Human beings are hard-wired to seek meaning in our lives. It’s something we all crave and yearn for, and research shows that having high levels of meaning in our lives is correlated with high levels of well-being, as well. A perceived lack of meaning often is at the root of most depressive disorders, and is in fact one of the primary diagnostic questions trained health practitioners ask to help determine if someone is suffering from depression.
A Modern Paradox
Research shows that most people will rate their lives as very full of meaning. As rates of depression, anxiety and social isolation are at an all-time high in our culture, something doesn’t quite add up about this. In our research lab we are questioning whether most peoples’ lives are truly filled with an abundance of meaning, or whether we might just be saying that our lives are full of meaning, due to social conditioning and/or wishful thinking.
We suspect that social bias is more often responsible for people reporting and/or believing their lives are full of meaning – when in fact, people may find their jobs, friendships, romantic relationships and other major categories in their life sorely lacking in meaning. Our studies are currently examining this issue.
What’s the Question?
One of the major challenges with studying meaning, and the way we are used to thinking about meaning in our own lives, is that we typically pose the question in a very broad, simplistic way: Is your life meaningful? So the answer is a brutal yes/no. We don’t believe that this binary breakdown is a very useful barometer, however, because it’s too global, requires a snap judgement, and invites us to answer in the more socially acceptable affirmative…yes, of course my life has meaning! To admit otherwise might force us to confront a very different, and possibly depressing reality than we like to believe.
A yes/no answer also misses the nuances of everyday life, in which we source meaning from many different areas in our life. In any given hour, on any given day, we can experience meaning at different levels depending on our activities.
Assessing Meaning In Your Own Lives
Because of the relationship of meaning to well-being, and the relationship between the lack of meaning and depression, it is critically important to take stock of your life in this regard. Honestly assess which parts of your life feel full of meaning, and which do not. Even if you think your life is already full of meaning, specifically identifying your areas of strengths and weakness can help you sharpen your appreciation for the meaning that is there, as well as to cultivate meaning in areas you hadn’t thought were rewarding.
Area by Area
We believe that in assessing meaning, it is best to consider each of the major areas of your life separately, rather than trying to do a global assessment. The breakdown of major areas might vary from person to person, but for many of us it might include: romantic partnership, family, work, social, and spiritual.
Using a 10-point scale, where 1 is utterly meaningless, and 10 is one of the most meaningful things you’ve ever experienced, rate each of these major areas of life in terms of how meaningful they feel to you. Be honest with yourself…does your work feel meaningful? Do your interactions with your kids feel meaningful? Are you more often than not just going through the motions in a particular area?
Keep in mind, no one should expect that all areas of life will be at maximal meaning…it’s usually the case that some areas of our life enjoy the benefit of more attention and nurturing, and the others feel less meaningful. But honestly taking stock is a critical first step.
The 24-Hour Inventory
A great next step for assessing meaning is to conduct a 24-hour experiment, where for one day, you focus hour to hour (or as often as you change activity) on the level of meaning you are experiencing…noting down each time what you’re doing and how meaningful it feels.
Make sure you document your impressions. Keeping a list of all the things that struck you as meaningful and meaningless is the best way to remember, gain true awareness and begin to discover patterns. Your smartphone can make this easy. Use your Note feature to keep the list always at hand, with unlimited space to add more entries as they occur.
You will likely be surprised at some of the things that end up on your lists. Our brains are primed to remember threats, disappointments, frustration and negative stimuli of any kind far better than the meaningful moments. So creating a list of the meaningful activities always seems to surprise and delight, even for the skeptics.
I was certainly surprised by the many things I listed as meaningful, such as tucking in my boys at night, watching the birds visit the birdfeeder, hearing Claire de Lune come on the radio, feeding a stray dog and her puppy a can of dog food, sitting down to read my latest favorite fiction book, and learning a new recipe from my sister over the phone. I discovered that I was finding meaning mostly in the tiny, simplest moments of the day that I would never normally have noticed or predicted. I also noticed the irony that the things that felt the most meaningful to me were also the things I tended to rush through…the things I tended to de-prioritize.
This exercise also helped me discover that driving is totally meaningless to me – and that I spent a ton of time doing it. I realized that chatting with acquaintances before and after school pick-up felt empty to me, rather than worthwhile. I went to lunch with a friend and was surprised to record that this interaction depleted me…but after some reflection, I realized this was typical for my encounters for that particular person. Back home with my family, I noticed we were all doing our own thing around the house, without anything particularly meaningful happening.
My results from this experiment inspired me to take action – deleting meaningless and avoidable activities from my routine, and for the activities that are unavoidable, taking on the challenge of cultivating meaning there.
Scanning your activities, behaviors and environment for areas of meaningfulness or meaninglessness, is not about berating or discounting your life, yourself, or the people in it. It’s about becoming more curious about what YOU value as meaningful, and more familiar with the kinds of things that move your needle or make your heart leap, and the kinds of things leave you flat.
These discoveries are tremendous opportunities to optimize our lives and connect more deeply to the things we care about the most. For only when we realize something, can we do something about it.