5 Sources of Meaning in Life and How to Tap Them
New research shows we have an abundant amount of potential for meaning.
Posted August 22, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
I feel like a meaning glutton. I arrange my life around finding or pursuing meaning in my work and in my relationships. If something does not seem particularly meaningful, I’m unlikely to put much time into it.
What gives me that sense of meaning or purpose in life? It’s one-on-one time with people I love such as my kids, wife, parents, siblings, work colleagues, and friends. I also get tremendous meaning from the experience of trying to accomplish something, such as writing books and articles. The final product of a published book does not give me much meaning, however, it is the journey of writing it and the excitement around putting together new ideas that give me that sense of meaning. Finding the sacred/spiritual in any moment, working on my own self-development, and collecting things are other sources that come to mind.
What about you? What are your biggest sources of meaning in your life?
It turns out that there is more potential for meaning than we realize. Recent research reveals we have a wellspring of opportunity to build meaning in our lives, virtually everywhere we turn. After examining 79 studies on the meaningful life, Joel Vos, a researcher studying the science of meaning, uncovered five main areas. As you reach each area, take notice of which rings strongest for you.
2. Self-growth: finding meaning through resilience/coping, self-insight, self-acceptance, creative self-expression, self-reliance, reaching daily goals, and/or self-care.
3. Social: finding meaning through feeling connected with family and friends, belonging in a specific community, contributing to society, and/or taking care of children.
5. Being here: finding meaning through your own uniqueness, for simply being alive, connecting with others and the world, and/or freedom.
I find myself resonating with all five areas (which is why I call myself a "meaning glutton"). It's interesting for me to appreciate the value of each of these five areas in my life and to understand that each is important in its own right for tapping meaning. Since the list is quite broad in scope, it leaves you with a wide range of ideas for boosting your sense of meaning in life.
Building Your Meaning
Researchers have not yet found an upper limit where we can have too much meaning (which is the case for character strengths, where you can have too much or too little), so you can feel comfortable expanding upon your already-meaningful life. Or, if you feel you’re lacking in meaning, you have a plethora of choices. Here are some specific steps to take action:
1. Your meaning source: Start by choosing one of the five areas that you’d like to tap into or expand upon. Which of the five is most intriguing to you? Which of the five do you feel motivation to pursue right now—today?
2. Your next step: Consider one way you can take action with that area. What will you experiment with today? For example, if you choose health under materialism, you might start walking in nature. If you choose “finding your uniqueness” under “being here,” you can take the VIA Survey to uncover your top five signature strengths—that which are most uniquely you. If you choose belonging, you could look into a new community group in your area to try out.
3. Your character strengths: Hold your highest character strengths close to you as you take action. How might they help you take action? We know from the work of several researchers that character strengths provide a pathway toward a meaningful life. For any of the sources above that you wish to grow, you can tap into your character strengths. Your strength of curiosity can help you ask questions as you connect with a new friend and your strength of creativity can help you pursue new ways to express yourself.
A helpful idea here is to look at your #1 character strengths and ask yourself: How might this strength help me take action toward greater meaning? Then, look to your #2 strength and ask the same question. Do this for your top five strengths. If you keep an open mind, you’ll be surprised at the ideas that emerge.
Vos, J. (2016). Working with meaning in life in mental health care: A systematic literature review of the practices and effectiveness of meaning-centred therapies. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyany (Eds.), Clinical perspectives on meaning: Positive and existential psychotherapy (pp. 59-87). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe.