One of the many things religious icons and philosophers pondered upon is what gives our lives meaning. Everyone has their own interpretation, but lacking one can give you a sense of directionlessness and a bleak outlook on life.
Luckily, that doesn’t have to be the case. If the phrase “you only have one life” lights existential anxiety in you, this article will be the remedy.
The Difference Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful One
Living for the Happy Life
You might think that living a meaningful life is the same as living a happy one. In a lot of ways, you would be right. People tend to derive pleasure from what they feel is meaningful.
But an inherently happy life might not be meaningful, and living by what you deem meaningful might not make you happy. Let us explain.
A happy life might look like one that lacks struggle and is filled with endless amounts of pleasurable activities. It’s why people are so drawn to the idea of retiring early, like in their 30s or 40s. They work like a dog early on in their lives to get and save money; then, they spend the middle and tail end doing whatever makes them happy.
This means traveling around the world, not having to be dependent on a job to live comfortably, and generally being able to do what you want. Doing this might be pleasurable, but it’s easy to run into one of the most pressing issues new retirees run into — a lack of purpose.
Lots of people feel validated with their jobs, such as school teachers or doctors. Without contributing to society, what is the point of their life? After a while, doing what you want might not feel so good anymore, and so people itch to get some sort of meaning back into their life.
This isn’t to say that those who retire early are hedonists. The central principle behind early retirement is financial independence from 40+ years on a job. But retiring early is the ideal that a lot of people fantasize about so that they can live a happy life: do whatever you want when you want because you have the money for it.
Living to Work
That type of happy life is different from what we perceive to be its opposite — working a job you find no joy in but pursue because of the impact it has.
How many times have you heard of someone going into medical school because their parents made them, and that individual thinks making their parents happy is the meaning of their life?
Or they became a lawyer or a businessman because they wanted the money from their job? Or what about people who go into jobs they’re not passionate about but find that it gives them the most meaning like chiropractors.
To make it in countries like the United States, you have to work to support yourself. To avoid chafing against your job every day, you have to find meaning in your job in some way. The most common places people find meaning in their job is through the job’s lucrativeness, service to others, or personal fulfillment.
The Best of Both Worlds
Making your life meaningful includes finding a way of life that makes you happy, supports you, but also has some grander meaning. This might mean you go back to work even if you’ve gained financial independence rather than spending all your days on a beach sipping cocktails.
It could also mean ending the job you’ve worked for years to find something that fills you with more joy, such as quitting academia to become a writer.
It’s all a balancing act. Making a meaningful life isn’t necessarily one that’s solely happy or one that solely brings meaning to society or others. You need the necessary ingredients to feel fulfilled in yourself, but also like you’re fulfilling a grander role in the world.
How to Find What’s Most Meaningful to You
The best way to live a meaningful life is to fill your life with whatever is the most fulfilling to you.
But how do you find out what’s really meaningful to you versus what you’ve been raised to believe is meaningful?
Be Afraid of Death (At Least for A Little Bit)
The fear of death is the reason why people have a midlife crisis. You wake up one morning when you’re 40 or 50 and realize that death doesn’t happen to other people — it happens to you.
And when a 50-year-old realizes they’re closer to death than they were previously in their lives, they’re hit with a clarity that they haven’t been afforded before. What’s really meaningful to them comes out.
It’s why people quit their jobs and take on passion projects. When you view death as the final deadline to accomplish all you’ve ever wanted, you stop procrastinating on what’s the most meaningful to you.
That’s why you should constantly be afraid of death — at least for a little bit. That realization that you’re going to die is the ultimate motivator for a being of organic life, whether you’re an amoeba, a dragonfly, or a human.
Once you die, that’s it. So use that motivation to take stock of what you’re doing that truly matters to you and what you should stop doing. Only once you have this birds-eye view of your life can you stop feeling stuck in the rut of everyday habits and contemplate how you should really be living.
You don’t have to live in constant fear of death, as that can then impede your life through a generalized anxiety disorder. But you can use a healthy fear of dying to put the fire under your feet and get you moving towards grander goals.
Get Rid of Distractions
First and foremost, figure out where you waste time.
With the internet and social media constantly at our fingertips, it’s easy to spend hours of our lives on things that don’t edify us.
These crumbs of time accumulate into days, weeks, even months of our lives that have been effectively wasted. Through such a mindset, you could say that these distractions and others shorten your lifespan because there’s less time to do what you actually want to do.
Controlling Your Time
That’s why you need to have better control of your time. There’s a trend in the self-improvement community where people use time blocking to figure out where to best use their time during their waking hours and to minimize distractions.
Essentially, you look at an hourly agenda of the day and mark when you were doing what. For example, you could spend 6:30 am to 7 am getting ready, 7 am to 7:30 am commuting to work, then working on a personal project from 7:30 am to 8 am before starting on the tasks necessary for your job.
Take a second to consider how you spend most of your day. Do you spend hours on the internet and consuming media that ultimately doesn’t improve your life? You can use that time when you need to decompress, but overall you should be honing in your time to do what really matters to you.
There is a deadline to life, after all. Literally. It’s called death.
That’s why you should keep distractions to a minimum and find better ways to manage your time.
Deal With Your Baggage
Everyone has baggage, or the repressed emotions that we carry with us.
Baggage often manifests in various ways. For example, a woman who lost her husband may feel like she never wants to have another relationship again. She doesn’t want to get close to another man because she feels like an intimate relationship will lead her back to the hurt she felt when her husband died.
Baggage can also look like an abusive childhood that causes you to then lash out at your own children. It’s understandable that when you’ve had terrible role models for what a mother or father should look like, you can follow in some of those bad habits as well.
But baggage is no excuse for harming others, being a jerk, or in other ways being a toxic person to be around. The sorrow, grief, regret, and anger from your baggage do not give you the right to bring other people down — even if you don’t realize that your baggage is what causes you to be a hard person to be around.
That’s why you need to control your baggage before it controls your life. You need to deal with the difficult emotions of addressing the emotions you’ve repressed and to deal with them in healthy ways.
This means staying away from substances that can numb the pain of your baggage and instead of talking to a mental health professional or at least a friend about what went wrong in your life.
Creating a meaningful life means you can’t let your baggage control you. Otherwise, you’ll focus on evading the pain of your baggage rather than moving forward with a meaningful life.
Take the woman who lost her husband. If she spends the rest of her life avoiding good relationships with wonderful men because she couldn’t deal with her baggage, she might find herself waking up alone at an old age regretting the fact that she didn’t talk to a therapist sooner.
To avoid regrets and to get you on track for a meaningful life, do yourself and everyone else a favor by dealing with your baggage.
Follow Your Value System
Adhering to your code of ethics can be what makes you feel like you’re finally living the life you’ve meant to live. It’s like you start living for yourself and not other people.
However, it can be hard to find your value system — especially if you’re a young person. Young people, such as teens and young adults, often have the fingerprints of their family, school, peers, and society all over their minds. As a result, it’s hard to wipe off those fingerprints from their brain and to see what they believe in, not those around them.
That’s why young people are often conformists. It’s the most common anxiety of stories set in high school. Will the popular kids like me? Will people think I’m a freak? It’s something many kids are concerned about, and so the media about high school reflects that.
Some young adults find themselves once they’ve moved away from their hometowns and gone off to college. It’s where people try to figure out their true religion, sexuality, personal style, and belief system.
But some people slip past college acutely aware of what their family, peers, and society expect from them. These are the people who try to do whatever they can to conform to everyone’s expectations of what they should look like.
Living with the discrepancy of what you truly want to do and what society expects from you causes cognitive dissonance in your brain. Cognitive dissonance is that feeling that something isn’t quite right, that what you’re doing is wrong, somehow, but you can’t exactly figure out why.
Since it’s such a vague feeling, it’s easy to ignore until you have the emotional intelligence and maturity to understand this feeling and realize that it’s a discrepancy between your value systems.
Therefore, it’s crucial to figure out what is important to you and to find ways to incorporate your value system into your life tangibly.
If you’re the type of person who never liked lying or could never lie well, living by your values would mean always telling the truth. Even if the truth hurts you or your reputation, you won’t shy away from it because 1) You can’t (you’re a bad liar) and 2) Because it’s the right thing to do. If someone asks you to lie for them, you would tell them you can’t as a result.
Here’s a list of some of the top value systems people hold dear. Take a look and see which ones resonate with you.
There are lots more you can check out here. The common theme is that you have to choose which values to follow and which to let go.
You know a value is right for you when it just seems to click. You don’t have to think about it. For example, you don’t have to think about telling someone they dropped their $5 bill on the ground — you just do it.
You know you’re not living by your value system when you feel like you have to stamp down your normal inclination toward something. If your friends are judgmental, but you’re not, you could feel uneasy about talking about a person behind their back, but you do it anyway because that’s what your friends are doing.
Cultivate your value system. Understand what feels the best for you then live by them. When you live the way you think is best for you, that’s how you know you’re on the right track to living a meaningful life. You’re not living for anyone else but yourself.
Build a Self-Improvement Mindset
No matter where you’re starting, you can always improve.
This is especially important if you’re still in school. There are people who naturally pick up a subject, such as chemistry, math, or literature. But just because you’re not as naturally gifted as those folks doesn’t mean you can’t do better than them in those subjects.
That’s because you can always improve. You’re not stuck with the natural intelligence or talents you have. You’re not stagnant. So if you’re not where you want to be, you can work towards that goal and grow until you are.
When you adopt a growth mindset over a predetermined one, and as long as you but the time and energy into effective growth, you can move past your current skill level and succeed.
The top actors, athletes, writers, and entrepreneurs all gained the success they did because they understood this concept. They did not believe that their talent was predetermined.
Yes, some people are naturally more gifted in an area than others. But what separates amateurs from pros is the ability to push toward improvement even when it’s hard, even when they see other people succeeding without as much effort. A self-improvement mindset is at the core.
So the people who find themselves with a meaningful life filled with accomplishments are those who worked hard to achieve them. And the reason they worked hard that they knew working hard could change their skill level. If you think the intelligence or skills you have now cannot change, then you won’t be motivated to work and improve.
If you dream of success, you have to adopt a growth mindset to achieve then. From there comes the natural curiosity to follow tips on how to improve and be more efficient in accomplishing those goals.
Focus on Relationships
Let’s say you worked hard all your life to become a critically acclaimed writer. Ever since you were young, you wanted to see your books on the New York Times’ Best Seller List. One day, you do.
What if you had no one to celebrate that accomplishment with?
You achieve your goals, but it’s only you who’s there to say congratulations to you because you spent all your time working and not enough time fostering quality relationships with people.
While achieving personal success is certainly important, we can’t let our drive to succeed override our inherent social drive. Humans are social creatures. We need to surround ourselves with a positive support group of people who love and understand us.
But with “hustle culture,” people feel pressure to dedicate their free time to accomplish their goals. When done unsustainably, it can lead to burnout, which leads to mental exhaustion and a general vibe that you’re not a pleasant person to be around.
That’s why to find a meaningful life; you need to devote as much time to develop meaningful relationships as you do working toward success. To some, a life rich with positive relationships is a meaningful life. To others, you only need one or two core people to feel fulfilled.
However you define your social circle; you should work to build strong, healthy, and resilient bonds with people. It’s the only way to have a team of people congratulating you when you achieve something big — not just celebrating it by yourself while acquaintances on social media say “good job.”
Be a Part of Something Greater
A big reason people feel like they lack meaning in life is that they don’t think their actions leave a positive mark on the world.
If you spend your days working to pay your rent and to feed yourself, to pay for drinks with your pals and the wedding for your partner, what are you actually leaving behind in this world?
Some people want to leave a big impact, which is why they aspire to be the top CEOs, writers, actors, or creators in their field. Other people don’t aspire for such things, but feeling like you’re not leaving any impact at all can be just as demotivating. What are you doing with your life that you can be proud of?
That’s why joining something larger is so fulfilling to us. We find a community and a sense of belonging. And from your actions, you can see that you’ve left behind a piece of good in the world.
It’s why you should start volunteering if you feel like your life is purposeless. That way, you can see that you’re leaving a positive impact on the world — even if it’s just in your local community.
Giving your time to a food shelter for homeless people, talking to lonely elderly folks in a nursing home, and spending time with shelter animals are ways to improve the lives of those around you.
Seeing your positive impact in the wagging tail of a puppy or a smiling elderly woman feel good. You did that, no one else. And from that small act of good, you give your life meaning. Your time wasn’t spent on just fulfilling you but benefiting the lives of someone in need.
Volunteer in your community. Give your time, attention, and labor to organizations that strive to leave the world a better place. You might just be one person, but you can join a whole ecosystem of positive change. It’s the best way to feel bigger than you are, and like you’re a part of something.
Stop Praying to the Altar of Money
If you live in a capitalist society, you know how easy it is to want to buy something.
Clothes, shoes, the newest phone, the best car, a new laptop, a fancier house, everything is within your reach — as long as you have money.
Most people know that to get the things they want, they have to work a job and get a paycheck. But when you keep working just to buy things, your house ends up filled with fancy things, and you end up still feeling empty.
That’s because (you’ve heard it once and you’ll hear it again) money isn’t the answer to everything. Yes, money gives you access to better food, transportation, health, and perhaps a nice vacation or two. But research shows that happiness peaks when you make $75,000 a year.
But you can want things that cost way more than that. A fancy car or a fancy home or lavish vacations at highly expensive places like Las Vegas. Opulence is easy to lust after, which is why so many people work hard to afford to look wealthy and carefree.
The validation you get from owning an expensive item quickly fades, though, and you’re left with a thing and a hole in your bank account.
Having a ton of money and owning a bunch of things isn’t what gives life meaning, which is why a lot of people are forgoing owning a lot of things altogether and living the minimalist lifestyle.
Living minimally doesn’t mean sleeping on a bare hardwood floor and owning only one shirt and a pair of underwear. It means living with enough. That means you have enough clothes to get you through the week, enough gadgets to accomplish all the necessary tasks.
It means living intentionally so that you stop buying things because other people have them or to scratch an economic itch, but because it is a necessary improvement to your life.
When you stop throwing money away at things, first and foremost, you’re more likely to save it. Second, you’re more likely to spend money on experiences or people — things that can give you more fulfilling than the newest smartphone ever can. Stop using money as a guide to your life and use it to boost what really matters to you.
There are a million ideas on the best ways to make a meaningful life. This article, even, contributes to that number. But the only way to make a meaningful life is to choose what is most edifying to you. We hope to have given you some ideas so that you can be on your way to living the best life possible.