Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is widely recognized as the forerunner of our modern understanding of living a meaningful life. Having survived the horror of three years in a concentration camp, Frankl had witnessed the absolute worst and very best of humanity.
In his psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, he attempted to make sense of his past and understand the human quest for meaning. In doing so, he recognized the importance of three psychological and philosophical concepts.
Firstly, our ‘freedom of will’ – we are free to choose how we face up to and interpret internal and external conditions. Secondly, ‘will to meaning’ – our primary motive is to search for meaning and purpose in our lives, sometimes enduring profound difficulties along the way. And thirdly, our ‘meaning in life’ – we can bring forth our best selves by realizing the meaning present in every moment and situation.
Ultimately, Frankl concluded that there is no general meaning in life. Everybody’s life can make sense depending on the individual, their circumstances, and their choices. The challenge is finding our life’s purpose and then making the right decisions based on that knowledge [3, 4].
Meaning and purpose in life
Finding meaning is vital for our wellbeing, perhaps even more so than the search for happiness. After all, identifying and developing our purpose in life directly increases our sense of fulfillment and protects us from stress, anxiety, and even depression.
And yet, it needn’t be spiritual. Belonging to and serving something bigger can create meaning in our lives without requiring a religion. Psychologist Martin Seligman saw meaning as simply “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than yourself.”
And it’s subjective – at least partly. For one person, it may be creating a beautiful garden shared with generations to come; for others, it may be serving the community through an outreach project. And yet, Seligman had caveats. To be meaningful, it should contribute to wellbeing and be pursued for its own sake – even if it carries an emotional and financial cost [1, 2].
Creating meaning in the everyday
Meaningful activities may be noble, but what about day-to-day life? How does finding meaning help me cope with stress, upset, and sadness? According to research, it does so through uncovering purpose and reasons to live that help mediate difficult situations and troubling emotions.
A 2011 academic review found that meaning-based coping in military veterans promotes post-traumatic growth and challenges existing life trajectories – essential for someone recovering from witnessing the atrocities of war.
And while using ‘avoidance’ for coping may intuitively seem unhealthy, it can be positive when combined with purposeful living. The worker, stressed by their manager, may come home and transform their negative energies into positive pursuits, such as writing their first novel, caring for their family, or creating value in their local community.
Meaning is also a key component of ‘eudaimonia,’ or long-lasting happiness. After all, wellbeing is seen as dynamic and ongoing, leading to self-actualization and personal growth. Ultimately, meaning is a pathway to happiness, the ‘good life’ and essential for living according to our true nature [2, 9].
Meaning of life versus meaning in life
The question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is a philosophical or theological one outside of the remit of psychology. It attempts to understand why we are here. On the other hand, asking ‘What is meaning in life?’ is not the same. Instead, it is a question to be answered by psychological research and the individual’s subjectivity and is a vital area of inquiry for positive psychology.
Indeed, in psychologist Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing, the study of meaning (the ‘M’ in the acronym) is one of the five vital elements that focus on learning to flourish and having a fulfilling life. Seligman also recognized that finding meaning can be combined with positive emotions and engagement to create authentic happiness.
In recent years, psychology has recognized meaningful living as being aligned to the degree to which life appears to make sense to the individual, to what extent worthy goals drive them, and how much it matters in the world. A 2019 study on physiotherapy found that forming meaningful goals is vital for treating clients, especially when combined with mindful listening and reflective practices [1, 3, 10].
Three components of meaning
If we are going to add meaning to our lives, we need to begin by understanding exactly what it is. Psychologists Samantha Heintzelman and Laura King extensively researched the literature on the subject, attempting to answer the question, ‘How meaningful is life, in general?’ They identified three components of meaning in life.
‘Comprehension’ is about cognition. It is vital that the individual understands their lives and that it seems to fit together and make sense – it is coherent. ‘Purpose’ relates to their behavior. Do they feel their life has direction and is motivated by worthy life goals? And finally, ‘mattering’ brings in the emotional aspect. We must feel our life goals, behavior, and actions make a difference – they are significant to the world.
Without a sense of meaning, for the individual, it could be like being on a ship without having a rudder, floating without purpose or direction [3, 5, 6].
Our search for meaning
Our search for meaning in our lives is typically dynamic and sometimes triggered by an existential crisis. An accident, a serious illness, or the loss of a loved one can prompt our journey to begin, even if we are not aware of when it starts. When something goes wrong, or we find ourselves at one of many crossroads in life, we may reassess who we are, what we are doing, and question life’s meaning,
For some, their worst fear may not be death but that they have never really lived – or at least lived meaningfully. In fact, research into ‘terror management’ shows that even subtle reminders of our mortality can nudge us toward a search for life’s meaning. And a lack of meaning can increase our anxiety toward death.
To find meaning requires adopting a ‘meaning mindset’: a subjective, introspective, and self-reflective exploration that will uncover what we don’t want, what we may find meaningful, and what changes may be needed in the future. It requires authenticity, vulnerability, and bravery and is not for the faint-hearted [3, 11].
Where do we look for meaning?
Recognizing our life lacks meaning may be the first step toward creating a more fulfilling one and increasing our wellbeing. But where do we start?
Clinical psychologist Paul Wong identifies the following ‘sources’ for a more fulfilling, ‘meaningful’ life: achievements, relationships, intimacy, religion or spirituality, self-transcendence or altruism, self-acceptance, and fairness or respect.
That’s a significant list. Yet it recognizes that, while financial and educational resources have a part to play, deep meaning comes from committing to a higher purpose – what that looks like is up to us.
And while scary, taking the path toward meaningful living has a substantial payback; it is strongly linked to reaching for and attaining valued life goals, improved health, and a higher quality of life [3, 6].
A nod toward the existentialists
Finding the courage to align our lives with our core values leads to a more authentic existence and less internal conflict. It improves the quality of our living on a day-to-day basis. And it encourages us to make personal decisions regarding life’s purpose, independent of the environment – including those around us.
Yet it takes courage. Living a meaningful life requires us to do precisely what we are afraid of – act according to our convictions. It is not easy; they are deeply personal and, therefore, subjective. Others will not always share them. However, authentic living means choosing what is important to us, not adopting others’ priorities.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre made an important distinction – a meaningful life is not always a happy one. As an atheist, in the 1940s, at a time of great political upheaval, he argued that “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.” Now that’s what we call ‘existential angst’! 
Finding your ikigai
Ikigai is as much an idea as a way of life. After all, this Japanese practice encourages individuals to find their reason for living by considering the point at which their professional, vocational, and family lives meet.
If asked, most of us would answer that we prefer a meaningful, fulfilling life – yet we must also afford to live. For a balanced yet nuanced view, ask yourself the following four questions: What do I love to do? What am I good at? What does the world need? And, what can I get paid for? The answer to each can create a deeper insight into what you could do that is meaningful to you and yet delivers.
Ikigai does not demand a total job change. Instead, existing jobs can be ‘crafted’ to spend more time on intrinsically motivating activities that leave you more interested and happier [7, 8].
Often people who experience near-death experiences report a shift in their values. Typically, they have a higher regard for life and strive to add meaning to their existence.
Visualizing the end of our lives has been shown to have a similar outcome, increasing intrinsic motivation, unselfish behavior, and value-driven living.
Find somewhere quiet and take a few moments. Imagine in years to come that your life is at an end. At your funeral, loved ones take turns to stand up and talk about you. What do they say? How would you like to be remembered? How would you like to have spent your time?
While the exercise may seem morbid and even a little disturbing, it encourages us to live a more meaningful life in the short time available .