- A life lived with purpose and meaning has benefits for the mind and body.
- Talking and thinking about death from the vantage point of leaving behind a legacy may help us identify what truly matters in life.
- Actions are deemed more meaningful when they make a positive difference in the lives of others.
When we talk about psychological needs that lie at the core of human nature, meaning-seeking may not be as top-of-mind as other needs such as happiness, optimism, friendship, safety, and community. But that’s not to say it isn’t important. Research shows that a life lived without meaning can be debilitating to one’s psychological well-being.
On the other hand, a life lived with purpose and meaning has immense benefits for the mind and body. Fortunately, emerging mental health research can help us understand how humans derive meaning out of certain activities and ways of life. Here are three ways you can induce meaningfulness and a sense of purpose into your life today.
1. Change the way you think about death. Psychologist Emily Mroz refers to death and mortality as “a significant if not the single most paramount motivator for how we organize our lives.”
This definition is echoed by the results of a recent study that found that people define themselves more virtuously when they’re asked how they want to be remembered as compared to just describing who they are in the present.
As legacy leaving is an important component of seeking meaning in life, viewing life through the lens of finitude can be immensely helpful for someone who might be feeling lost or devoid of meaning.
While some might assume that considering life through the lens of death might lead to recklessness or selfishness in people (e.g., by instilling a "YOLO" mentality), Mroz counters this line of thinking in two ways:
- For some people, like athletes who scale the deadliest mountain peaks, the idea of legacy leaving after death is quite different than for the average person. They are truly aiming to leave a legacy not based on virtue, but based on extreme accomplishment, pushing the human experience to its maximum capacity.
- For those who tap into the "YOLO" mindset occasionally, this hedonistic mantra might exist on the surface of a deeper relationship with death—one in which virtuous, legacy-leaving intentions also exist.
Talking and thinking about death from the vantage point of leaving behind a legacy may help us identify what truly matters in life, and may give us the courage to pursue it fearlessly.
“One day you and I, and all reading this will die—it is inevitable and inescapable. We share that with humans across time, just as we share the want to be remembered and to remember those we love virtuously,” says Mroz.
2. Harness your "hatred" for the better. Another recent study discovered that the hatred you might harbor towards a group, institution, or an abstract concept might be powering your life with meaning and purpose. Psychologist Abdo Elnakouri refers to this kind of hatred as "collective hatred."
This is different from the personal hatred you feel toward particular people who have wronged you. Collective hatred often comes from being a part of a community that sees another group as an enemy. “When your friends, family, and community identify a collective entity they don't like, it’s easy to ‘fall in hatred’ for them as well,” he explains.
Elnakouri points out that while it is important to keep a check on the tendency to derive meaning from a place of hatred, in some cases, such hatred can be useful and effective. “Maybe we need to cultivate more hatred towards climate change, racism, and other societal ills. A lot of it would depend on what the hate is aimed at,” he says.
3. Help others regardless of the cost. Psychologist Brodie Dakin and his colleagues recently conducted a study to find out what types of actions added the most meaning to people’s lives.
“When we look at the most meaningful endeavors that exist cross-culturally (e.g., heroism, parenthood, educational and occupational achievement, cultural rituals, etc.) they almost always involve clear elements of costliness—be it pain, expenditure of energy, time, or resources, or some other kind of sacrifice,” he explains.
The researchers also found that actions were deemed more meaningful when they made a positive difference in the lives of others.
Dakin gives us two additional reasons why costly, prosocial actions give us a higher sense of meaning:
- Effortful behavior is more likely to lead to a sense of competence.
- Undergoing difficult endeavors with other people builds social bonding, which is also a powerful source of meaning.
Conclusion: Thinking about death to help you identify what you want to achieve in the present, directing your hateful or antagonistic feelings toward a good cause, and helping others even when it may be difficult to do so are three strategies you can use to find more purpose in life.
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