I remember interviews, in my early twenties being asked the dreaded question, “so, what do you want to be in five years time?” and I would always reply, “I just want to be happy”. 

Let me explain: I was never one of those people who instinctively knew what they wanted to do; who had a clear goal in life and who knew where they were going to be in five, ten and even twenty years time. Nope, that just wasn’t me. There always seemed to be the promise of more to life, hiding in the shadows, just out of sight, but calling my name… and then the day I decided to start working in the voluntary sector, I realised that this whisper finally had a name: Purpose. Once I connected with my own sense of purpose, it gave my life meaning.

A sense of meaning is vital for wellbeing

In positive psychology, evidence that demonstrates the importance of personal meaning in our wellbeing and also in our quality of life is accumulatingHappiness + Meaning = Wellbeing (Snyder and Lopez, 2007).

At the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, research has focused on understanding the factors that foster wellbeing and reducing psychological distress, and the role that meaning plays for human wellbeing. They state: “People who have a sense of meaning in life, also report feeling more happy, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed and anxious, and more satisfied with their jobs”.  They use a phrase I can relate to, the “meaning-searchers” – people who feel like they’ve found an “occupational path infused with a sense of higher purpose and spiritual calling”, who they say “report more wellbeing and more investment in their career development”.

But purpose and meaning go way beyond what we choose to do for a living, according to Emmons (1997)“people’s lives usually draw meaning from multiple sources, including family and love, work, religion, and various personal projects”.  So, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

  • What does meaning mean to you and how do you create it?
  • What do you draw meaning from?

Finding authentic happiness

If we look at the happiness element of the equation, well-known positive psychologist Martin Seligman postulates (in his book Authentic Happiness) that there are three paths to happiness. Firstly, the pleasant life – where happiness is primarily sought through the use of the senses and having as many pleasures as possible, for example eating, shopping, socialising etc. Secondly, the good life – which involves a balanced focus on the three main areas of life: work, play, love. And the third is the meaningful life, which he describes as having one additional feature; “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are”. Seligman states that “to live all three lives is to lead a full life”.

Baumeister and Vohs (2005) associate the quest for meaning in life with four main needs:

  • Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes
  • Values: Which can justify certain courses of action
  • Efficacy: The belief that one can make a difference
  • Self-worth: Reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person

And Baumeister (2013) states that:

“Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.”

Creating a positive cycle of meaning and happiness

According to the research, “the pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life”, and happiness and meaning are essential elements of wellbeing which feed into a positive cycle: the more meaning we find in life, the more happy we feel, the more often we pursue even greater meaning and purpose.

I’ve found that identifying our inner core values enables us to start crafting a meaningful life. To begin to find and follow our path with purpose we first need to do our inner work. This prepares us to go out into the world and do our outer work in our families, work places and communities.

So, I’ll leave you with a question that may help you on your mission towards meaning:

What inner work can you start to do that will help you in finding and following your own path with purpose?

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