Should we aim to find the meaning of life or the meaning in life? The former makes it seem like meaning is intrinsic or preordained instead of something each of us must search for and maintain. But meaning in life implicates the necessity of an ongoing evaluation. Even after we identify meaning in our lives, it’s something we must tend to like a garden. But when we cultivate meaning, it can lead to feelings of fulfillment, connection, and improved mental and physical health.
While research has found there are many variables that contribute to meaning in life like social connection and positive mood, three primary components resonate for me — purpose, significance, and coherence. It’s important to note, however, that these categories are nearly impossible to separate. They are interconnected and drive meaning to each other on multiple levels. Having a balance and flow of these three elements and understanding which parts are more important to you on a personal level is worth reflecting on and taking action around.
This is usually the first concept people think about when they hear the word “meaning.” What do you want to do with your life? Researchers believe purpose is about future-oriented aims and goals, but this doesn’t necessarily point to your career. Many things that drive purpose can be cultivated through other aspects of your life such as mastery, altruism, personal growth, positive relationships, and spirituality.
Your purpose may sometimes lead you to “take the hard road” or deal with pain because it leads to the completion of your goals. Consider the difficult training regimen that Olympic athletes voluntarily engage with to reach their goals. Purpose can also give you a lens through which to manage extremely difficult circumstances. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said he believed that having a purpose — to publish a manuscript he had been working on — helped keep him alive during World War II.
A common misconception about purpose is that when you find “it,” you commit your life to it. That may be the case for some; however, you aren’t required to have one purpose or central goal. You can have a series of mini purposes — a collection of goals related to the many things you care about. Or you may have a central purpose that evolves over time. I have a friend who loves music and has an amazing voice. She’s realized that purpose through teaching music, being in a band, and countless other ways. No matter its form, purpose has value. Be careful not to put too much pressure on your purpose and function, though. It’s important, but it’s not the only way to create meaning in your life.
Significance refers to the holistic evaluation of the importance of your life anchored in your value system. It essentially emerges when we compare our lives to some objective criteria about what truly matters. Try not to get pulled into using other people’s opinions on what constitutes a significant life. For example, some people believe religion is paramount while others do not. What matters is what you think.
Significance matters because of the important role your values play, whether you are aware of them or not. If you value “perseverance” as a trait, then acting in alignment with that gives you a reward response that says you matter. Beyond this, other things that help increase our feelings of significance are self-esteem, spirituality, relationships, and personal growth.
Coherence, or cognitive sensemaking, refers to your effort to make sense of the world in its totality, create positive patterns, and identify patterns out of connections between people, places, and events. This emerges from our ability to think deeply about our cumulative experiences and make sense of them. It is enhanced with predictability — what we thought should happen did.
You create an awareness and understanding of complex, sometimes confusing or uncertain situations so that you’re able to move forward and make future decisions that line up with your values. Essentially, this is about fitting personal elements into a larger context in a way that makes sense to you. Think of it like words in a sentence or chapters in a book.
Along with purpose, significance can help us find meaning in situations that cause us pain and suffering. Some good news here is that it works the opposite way as well — we can find purpose and significance through suffering.
One of the many reasons this topic is worth exploring is because we don’t have all the answers. There is still so much to learn. It’s also very personal. When you attempt to find or create meaning, your first job is to figure out your own perspective of what’s important to you. Just remember, finding and keeping hold of a meaningful existence is not a one time deal. Through reflection and action around all the elements of meaning — purpose, significance, and coherence — it’s possible to elevate your well-being throughout the journey instead of continually seeking the destination.