Why are we here? What is life all about? Where do we find meaning and purpose in life? Since the dawn of civilization, learned men have attempted to answer this question.
The philosopher Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
The existentialist philosopher and writer Albert Camus stated,“ You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
Writer Henry Miller suggested, “Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.”
Artist Pablo Picasso said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose is to give it away.”
According to Martin Seligman, an eminent psychologist and founder of positive psychology, meaning and purpose are one of the pillars of well-being. If you desire to be happy and live a fulfilling life, you must determine and live a life that has meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose are discovered in religious and spiritual pursuits.
For many, answering the question, “What is meaning and purpose of life? is cliché or stupid, because the answer is obvious. A remember once asking someone, “What is the meaning and purpose of your life?” This person laughed as if I were being ridiculous. Then the person said, “to be successful.” Recently, I heard a well-known television personality suggest that the meaning and purpose of life is to “make money.”
Clearly, there is no one right answer to these questions. It’s a personal decision you must make.
Where do we find life’s meaning? There are many places where you can discover meaning. Religion provides many people with meaning. It explains the meaning of their lives, their hardship and suffering, what death means, and the afterlife.
Death provides meaning if you are aware of it. Death reminds us to live in the here and now, that life is precious, to live life fully.
Those who avoid becoming lost in thought and embrace mindfulness discover meaning in the present moments of life. And when you think about it, life is really all about present moments. When one moment passes, another moment begins.
Creativity provides significant meaning for many whose lives are so often filled with banality and routine. The arts enable the creative personality to express their creative spirit, to live their dreams, to share meaning with photographs, paintings, poetry, fiction, film, and music.
Many of us discover meaning from suffering— feeling mental and physical pain. We learn how it feels, and so when another person experiences pain we’ve endured, we tend to feel compassion and empathy toward them.
In the west, purposeful work provides meaning for citizens. People attend university, graduate, and then begin a career. They hope to achieve success, wealth, status, recognition, personal identity. Work answers the question: “Who am I ?” For many, Work becomes the sole meaning of life.
Failure or mistake generate meaning for most people. The wise soul learns from his or her mistakes, while the fool learns nothing, and continues to make the same mistakes over and over. Hardship teaches most people to be resilient and continue to make effort to achieve.
Learning is also a source of meaning. It answers are metaphysical questions and curiosities. The lifelong pursuit of knowledge is a virtue. Socrates said,“ an unexamined life is not worth living.”
We find meaning in life from love. It is a basic human need. It allows us to self-actualize. It provides support, acceptance, companionship, loyalty. Without love, we live lives of lonely, quiet desperation.
We find meaning by being true to ourselves, which leads to living a life of authenticity. “ Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, writes, “Authenticity is the daily practise of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embrace who we are.”
We find meaning in the pursuit of accomplishment or achieving goals. It is the process, not the end result that provides us with meaning. For instance, suppose your dream of becoming a published writer. You take courses, write in your journal, read widely and deeply, publish your poetry or short fiction on a blog. The process of achieving this goal of becoming a published writer gives you meaning.
Many people learn that religion provides a source of meaning. The Buddhist tradition explains that life is 10,000 joys and 10, 000 sufferings. In other words, the meaning of life is joy and sorrow, and yet we can find happiness despite that suffering. Christians, on the other hand, find meaning by worshipping God and accomplishing God’s will, as well as giving praise to God.
And yet, the secular can also be spiritual. This feeling of spirituality provides powerful meaning. Spirituality is nothing more than the search for the sacred, searching for something larger and more important than ourselves.
For some people, life has no meaning. Some take their own lives, while others escape to drugs and booze. The nihilist believes that life has no inherent meaning. In fact, the meaning of life is absurdity. We are born, we live, we die, and then there’s nonexistence.
The existentialist agrees with the nihilist, but tells us that meaning is a personal decision. Each person has the freedom and responsibility to create his or her own meaning and purpose in life.
What is life’s purpose? Meaning and purpose are intertwined. You will often discover you life’s purpose from meaning, as well as meaning from life’s purpose. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, said that man’s purpose in life is to search for meaning. Yet, there are many other answers to this question.
Ask different people, and they will provide you with many responses. They will say things like to live my dream, to follow my bliss, to maximize my potential, to make money, the achieve well-being, to help others, to express creativity, to know God, to love God, to glorify God, to be loving, respectful, compassionate, to express authenticity, to be curious and learn, to love, to be kind, to fight for social justice, to make a difference, to get married, to have a family, to build a career, to acquire wealth, power, success, to achieve fame and fortune, to discover the meaning and purpose of life.
How do we discover our life’s purpose? It is a personal decision, one you must answer yourself. There is no right answer. Your life’s purpose will often change as you pass through life. What you focused on at twenty will be different than middle age or old age. Here are a few questions that will help you discover your life’s purpose:
1. What are your passions? What do you love to do?
2. What do people say you are good at?
3. What do you desire to achieve or accomplish before you die?
4. What would you like to experience before you die?
5. How do you wish to be remembered? What legacy do you desire to leave to loved ones and the world?
6. What are your deepest values? What are your most important beliefs?
7. What are your dreams?
Your life’s purpose is often just a few sentences about why you are here. For instance, your life purpose could be expressed in what Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Once you determine your life’s purpose, you can identify your life intention.
How do you determine your life’s intention? Answering this question will tell you how to live your life. For instance, a person who believes that his or her meaning and purpose is to be happy will embrace the advice of positive psychologists, who suggest that we can experience well-being by focusing our time, energy, skills, and talents on pleasure, friendships, love, purposeful work, enjoyable leisure pursuits, faith, religion, the spiritual, mindfulness, fitness, gratitude, accomplishing goals, and so forth. To learn more about well-being, you can read “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Embracing well-being is just one way of living a life of intention. You can journey long many different paths of intention.
I agree with the existentialists who suggestion that life has no intrinsic meaning, and so we must determine for ourselves what in life provides meaning and purpose. It is a personal decision.
Once we discover our purpose, we will better understand life’s meaning and life’s intention. In fact, I tend to believe that life’s purpose is to find meaning in life that so often seems to be absurd.
By living with intention, you can live purposefully. To live with intention, you must embrace “carpe diem.” Gandhi said, “the future of life depends on what you do today.”
Working toward achieving, what positive psychologists call “well-being” is a worthy life purpose. Another is to live your dreams.