- We often absorb unhelpful messages about what our life should be.
- Failing to live up to our internal expectations of a good life can cause despair.
- Radically redefine your assumptions about what makes a good life.
When thrashing through a sea of suffering, meaning is the metaphorical life preserver. That’s why worrying that your life is pointless feels a lot like drowning. If your life feels devoid of purpose, I would like to invite you not to panic. This is an excellent place from which to reassess your assumptions about existence.
At some point, you went off-course from your societally prescribed Meaningful Life. Yes, you may be lost–but you don’t have to stay that way. Let’s go find where your meaning went missing.
You're Using the Wrong Measuring Stick
You want to live a meaningful life–a life that has a point. First, let’s assess your definition of “meaning.”
Meaning is not happiness, success, comfort, or health.
Meaning is simply a sense of significance. I don’t mean fame, because even the famous get swallowed by time. I don’t mean having a big impact on the world because any impact you can have is tiny in the scale of the infinite universe.
Here’s a pocket-sized definition of meaning: if you have been of service to even one other living creature at any point in your life, you have achieved a meaningful life. That time you were patient with the stressed-out grocery store clerk. When you avoided stepping on the ladybug. It doesn’t matter if it was small. We are all small.
And perhaps your meaning is to simply be here–to be a part of the natural world, just like the trees and the animals. Maybe it matters that you are here simply because you are here.
You're Aiming at the Wrong Target
Close your eyes and picture this: a good life.
If you grew up in Western culture, you might have pictured financial security, thrilling travel, and a comfortable home containing a healthy family. This isn’t a bad target–it just isn’t the best target for everyone.
Capitalist culture teaches us that achievement, productivity, and consumption are the keys to a good life. But holding up this “good life” as your purpose can leave you owning plenty and feeling empty.
In lieu of productivity, many of us strive for longevity with admirable diligence. We eat organic vegetables, get cardiovascular exercise, and worship at the altar of health. Until illness and aging catch up to us and consume our fervent project.
By investing in a narrow view of success, we reduce life to a list of tasks. Get up, go to work, come home, eat your fiber, spend 50 minutes on the treadmill, sleep eight hours, repeat.
In this way of being, people who dutifully grind through the work of life without ever reaching success are left with only despair. And those who achieve success sense, uneasily, the inherent unfairness of the world – that they live in comfort while others struggle for no compelling reason.
It is not wise to invest your life’s purpose in something that can slip through your fingers so quickly.
You’re Afraid to Radically Reassess
So here you are, throwing your assumptions about life out with the garbage–scary! Confusing! It’s like building an IKEA couch with a time limit, except you’ve burned the instructions, and it turns out the couch is actually a table.
Many of us cling to our old ways of being, ways that we know lead only to suffering, to avoid the existential vacuum. But figuring out your purpose is the work of life. Humans have been doing this since ancient times. You’re in good company.
Maybe you’re reassessing your life because you’ve achieved your goals and still feel empty. Maybe your original goal was taken from you–a lost career, a health crisis, a financial calamity. You’ve faced the painful reality that your original life’s goal can lead only to meaninglessness.
Now, dear friend, it’s time to pursue a new meaning.
You’re Trying to Do It Alone
Here’s one tip: dream small. Not because you should keep your expectations low, but because small acts can have great significance.
We love stories of individuals striking out on their own to overcome great personal struggles. It’s inspiring when that happens, but that model doesn’t work for everyone, perhaps including you.
We need other people. Excluding others from your journey of meaning can lead further to isolation and emptiness. If you find yourself unsure that your life has any point, it might be time to expand your community–to be of service to others, and to let them be of service to you. You can develop a lived sense that your life is significant to others.
Even if you don’t particularly enjoy people or don’t have a community available, you can still play a meaningful role in the world around you. Familiarize yourself and cultivate connections with living things–even plants and animals. Maybe you will be the caretaker of a lovely garden. Perhaps you will become a rescuer of stray cats. Maybe your life’s purpose is to run a garden full of well-fed stray cats, oxygen-producing plants, and native bees. You get to pick.
You Assume Meaninglessness is Bad
Let’s assume the worst-case scenario: all our lives are meaningless. Meaningless! No point. Empty void. A floating speck in an expanding, inhospitable universe. Does that have to be a bad thing? Does an insignificant life mean that it isn’t worth living?
I invite you to radically challenge your assumptions about a life worth living.
Humans are surrounded by an ecosystem teeming with life. Not just plants and animals, but minuscule fungi and microorganisms too small to see with a naked eye. They’re living in your body, on your skin. You yourself are an ecosystem, layered with millions of lives of which you have no conscious awareness.
Perhaps this is all meaningless–simply an explosion of biochemistry. But is it not also beautiful?
Maybe it’s time to unlearn your negative assumptions of meaninglessness. Put down your expectations for what you should be. Lean into our tiny, lovely slice of the universe’s chaos.
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