So what are the key ingredients for a ‘meaningful’ life:
When Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, looked at suicide demographics the numbers initially seemed all over the place and didn’t make a lot of sense. For instance:
Living in a country in the midst of war actually reduced suicide.
Being educated increased suicide.
Jewish people were more educated — but somehow were less likely to kill themselves.
It was about belonging. War is miserable — but it bonds people together against an enemy. Education often means leaving friends and family to go to school or that fancy job. Jewish people were educated, but they often lived in strong communities.
The quickest way to add meaning to your life is to see your social groups more often.
The word “purpose” can be downright intimidating. Relax — you don’t have to strive to cure cancer. Purpose is less about what you do and more about how you see what you do.
It was 1962 and President Kennedy was visiting NASA. He runs into a janitor. The president asks the guy what he’s doing. The janitor replies, “Helping put a man on the moon.”
“Helping put a man on the moon” has both of the qualities that Stanford developmental psychologist William Dawson says we need for purpose:
First, it’s a stable and far-reaching goal. “Make it to the end of the workday without getting fired” doesn’t cut it. You need something that motivates you and that you can organize your actions around.
Second, it involves a contribution to the world. It makes a difference in the lives of people who don’t happen to be you.
Wharton’s Adam Grant did a study that looked at over 200 million people in 500 different jobs to figure out which careers are the most meaningful. All of the ones at the top (surgeons, clergy, educators) were roles that helped other people.
No, you don’t have to write a novel or anything. But you need to remember that your brain is wired for stories. It’s how you make sense of the world. And you have a story you tell yourself about your life — whether you realize it or not.
Sometimes life feels so small but there are experiences that provide that feeling of just how big and amazing life is. The secret is a little word with big impact: awe.
Astronauts have reported seeing the Earth from a distance has these sorts of life-changing transcendent effects — but let’s focus on a slightly more practical option, shall we?
Get out in nature. Researchers had one group of students stare at 200 foot trees. Another group looked at tall buildings. Afterward, those who had looked at the trees became far more helpful when tested. Why?
The awe-inspired people, researchers found, felt a diminished sense of their own importance compared to others, and that likely led them to be more generous… They abandoned the conceit, which many of us have, that they were the center of the world. Instead, they stepped outside of themselves to connect with and focus on others.
Here’s how to find meaning in life:
Belong to a group: we flourish around friends
Give your work purpose: You’re not emptying trash cans. You’re helping get a man on the moon.
Craft your story: End it with redemption, not contamination, and become the superhero of your life.
Transcendence: Nature is big. Your problems are small.
Life can be hard. But remember, while the difficult moments may decrease happiness, they’re essential for building meaning. And that’s what matters in the long run.