How to find meaning in life

Feel like you're stuck on the wrong path in life? Learn how to find greater meaning and build a more fulfilling life...

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Learning how to find greater meaning in life means aligning with your true sense of purpose and tapping into what matters most to you. Katherine Baldwin takes a closer look at how to reconnect with your inner, most heartfelt motivations, deal positively with life’s inevitable disappointments and celebrate your life…

Do you ever wake up in the morning wondering, is there more to life than this? Do you yearn for greater fulfilment? You may have ticked all the life boxes: devoted partner, successful career, happy family life… and yet sometimes there is still this sense that something indefinable is missing. But where do you begin?

Sitting in front of my computer screen, I knew there was something seriously amiss. This was more than just a bad day at the office or a case of the mid-week blues. My malaise went much deeper and it wasn’t transitory. I felt like my light had gone out and my soul had gone to sleep.

When your dream life brings no fulfillment

On the outside, everything looked great. I had a career I’d always dreamed of – as a journalist for a major news organisation. I was based in the Houses of Parliament and had been to Downing Street, the White House, Afghanistan and Iraq. I was in my mid-30s, owned my own flat, had a broad social circle and went on holiday wherever I pleased. I was single, but was sure my romantic life would work itself out.

On the inside, though, the picture was less bright. After 13 years, my enthusiasm for my high-adrenalin job had faded into disinterest and I felt like an actor playing a part, living in fear of being found out. At home alone, I felt desolate, and the nights out with friends or exotic trips never filled the gap.

Chasing validation

Through tears, I found myself asking: ‘What’s the point?’ I was experiencing a crisis of meaning brought on by a lifetime of chasing things I believed would fulfil me or please others: academic achievement and career success. I had thought that status, security and external recognition would make me feel happy, but the higher I climbed, the emptier I felt.

My predicament, and the path that led me there, is one that affects a great many of us. We pursue careers, relationships, possessions, social connections, even hobbies, without stopping to think whether they’re right for us. In doing so, we drift far away from our authentic selves.

Why do we struggle to find meaning in life?

But why do so many of us struggle with knowing how to find meaning in life when, arguably, we have more opportunities to find it than ever before?

I decide to track down eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience and founding co-director of the Quality of Life Research Centre at Claremont Graduate University, who has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity and human fulfilment.

‘There are so many choices around us and none of them is guaranteed to make us happy, so we try the more obvious ones; the ones we’ve heard about fromour parents or read about in books,’ he says.

‘But it turns out we are a different person to those who like that particular choice, so we end up feeling that we don’t fit in where we are, and then get irritated and frustrated.

‘Usually this is because there’s a mismatch between what we’re doing and what we need to do, or feel at some level that we should be doing. But we ignore that feeling because we say: “That’s not my life. My life is to get up and do this”.’

Compelled by parental or peer pressure, many of us become lawyers or doctors, get married and have children, buy homes in the city or country, or travel to certain destinations. This urge to follow the pack is part of our evolutionary make-up.

how to find meaning in life

Choosing to break the mould

‘It used to be the case that our peer groups were made up of people who were genetically related to us, so the more social and groupist you were, the better the chance your genes survived to the next generation,’ says Tina Rosenberg, journalist and author of Join The Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform The World.

‘That’s no longer the case, but the need to belong to a group, to have the respect and approval of our peers, is still something that’s incredibly important. It’s perhaps our most powerful human drive.’

Going in a different direction to our peers when learning how to find meaning in life can feel frightening and unsafe. ‘It can be lonely to do your own thing, because you look to others for affirmation and mirroring,’ says integrative psychotherapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen. ‘If they’re doing it, it must be OK. If I’m the only one doing it, is it OK?’

Finding yourself on the wrong path

Many people are in their 30s or 40s when they realise they’re on a path that doesn’t suit them, but the desire to learn how to find greater meaning in life can happen at any age. After four years in investment banking, Jane, 28, felt ‘soul dead’.

‘I was in a well-paid job, but now I see I was drawn to the industry because I wanted others to validate me. I loved being able to say I worked at a big-name bank.’ Jane has now changed career and is creating a social enterprise to help people recovering from addiction.

One of the trickiest things to ascertain in our quest for fulfillment is learning to distinguish between life’s natural low-points; a few bad days in a row versus a genuine crisis of meaning that requires immediate action. And how do we know whether we need to make a complete change, just some minor adjustments or simply sit out a period of discontent until it passes?

‘Sometimes you’re completely overtaken – it’s like a tsunami and the changes just have to be made,’ says Cowan-Jenssen. In my case, I ignored my distress until I didn’t have a choice. The tears began to flow too fast and I was forced to take time off work and re-evaluate my life.

Feeling empty every day, dreading getting up in the morning or questioning the point of our work, relationship or life, are clear signs it’s time for a change.

how to find meaning in life

Identify the changes to be made

If our dissatisfaction levels are less critical, however, we can test the waters in other areas to see if this helps us learn how to find greater meaning in life. We can try out new hobbies, investigate different careers, or spend time away from a difficult relationship. We might discover our lives merely needed shaking up a little or realise it was just a bad patch.

‘You need to take time to think and to talk about what’s going on. Take a relationship – is it something that has life in it but has just drifted into choppy waters, or is it actually something that needs to end? You will only know if you start looking and exploring,’ says Cowan-Jenssen.

Weigh up pros and cons

Weighing up the pros and cons of one choice over another can be helpful. Or we can ask ourselves what we would advise our best friend to do in similar circumstances. This can be telling. ‘You’re unlikely to tell your friend to stay in a job that’s making her unhappy,’ adds Cowan-Jenssen. ‘We can be wise for somebody else, but it’s much harder to follow our own advice.’

If we’re lucky, opportunities may come our way that make the prospect of change less daunting – but if we are going to learn how to find greater meaning in life, we have to be open to them. For me, the chance to take voluntary redundancy felt like a lifeline. The money bought me time to reflect on my values and on what made me happy.

It hasn’t been a straight-forward path, but four years after swapping my high-flying job for a freelance career, I feel I’m finally on the right track. I’ve also realigned my priorities so that work is just one element of my life. I now have space to nurture myself through exercise, self-care and hobbies, and to spend time with friends and family.

Experts agree that relationships and community are key to finding meaning. The road to fulfilment can be a long and winding one, but my experience shows we can all find our way.

how to find meaning in life

How to find meaning in life

Happiness expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares his tips on how to find meaning and fulfillment in life…

We can often feel overwhelmed by the array of options available to us, but there are ways in which we can become more attuned to our authentic selves and learn to follow our internal compass.

‘The choices that will make your life better are hidden among so many others that won’t work for you, so you have to be careful about paying attention to your feelings and reactions,’ says Csikszentmihalyi. ‘You have to try to find out what your strengths really are and what makes you feel better about life.’

Find what makes you happy

If you don’t know what makes you feel happy, alive and positive, he suggests keeping a diary. At the end of the day, write down the best thing that happened to you and the things you weren’t so keen on.

After a couple of weeks, look over what you’ve written. Chances are you’ve been doing too many things that bring negative feelings. ‘See if there is any way to begin to shift the balance in favour of those things that work for you. You have to figure out a way to reorganise your energy and your time so you can get a life that is more rewarding for you.’

Think back to your childhood

Another trick is to think back to what you enjoyed in your childhood. Maybe you liked to play the piano but gave it up because you weren’t good enough. But why not start playing again, purely for pleasure?

Also, pay attention to when you feel upset by something and moved to do something about it – this might lead you to your passion. Sometimes the bigger aspects of our lives – family or careers – are difficult to change, but we can start by seeking fulfilment in smaller ways.

This could be as simple as taking more foreign trips or spending more time with friends. ‘You need to begin to take charge of your own life. Nobody else will do that for you,’ says Csikszentmihalyi.

Don’t be impulsive

Beware, though, of knee-jerk reactions. While ‘better the devil you know’ can keep us stuck in an unsatisfactory situation for years, thinking the grass is always greener can be just as dangerous.

‘Impulsive changes look kind of heroic – when you say: “OK, I’m going to quit my job or leave my family and it’s going to be better”– but very often you just move from one feeling of frustration to another,’ he says. It’s best to take things slowly and do your research carefully and thoroughly before you make a leap.

More inspiration: What is motivation (and how to find it)

Words: Katherine Baldwin | Images: Shutterstock