The Meaning of Life

We’ve spent the month of April around here exploring the science of happiness.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short period of time. (A Tuesday/Thursday schedule only produces eight articles in April!)

To close out the month, I’d like to touch on a light and simple topic: the meaning of life.

Okay, maybe not THE meaning of life. I don’t think I’m quite qualified to definitively comment on that. But the importance of having SOME meaning in your life.

Job, Career, or Calling?

I want to start with a paradigm that you may already be familiar with: whether you view your work as a job, a career, or a calling.

A job is something that is a necessary evil required to pay the bills. It can be good or bad, but it is basically a source of a paycheck.

A career is a job with chance for advancement and improvement. It’s still primarily a source of a paycheck, but you put in more heart and effort and try to climb the ladder.

A calling is a fulfilling and socially important mission that you would do regardless of the pay. It is so inherently important to you that you feel it provides meaning to your life.

Change Your Mind, Change Your Life

You won’t be surprised to hear that these different approaches to your work have different levels of happiness attached to them.

You may be surprised to know that it appears to be mostly mindset, rather than work environment that determines your approach.

While it might seem easier to view a job as a teacher as a calling than a job as a janitor, it all depends on how you view your mission.

One study looked at a group of people on a hospital cleaning staff that viewed their work as a calling.

While their duties mostly revolved around cleaning the rooms and the halls of the hospital, they viewed this as a way to better the lives of the patients and the staff.

They saw themselves as a part of a much larger mission. Sure, they were mopping the floor and cleaning up spills, but doing so made the patients’ day a little better and the nurses’ jobs a little easier. These janitors found meaning in their work and were happier than their coworkers who did not see their work as a calling.


Another source of meaning can be religion.

Religious people are happier than non-religious people.

That statement may sound controversial, but I am not making a judgement statement. There are all sorts of studies in positive psychology that back this up.

I also want to be clear that I am not making any statement as to the objective truth of religion. Just that studies have found religious people to be happier than non-religious people. And this spans across all religions, so we can rule out the idea that one group of people has found the correct answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything and is being rewarded with happiness.

(One interesting note, though, “People who perceive the divine being as loving and responsive are happier than those who don’t.” Religion gives meaning and happiness across the board, but a loving God makes people happier than a vengeful God.)

Understanding Religion and Happiness

There are a few different components that may help explain religious people being happier.

One is that people who attend services regularly and are enmeshed in a religious community have a social support system that others may lack. We’re going to have a whole month this year dedicated to happiness and relationships and we can dig deeper into this idea at that point.

For today, we’re looking at the idea that religion provides meaning. This can be found in numerous studies. Religious people report feeling a greater sense of meaning in their lives, which leads to more happiness.

One of the powerful findings in these studies is that religious people bounce back from tragedy quicker than non-religious people. This appears to come from the sense of meaning that religion conveys. You have a reason to get back on your feet and keep moving. If everything happens according to a plan, then tragedy is just something that must be endured for the greater good.

(As a side note: the increased ability of religious people to cope with tragedy looks similar to the same ability found in optimists. Perhaps these are unrelated, but perhaps religion lends itself to an optimistic outlook on life.)

Find Your Own Meaning

With all of that said, there is an important caveat to keep in mind going forward: You have to create your own meaning.

If you don’t believe in the tenets of a religion, trying to force yourself to change won’t help. You need a sense of meaning that is intrinsically important to you. Something that makes sense to you and is not something imposed on you from the outside.

While faking happiness can help you be happier, faking meaning won’t.

This means you need to find meaningful goals that accord with your values.

Take some time to think about what might be important to you. Being a loving parent? A devoted spouse? Helping others through your work?

One source that many people derive meaning from is creativity. Specifically, making creative works that you share with others can be a major source of happiness..

Another common source of meaning is post-traumatic growth. People often create their own meaning from tragedy and from their lowest lows. These are people that become driven towards helping others by sharing their experience of struggles and anguish. We see a lot of folks like this in the motivational speaking circuit and the debt reduction blogosphere.

Meaning can come from anywhere, but it must resonate with you. So start digging deep and thinking about what provides meaning in your life.

Join the Conversation!

What provides meaning in your life? How did you find it? Has it changed over time? Share with us in the comments!

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