Life’s purpose not in creating a happy life per se, but in creating a meaningful life. Of course, meaning and happiness are similar and closely correlated, but they do not always overlap. Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying our wants and our needs in the present moment. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in one’s life, often, but not exclusively, by making a positive contribution to the lives of other people. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole, past, present, and future.
Animals and people both seem to experience happiness. But so far as we know, intentional meaning making is a uniquely human experience. It has to do with metacognition, higher order thinking that allows for control over an analysis of one’s own cognitive processes. Meaning making is derived not from what happens to us, but from how we analyse, reframe, and interpret what happens to us. I have three friends who have lost children.
Their ability to make meaning out of the unspeakable loss of a child is all inspiring to me. They are different people than they would have been before this incident, but equally lovely satisfied in their lives, and they have the ability to help others as a result.
No one did more to put the question of meaning into modern discourse than the late Viktor Frankl, who spent three years in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War Two. Frankl survived and helped others to survive by helping them to discover a purpose in life. Even amid those darkest of days. It was there that he formulated the ideas he later turned into a new type of psychotherapy, based on what he called Man’s Search for Meaning (Goodreads).
His book of the same title has sold more than 10 million copies throughout the world, and ranks as one of the most influential works on the topic of meaning making.
Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead, we should ask what life wants from us. We are each, he said, unique in our gifts, our abilities, our skills and talents, and in the circumstances of our lives. For each of us, then, there is a task only we can do.
Frankl helped women and men in the camps hang on to their lives meaning by remembering their families, and the hope of reunification, or maybe their important professional works. And this helped them hang on until the camps were liberated. Those who could not find meaning in those hideous, terrifying and dehumanizing conditions, unfortunately, perished.
Viktor Frankl, and since extensive research supports that if we can find our own life’s purpose, and live it through large or small acts while we are on earth, we will indeed create and live meaningful lives. Thankfully, we have opportunities aplenty that invite meaning making that don’t result from such horrors.
Take a moment and think about these questions. What are my unique gifts and contributions? What causes or people do I care about and could make a difference for if I just put some energy in that direction? Ask yourself these questions and you just might find that the feelings resulting from such contributions may give us a deep sense of both meaning and happiness.
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