How do we give meaning to our lives?

It is estimated that since homo neanderthalensis (400,000-40,000 years ago) human beings have wondered why we are in this world, if there is something beyond ourselves. In fact, this existential awareness is probably the characteristic that most distinguishes us from the rest of the animals.

Many people think that meaning in life is a purely metaphysical or completely subjective matter, and therefore cannot be objectively studied. Others affirm that it is a question that has no answer.

However, in psychology the meaning in life (talk about meaning in life and not meaning of life as such because it varies in each person) has been scientifically addressed for several decades, mainly since the pioneering contribution of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl.

An important construct in psychology

Far from being an intractable metaphysical question, meaning in life has been described as a psychological construct, and there is a whole field of research on the importance of this construct in human behavior, mental health, and physical health. For example, we know that meaning in life is one of the pillars of happiness and psychological well-being. On the contrary, the lack of meaning in life has been linked to a wide variety of psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.

Are there objective aspects of meaning in life? The scientific answer is yes. Meaning in life has been defined as “the perception of order, coherence, and purpose in one’s existence, the pursuit and achievement of worthwhile goals, and an accompanying sense of accomplishment” (Reker & Wong, 1988). In recent years, evidence-based consensus has emerged that meaning in life is made up of three basic elements (tripartite model): coherence, purpose, and importance/significance.

Cognition, motivation and emotion

The coherence, as a more cognitive facet, refers to the degree to which a person perceives order and understanding about himself, the world and his place in life. The purpose It is the element of a motivational nature and refers to having goals, values ​​or aspirations that give direction to a person’s life. The importance or significance It is the most emotional facet and refers to the perception and feeling that one’s life has value and matters in the world.

Interestingly, when these three components have been compared, importance/significance is clearly the facet that most predicts the assessment of meaning in life. Put another way, this feeling of importance within our context seems to be the most central component in our meaning in life.

for the benefit of others

In line with the original ideas of Viktor Frankl, importance/significance has been linked to the self-transcendenceunderstood as the pursuit and contribution to a greater cause that goes beyond oneself (for example, towards other people or beings, society, nature, or God in case of being religious).

In short, it is more likely that we experience a greater meaning in our life if we direct it, voluntarily of course, towards the benefit of others, and not only for your own benefit. Of course, there are infinite ways to do it and each person decides how and towards whom or what they direct their efforts. Just like you can decide not to and probably miss out on a lot of the meaning your life can have. Far from being incompatible, prosociality and personal growth go hand in hand.

Experiences and ‘carpe diem’

In addition, in a recent investigation that we have carried out together with other international collaborators, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviorwe provide extensive empirical evidence on a fourth element that constitutes meaning in life: the experiential appreciationthat is, the contemplation of what happens to one in the present moment.

As we’ve seen across seven studies, this ability to appreciate the experiences we’re having in our lives, to be connected to the here and now, it can come to predict a greater judgment of meaning in life than the other elements proposed to date. Another fact to take into account if we want to enhance our meaning in life: do not neglect the Carpe Diem.

Less thinking, more acting

And finally, consistent with the ideas of Viktor E. Frankl, Paul TP Wong, and contextual psychology, in our research we have seen the importance of another basic element of meaning in life: the responsible actions either valuable actions (those behaviors that we direct towards what we value in life and believe to be morally correct).

Meaning in life has to do not only with what we think, feel or motivate us, but also largely with what we do. It is not an easy task to take responsibility for our own existence. This means facing the consequences, not always pleasant, of being what one wants to be. However, it is even more difficult to believe that someone can sustain and perceive for a long time that their life has a significant meaning if they do not take action towards what they consider valuable. So let’s not stay to infinity thinking and rethinking. Let’s move forward, make decisions and act!

the sources of meaning

Beyond these five facets that define meaning in life, another object of study in psychology has been to identify what gives meaning to people’s lives, that is, what are the sources of meaning more common. Surveys carried out in different cultures on what gives meaning to life have concluded with very similar results.

Personal relationships, intimacy or love, self-transcendence, contribution to society, personal achievements, spirituality and harmony are at the forefront of the sources of meaning identified globally.

As Ortega y Gasset defended, there seem to be certain fundamental conditions that give value to our lives, not simply because we consider them subjectively valuable, but rather these areas must contain qualities in themselves that make us value them. Evolutionary theory provides different explanations in this regard. For example, the human motivation towards personal bonds is adaptive and crucial for the species.

free to choose

Science systematically shows us that human beings cannot get rid of our phylogeny and the social context in which we live. But, calm down! This does not mean that we are not free to choose our meaning in life. Our freedom and our nature are perfectly compatible.

Since Viktor E. Frankl, meaning in life has been considered to be largely personal and individual. The range and diversity of the sources of meaning vary between people, just as the levels of each facet used to conceive its own meaning in life vary. In the same way, there are people who give more meaning to their lives than others.

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