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The answer is within: Only you know how to make life meaningful

November 18, 2022 - 12 min read

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What does it mean to live a meaningful life?

How to add meaning to your life

Life is what you make of it

What makes a life meaningful? 

The answer to this question looks different for everyone, which is both comforting and discouraging.

On the one hand, it’s nice to know that life’s meaning is within reach. If you can identify your values, you’re capable of finding purpose and fulfillment in your life. But your journey is unique to you. Others can help you along the way, but you’re the only one who can decide what would make your life meaningful.

Luckily, there’s no shortage of resources to help you on your journey. You’re free to consult countless religions, philosophies, and doctrines to piece together your ideal life path.

You can also talk to one of the thousands of Americans who answered the question for themselves. Most of them found meaning through their families, careers, or making money.

But, even if these resources are helpful, the work doesn’t end there. Someone can suggest what makes life meaningful, but you’ll have to figure out how those lessons fit into your life.

For example, religion may teach you that helping others will give you purpose. But for this to be truly fulfilling, you’ll have to reflect on why helping others is personally important to you — and your reasons for donating to charity will differ from someone else’s.

If this sounds complicated, we don’t blame you. Only you can define how to make life meaningful. And, in doing so, you’ll learn to focus on the things that matter most — an important lesson for living a happy and healthy life. 

We can’t tell you how to live your life. But hopefully, we can point you in the right direction.

What does it mean to live a meaningful life?

Even though “meaning” differs for everyone, every person experiences it similarly. Living meaningfully means:

  • Feeling more engaged and motivated. Instead of coasting through life, you feel excited about waking up in the morning. Bad days are inevitable, but they’ll be less intense because you live according to your intrinsic motivators and personal values.

  • Connecting to a higher sense of purpose. This doesn’t have to be spiritual, but it can be. When you have a purpose, you understand where your skills fit in the bigger picture. For example, if you work in the recycling industry, you might feel good about fighting climate change — even if you won’t reverse global warming by yourself.

  • Aligning your skills with your values. People who live meaningfully use their talents for the things they care about. An accountant who values family may use their skills to help a loved one facing financial hardship

  • Increasing your life satisfaction. When you find your meaning, you have fewer wants. You feel satisfied with where you are and where you’re going, so the day-to-day challenges of life feel less cumbersome.

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  • Finding a sense of belonging. Family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — these are the people who form our community. When you find your life meaning, you find the people who make your life worth living.

  • Crafting your life story. You can see a clear narrative threading every chapter of your life together. Everything you’ve been through helped create the current version of “you.” 

  • Peace and self-satisfaction. Most of all, a meaningful life leads to calm, contentment, and happiness. You feel in control of all aspects of your being, including your mind, body, and spirit (however you choose to define it).

There’s no correct way to live a more meaningful life. But when you find your version of it, you’ll notice more coherence between your inner self and the outer world. When this happens, you’ll find an improved sense of well-being.

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How to add meaning to your life

Regardless of your life stage, there’s something you can do to learn what a meaningful life is for you.

Here are some actions that can point you in the right direction.

1. Live in the present moment

Ten years ago, did you think you would be where you are? Probably not. Your life is full of twists and turns, each as unpredictable as the one before it. 

And here’s a newsflash: your journey isn’t over yet. You have many plot twists yet to come, and you don’t know when they’ll arrive. You can’t control the future. All you can do is focus on the here and now, work hard, and accept change as it comes.

2. Focus on what’s important to you

Whether it’s a recruiter pinging you on LinkedIn or a family member asking a favor, it often feels like everyone wants a piece of you. 

You have to learn to put your energy where it matters, which requires continued self-discovery and self-awareness. If you can identify and nurture the most important parts of your life, you can let go of the other stressors that are bringing you down and better regulate your emotions.

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3. Be kind to others and yourself

The science is in: being kind to others strongly correlates with leading a happy life. Every time you hold a door for someone, say thank you to the cashier, or volunteer at your local shelter, you’re forging connections that can improve your emotional well-being.

But, as you impact people’s lives, it’s important to also extend kindness toward yourself. Proper self-care can help you avoid conditions like caregiver burnout, which stems from sacrificing your own life in service of others. Setting strong boundaries will help you maintain your mental health and radiate kindness for years to come.

4. Don’t hold a grudge

To live a fulfilling life, you must learn to forgive the people who’ve hurt you. Otherwise, your grudges will tie you to the past like a ball and chain.

Some things are easier to forgive than others. Depending on the nature of the offense, you may have to grieve what the person took away from you. But once you do, you can continue down your path to fulfillment.

5. Take a risk

Life is too short not to take risks now and again. If anything, standing still is the bigger risk: if you never try anything new, you may never discover your own sense of meaning.

So take that job, go on that trip, and ask that person out on a date. You may surprise yourself.

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6. Make time for your passions

Spending time on activities you love is the crux of a good life. If you’re lucky, you’ll be passionate about your job. If not, you might find joy in your personal time. Whether it’s music, rock climbing, or running, making time for your interests helps you find meaning.

7. Set goals

Even if you can’t control the future, you can set milestones to give yourself a sense of direction. Ideally, your long-term goals would directly relate to your beliefs and values and overarching vision for your life. For example, if you value family, “I want to buy a house and have a child within the next five years.”

Your short-term goals can help inch you toward this overarching vision. For example, “Within the next year, I want to raise my income to $100,000 per year so I can afford a home.”

Your short-term goals may not always work out. As we said earlier, life has surprises in store for you. But they can, at the very least, keep you pointed in the right direction, so you’re always working toward a life that’s meaningful to you.

8. Choose your friends wisely

You are the company you keep. If your “friends” regularly put you down, question your choices, or discourage you from pursuing your dreams, they’re probably not worth keeping around. It’s important to surround yourself with people who will support you when you need it and help you become the person you want to be.

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Life is what you make of it

Learning how to make life meaningful is an exercise in self-discovery. We spend so much time looking at external factors, like our jobs, friends, or spouse, for an instant sense of purpose. And while they can eventually be sources of meaning for you, they can’t fulfill that role until you do the Inner Work®.

You’ll have to dig deep to discover the things that matter to you. You may learn that, after years of giving yourself to an unfulfilling career, your family is the most important thing in your life. Or, if your family is more a source of stress than support, deep friendships could be what you value most.

It’s also possible that, after looking inward, you simply don’t have the pieces of the puzzle yet. You may have to put yourself in new situations to see what feels right.

Don’t be afraid to go on a solo trip, volunteer in your community, or start your own business. Mitigating risk is smart, but it can hold you back if you let it. Your life meaning will reveal itself in due time — but it’ll come faster if you’re out there looking for it.

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Published November 18, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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