purpose itself is a broader life-aim or life direction, the goals are landmarks along the way to aligning with this purpose.

Work

As with people and relationships, work is a substantial vessel in which we can create meaning in life. Whereas social connections provide a key framework for meaning due to our very nature, work provides in lieu of its role in modern human living. Work is how we spend a vast amount of our time, energy, and focus.

On average, about one third of a person’s waking life will be spent at work. So it makes sense to place unique importance on the contents of said ‘work.’ Consider some of the following questions:

  • What is a ‘job’ vs. a calling, career, passion, etc?
  • How do I choose the right job?
  • My job isn’t perfect, but I still love it. Isn’t that ok?
  • How (and how much) do I compromise to pay the bills?
  • In what ways can I make my current job more fulfilling and meaningful?

“People with high Career Well-being wake up every morning with something to look forward to doing that day.” – Jim Harter, Well Being

There are no right/wrong answers to these questions. The answers are unique to each person, and even vary with time and circumstance. Luckily, there is an elegant tool to guide our answers to these questions toward greater well-being.

The Bliss Map

The Bliss Map is a model that offers direction through 4 major factors of fulfillment through work. Like any good model, it is simple and memorable, yet far-reaching. Framing your questions by using the Bliss Map can shed clarity on almost every aspect of work, from short-term struggles with work/life balance to far-future planning for career success.

There is plenty more to say about the Bliss Map. Loads, in fact. Check out that section and its pages to learn the fine details of the model, how to choose the right work, and how to bring more purpose and fulfillment to your job.

Create Meaning in Life with the 4 Cornerstones

Meaning is the key component to well-being. And one’s social life, relationships, and work are the core contexts for meaningful experiences. But what kind of experiences create meaning within those contexts? It isn’t enough to simply have friends, work at a job, and know some people. From what sorts of ideas, activities, and feelings do we draw meaning?

Meaning in life can be drawn from any combination of 4 essential cornerstones: Discovery, Service, Expression, and Love.

When experienced, the 4 cornerstones of meaning give us much more than fleeting happiness. These experiences bring us Joy. They are the real stuff of what makes a ‘happy’ life, a life well-lived.

Discovery

Ah, to be curious and hypothetical about the human experience. 🙂 Via XKCD.

“Learning is not to be attained by chance, it must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams

Discovery is the term we give to when you are curious, and you act upon that curiosity. Curiosity stems from a zest for life. It is how we test the waters for what life is and can be. It gives us the will to learn and to see what is possible.

“Living purposefully requires self-reflection and self-knowledge. Each of us has different strengths, talents, insights, and experiences that shape who we are. And so each of us will have a different purpose, one that fits with who we are and what we value—one that fits our identity.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

Even now, you are feeding your need for discovery.

One of the most gratifying and joy-inducing forms of discovery is looking inward. By spending time on this site, for example, you are learning about yourself. You are providing yourself with many questions, and even discovering answers to some of them. As you do so, you grow. This sense of heightened self-awareness is the process of discovery. In the right state of mind, you can equip it almost anywhere you go.

“Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality.” –Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

The self is not static. As you ‘discover’ yourself you unfold and create the layers of what makes you you. This in itself—personal growth—is meaningful. And we can find Discovery through the other cornerstones as well. Relationships (Love) teach us about ourselves, and while in an act of service, you may discover a new passion full of purpose.

The world doesn’t need another cog in a machine. Every experience carries the opportunity to learn, change, and grow. Check out the Discovery section, where you’ll find sections like Purpose and Your Storied Life. That is also where you’ll find our Assessment Center: a collection of all of our psychological assessments for teaching you about you.

Service

Click for full size. Via Zen Pencils

For the fortunate among us, our work is our service. We often find ourselves serving others in acts of kindness or appreciation too, like giving a friend a gift or helping someone with a favor. We do it, and it is meaningful.

Meaningful living can be found when we contribute toward a cause, or otherwise act willfully according to our values (with Purpose) toward something other than ourselves. It’s when our ‘why’s’ align with our circumstances and are carried out in our actions. Seeing one’s own impact on the world and others’ lives brings meaning to our own life.

“No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself.” – Seneca

Service can be the difference between a hopeless ‘job’ and a life passion at work (and people who feel their work is more meaningful perform their jobs better²³). Such is the power of meaning. Even day-to-day chores, providing little pleasure, can bring joy in the form of meaningful service.

Working a job with a strong element of service is great (recall ‘the world needs it’ quadrant of the Bliss Map), but even small acts of service can be very meaningful. Even sharing your new knowledge of ‘happiness’ with others can be a service. 🙂

“Happiness is a perfume which you cannot pour on someone without getting some on yourself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Try This: Random Kindness Tracking

Grab a small notebook (a scrap of paper or two can also suffice) and commit it as your kindness tracker.
As you think of random kindnesses you can do for people you know, jot them down here to help you remember. Consider projects and ongoing responsibilities of people you care about and how you may be able to help. And remember that these things don’t need to be huge. Simply greeting someone with a sincere smile that shows care and affection, or leaving an extra tip for your barista, can be meaningful.

As you do these acts of service, notice what happens to your mood. Write it down immediately after. The next day, reflect on the kindness and write down your feelings about it again.

Keeping a simple journal on this will equip you with a list of opportunities for simple ways to bring meaning and satisfaction to your days through serving others.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

A Couple Tips on Service:

  1. Variety Can Be Important – In a study on acts of kindness and their effects on happiness, participants were asked to perform specific acts of kindness regularly over ten weeks. Some participants were asked to vary their acts, but the ones who were asked to repeat the same acts actually dropped in happiness by the middle of the study before bouncing back to their original levels.²⁴
  2. Even Service in Moderation – Though most of us could use more service in our lives, there is a limit. For example, studies show that the depression levels of people caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s disease are three times greater than the average person.²⁵ Caregivers of spouses with spinal cord injuries report severe physical and emotional stress, fatigue, anger, resentment, and burnout. These caregivers are even more depressed on average than their disabled partners.²⁶

There is plenty more to explore in the realm of Service. In our section on that cornerstone, you’ll find more insights, including resources for finding service-oriented jobs and volunteer opportunities.

Expression

Expression can be like an imprint of individualism we bring into the world, a reveling in a sense of free will, or a finding of our own voice. Expression can bring catharsis, resolve, and coherence to our experiences. It can even meet some of our most basic social needs, like mutuality, integrity, and to be heard or understood.

When we engage with expression, we feel a sense of “Yes, I am alive! I am real and I can do things!” Expression can boost the feeling of authenticity, significance, and purpose in our experiences. It can itself be an act of love, discovery, or even service. Much expression is not only acting according to our values, but also creating perceived value in the world.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Expression often combines with other cornerstones of meaning. And as with the other cornerstones, there are a multitude of ways to experience it. In any case, Expression can boost our willpower and agency, enforce serving narratives, exercise our vulnerability, and create meaning in a multitude of other ways.

Try This: Quick Ways To Express Your Creativity

Make Temporary Art – We can face fear of expression because of the anxiety of how it will turn out. What about happily creating a transient work of art, for the sake of it? Consider making natural art for 10 minutes on your next hike, or drawing on a sidewalk with chalk on a walk. You can even do some quick sketches with the intention of burning them afterwards. Little creative moments like these can give you a bonus practice in non-attachment too. 🙂

Rearrange Your Furniture – Changing up your living space is not only a creative boost in Expression. It can also disrupt bad habits, and give a refreshing perspective. Rearranging familiar spaces can be a substantive reminder that nothing is permanent.

Write a Creative Letter – Hand-written letters aren’t dead! They’ve been promoted to a status of ‘extra considerate and special.’ Consider writing to some distant friends. On your letter, add extra color. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. Express yourself subtly. Even the smallest touch of hand-crafted ornamentation will be received as a gift of time and consideration.

You can learn more about Expression in our section on that Cornerstone. You’ll find inspiring stories of expression and resources there to boost your journey toward more meaningful expression.

Love

Heart and Brain by The Awkward Yeti

For many people, love is the cornerstone of the cornerstones. It is a massive ‘bucket’ word, containing diverse taxonomies, experiences, and feelings. In Hebrew for example, there are at least 10 different words for ‘love.’

As a cornerstone, ‘Love’ refers to our ways of relating to other people, things, ideas, or even one’s own self that brings a sense of meaning.

“Friendship with one’s self is all important, because without it, one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Love can be intricately interwoven across many aspects of one’s life. It can be the inexplicable force that dictates our values, our daily lives, and even our personality. It can inflame our will to serve, to discover, and to express. One can have a love for knowledge and truth. One can also have a love for a person. Love, in English, can be for a non-romantic friend, a family member, or a spouse.

Some of the most impactful sections on this site fall under the Love cornerstone. Each of these subjects offer new lenses on some of life’s most important subject, and each offer research, resources, and exercises:

M.J. Ryan, author of Happiness Makeover, encourages her readers to expand their notion of Love:

“No matter our particular romantic circumstances, we are all here to love, to open our hearts to the majesty and mystery of the human capacity to care for and about other beings. Restricting it mentally to one particular form means we miss out on dozens of ways we could find every day to be happy. [So, she continues…] When it comes to love, the question is not whether, but how and where. How wide can my heart open? How can I be kinder, more patient with those I encounter? How can I allow myself to experience even more deeply the love of others? Where does the river of love want to flow now in me?”

Her point is simple: Love is everywhere. For all of the joy that it can give, it is wise to practice giving and receiving it in every opportunity that we can.

Good social relationships are one of the best predictors we have for a person’s well-being.²⁷ ²⁸ Concordantly, loneliness takes a huge toll on one’s well-being. It can even be detrimental to physical health: some research has shown it’s worse for you than smoking or obesity, and a 30-year study found that loneliness was the greatest risk factor for depression in elderly people with excessive loneliness causing brain damage in some cases.²⁹ There is good evidence that keeping vibrant social groups as you age actually boosts your cognitive abilities and slows cognitive decline.³⁰

“Husband, Wife, Partner, Friend, Co-worker, Child, Mother, Father, Sibling, Brother, Sister . . . these are the one-word descriptions that tell the stories of our lives. When we come together as family, as friends, as lovers, we become more than the sum of our parts. We’re the most successful of all the animals on the planet, because we’re the most social. And that’s why each of us is inextricably bound to others. In the end, those social connections, those bonds, are what it is all about. When they are strong, we’re happy. When they are threatened, we worry. When they disappear, we suffer. In many ways, navigating the social world is more complicated than a voyage to the moon. It’s a journey we have to take, because whether we like it or not, our happiness is in each other’s hands.…” – Dr. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist Author of Stumbling on Happiness

Practice: Love & Awareness

The following is adapted from The Book of Joy, a collaboration between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

  1. Consider somebody you love. It can be a family member, close friend, or even a pet. Close your eyes and imagine their image. Let yourself feel the love you have for them. Notice the effect of warmth and openness it creates in you. Notice even what you feel in your body while leaning in to these feelings.
  2. Imagine that person’s own desire to live well and avoid suffering. Reflect on their life as a will to achieve these goals. Put yourself in their shoes, having the experience of living and wanting peace.
  3. Now think of somebody that you know, but don’t know very well. It could be a coworker, acquaintance, or friend of a friend. Let yourself recognize how your feelings toward this person are different from the person before. That is ok. Even still, imagine being this person, living their life, their hopes and fears, and aspirations. Consider how, just like you, they wish to live happily, avoiding suffering. Dwell in this realization, understanding it as a special bond of love and awareness: shared humanity.
  4. Bring this awareness with you into the world. Whenever you can, remember this practice and revisit it. Live from this newfound connection, opening your heart to the people around you. Greet other people as if you are greeting part of your human family. Other people will sometimes ignore it. Empathize with them by considering the experience of loneliness you share. You may find that this simple practice grows your tendency toward kindness, compassion, and trust. As you open to the world in this way, it may open itself back.

Find more wisdom, exercises, and resources throughout the Love Cornerstone:

Remember the Cornerstones, Create Meaning In Your Every Day

The 4 Cornerstones may sound like a simple generalization. And that’s exactly right. Though they manifest in complex, interwoven ways, remembering these 4 factors can aid you in recognizing what is meaningful to you, enabling you to better act on things that are meaningful.

As you ‘search’ for meaning, look to your values. Consider what things you really, truly care about. Ask life’s big questions. And enjoy the ride while answering them. It’s ok not to have all the answers. The process of Discovery itself can be meaningful, and ‘I don’t know,’ can be life’s most fertile playground, depending on your perspective.

By questioning, seeking, and doing things like reading through this site, you will find kernels of wisdom that bring significance and coherence to your life. As you find them, you can create meaning by acting on these virtues. Sometimes big life changes are what you’ll find to act on, like a change in career or relationships. However, every day offers huge opportunities in the form of small, meaningful actions. These actions, especially formed into habit, add up quickly and can make your life as it is now more meaningful.

Act Now: Meaningful Scheduling

This exercise is simple yet powerful. Write down your schedule—either tomorrow or next week’s. List as many things as you have planned. Then, add meaning! Consider how to embellish the tasks already on your list by adding elements of meaning. Use the 4 cornerstones as your guide: Service, Expression, Love, and Discovery. Small acts of service are especially powerful in the day-to-day.

Some examples:

  • Write in “Send a thoughtful message to Jean” next to “morning coffee.”
  • Offer to pick up the neighbors kids from school while waiting for my own.
  • Create and sing a funk melody on my commute to work
  • Write in my gratitude journal before picking up my toothbrush.

You can do this exercise on your own with simple pen and paper, or you can print out this template and repeat the exercise for future days or weeks:

“The world is full of retail clerks, coupon sorters, accountants, and students. It is full of highway flaggers, parents, government bureaucrats, and bartenders. And it is full of nurses, teachers, and clergy who get bogged down in paperwork and other day-to-day tasks, and sometimes lose sight of their broader mission. yet no matter what occupies our days, when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant. Each of us has a circle of people—in our families, in our communities, and at work—whose lives we can improve. That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

Summary

  • Meaning in life is the most essential, powerful, and foundational element of a well-lived life. When we say we want ‘happiness,’ this is the less flashy, less immediate, less obvious, yet more substantive part of what we want from life. With meaning and a sense of purpose (willful action toward meaning) we experience a deeper sense of flourishing, eudaimonia, Joy, and lasting life satisfaction.
  • We’ve evolved more so to prioritize material desires than meaningful experiences. Where our modern era of relative abundance is bringing increased prosperity, it, in turn, is bringing increased depression and suicide. This crisis of meaning is of utmost importance for human flourishing, especially in developed countries, hence the purpose of this site.
  • Research on meaning in life shows incredible benefits to overall well-being, including to physical health and success.
  • People and relationships are central to how we experience meaning, giving it relatability and context.
  • Work is a valuable vehicle for meaningful living too, being how we spend so much of our time. The Bliss Map is a helpful model to find work that balances and maximizes meaning.
  • Meaning in life is experienced through 4 Cornerstones: Service, Expression, Love, and Discovery. Independent or in combination, short or long term, these are the roots of experiential meaning.

Wow! You made it! 🙂

Next up, the Choice Diary, is a keystone exercise for understanding and evaluating the cornerstones in your own life. Check it out!

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