Does the Meaning of Life Matter?

One fast track to a happy life is meaning.

Research repeatedly shows that individuals with a sense of meaning in their lives are happier than everybody else.

A sense of meaning or purpose gives us a feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This, in turn, fuels self-worth, a sense of identity, and a feeling of community and belonging.

All of these are traits that boost happiness, so you can see how meaning can be a super booster.

So all we need to do is figure out the meaning of life.


I’m not actually going to pretend that I’ve got the one key to the meaning of life. I’ll save that for a future thousand-page philosophical tome.

Instead, I want to look at where other people find meaning in their lives.

One obvious answer is religion.

Religions take the most direct route: Here is the meaning of life in a neat little book.

On top of defining a meaning of life, religion provides an identity, a community, and a role in something larger than ourselves.

And it works. Religious people are regularly happier than non-religious people in studies. Plus, people who attend services more often are happier than those who attend less often.

This is not to suggest that the actual act of attending service makes one happier. More likely it suggests that because more religious people are happier, and one way to find the more religious people is to figure out who goes more often.

The specific religion doesn’t matter as far as happiness goes. People with strong religious beliefs in any religion are happier than less religious people of any other religion. And those people, as a whole, are happier than people with no religious involvement.

One key to this is that religion provides an answer to the meaning of life.

(I want to note that I am looking specifically at the issue of subjective meaning. There are obviously a lot of other factors involved in religion and the goal is not necessarily individual happiness. I recognize that this is a deep issue that I am examining in a shallow way.)


Another source of meaning can be your work.

There are a number of studies surrounding whether you see your work as a job, a career, or a calling.

Those who view their work as a calling, derive meaning from that work. They believe that their work is the purpose that they are here to serve. They feel that their work makes them a part of something larger than themselves.

The classic example of this is janitors at a hospital. If a janitor at a hospital views his work as a job, he probably sees that he comes to work, cleans, performs his duties, and clocks out. A janitor who sees his work as a calling focuses on being a part of the workforce that keeps the hospital functioning. He is doing his part to save and improve lives.

Studies show that the second janitor is happier. He has purpose and meaning. He has an identity and is part of something larger than himself.

Video Games

I thought of these examples while researching my last article on why video games make people happy.

One of the reasons that researchers believe video games make people happy is that video games provide meaning and a sense of being part of something larger than themselves.

One of the studies that I read singled out World of Warcraft and Halo 3 as examples.

In World of Warcraft, players join together in guilds. They become a part of a larger entity and work together to achieve joint goals.

Halo 3 has far less interaction between players. Instead, it develops meaning through engrossing and engaging story and gameplay. The player is tasked with saving the world from alien invasion. While playing, players feel a sense of purpose and a belief that they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. Namely, the human race.

What Does It Mean?

From everything that I’ve seen, it appears that the happiness boost that an individual gets from having a sense of meaning in his or her life is the same regardless of where that meaning comes from.

A deeply religious person preaching love and generosity gets the same happiness boost as a deeply religious person spreading hate and discrimination. A person who sees their work in a non-profit helping the poor as a calling gets the same happiness as a person with the same view of their job working as a private prison lobbyist.

I could go on and on down the list, but the point is that a subjective meaning to your life makes you happy regardless of the actual meaning.

And with that set up, I want to ask you all what you think.

Does this feel right or does it make you uncomfortable? Should we care where others find meaning? Is there a difference between the virtual world and the real world? Between religious and non-religious? Between moral and immoral? Should we encourage people to search for meaning in some places over others? And if so, how would we go about doing that? I’m very interested in hearing what you all think. Please join us in the comments below!

18 thoughts on “Does the Meaning of Life Matter?”

  1. Very interesting, thank you for posting. Personally, I am in a point in my life where I am looking for a renewed sense of purpose. For the longest time it was my children, who are now grown.

  2. Like Lizzy, being a mom gives my life meaning, but I can see where that’s not the most sustainable focus. Eventually, Little Bit will be a grown independent woman, and while I’ll be able to take pride in that accomplishment, it won’t take a lot of time and energy to sustain if I do it right.

    Knowing that, I try to focus on what I see as my mom’s path…she started out with kids and family as her focus. Divorce and grown up kids meant it wasn’t sustainable for her, and she found her work stressful. So she found meaning in a heavy involvement with her church, doing good things like volunteering with Hospice and running a wheelchair ramp building ministry, developing close relationships with friends, and enjoying her hobbies of hiking, knitting, quilting, gardening, and travel.

    Most of the empty nesters I admire do the same, although the specifics of their volunteer gigs and hobbies vary. But one thing I notice is that in addition to focusing on building and bettering their community, they also all have a physical activity component…daily walking, running, trips to the gym. I don’t know whether that helps because it gives them more energy to pursue the things that make them happy, or if it’s because they also have fewer health issues distracting them from happiness, but it seems a key part of their successful retirement.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…State of the Blog: July 2017My Profile

    1. I think there is definitely something to the idea of seasons in our lives. We all grow and change a great deal over the course of our lifetimes, so why shouldn’t our source of meaning grow and change with us? Sounds like you have a great plan.

      Thanks for the comment, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Not Making a Decision is Making a DecisionMy Profile

    1. Boom, that is exactly the book I was thinking about when reading this post.

      I think having a meaning and purpose is extremely important. The problem is Hitler had a vision and had a meaning and a purpose. This is where the moral side comes in. The Jeduo Christian religions seem to bridge that with providing purpose and objective morality.

      It is a very interesting topic for sure. One that will be ponder by all until the end of time.
      Grant @ Life Prep Couple recently posted…Happiness Comes From Progress. So Stop Comparing!My Profile

  3. I just finished reading “Outwitting the Devil. The Secret to Freedom and Success” by Napoleon Hill who also wrote Think and Grow Rich. He writes about having “definite of purpose,” meaning having specific goals and purpose in life and in being focused on attaining those goals. He writes about living intentionally rather than just drifting through life. He also has a critique of religion…well the organized religious institutions of the time. I think it’s easier for most people to find meaning within organized religion and work since we spend so much time there but I think it’s best find the meaning of life within yourself.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…What Would Your Younger Self Say to Your Present Self?My Profile

    1. Additional impact on others is the area of my life that I really want to expand in the near future. I think we all have a period of life where we need to get our own feet underneath us and get stable, but now that I’m there I feel a strong drive to spend more time and money helping others.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…Not Making a Decision is Making a DecisionMy Profile

  4. Why does life have a meaning ? No matter how primitive the circumstances humans lived in, they have always sought more. Art, religion and inventiveness are just different outcomes of this quest for growth.

  5. “Does this feel right or does it make you uncomfortable? ” Some of it actually does make me uncomfortable – such as “A deeply religious person preaching love and generosity gets the same happiness boost as a deeply religious person spreading hate and discrimination.” If that is true (but is it really?) then “happiness” in and of itself can’t be the most important thing. In line with that, I’m also uncomfortable with “…a subjective meaning to your life makes you happy regardless of the actual meaning.” I’m convinced that the objective meaning also has to matter. A person who finds meaning in supporting a neo-Nazi organization and a person who finds meaning in supporting an inner-city literacy program are going to contribute to the world in very different ways. The subjective element isn’t the only one of importance. Can we not say, objectively, that the advocate for literacy is contributing something of greater value than the neo-Nazi? I suppose some would say even that is a subjective judgment. As a Christian, I’m strongly biased in favour of love, truth, and abundant life – which includes being a blessing to others. (This post obviously has me thinking. Well done : )
    Prudence Debtfree recently posted…Back to Prudence Debtfree (& Mourning Fruclassity)My Profile

    1. This is very much the reaction that I had as I was reading the research and thinking about it. Shouldn’t love and kindness be more valued and rewarded?

      I think the saving of this idea is in the ancillary happiness benefits. Meaning is one piece of the happiness puzzle, and research suggests that goodness doesn’t necessarily matter there. But there are a lot of other pieces, too.

      Relationships are key, and you are more likely to have deep and meaningful relationships in a group of kindhearted people than in a group of hateful people. Helping others provides a separate happiness boost. Calm and serenity help avoid stress and anxiety that would harm our happiness. These are all benefits to being a better person that seem more likely to make the charitable or loving religious people happier than the neo-Nazi.
      Matt recently posted…Not Making a Decision is Making a DecisionMy Profile

  6. Not to get too heavy, but I’ve got a pretty unique perspective on this topic. Two years ago when I first discovered I had a cancerous tumor, I checked into a hospital to get my initial tests and find out how bad the situation was. That night I didn’t think about work, blogging, stuff I owned, etc. I thought about my wife and kids – what they would do, who would take care of them, etc. I knew that when I got out and after my treatments were over, my meaning in life would be to matter; matter to those I care about, and make a substantial difference in their lives every day forward.
    MyMoneyDesign recently posted…What’s the Difference Between a 403(b) vs 401(k)?My Profile

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