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How to Find Meaning in Life – When Meaning Doesn’t Seem Obvious

Most people – regardless of worldview, religious beliefs, or cultural background – have given at least some thought to the idea of “meaning” or “purpose” in life.  For some, it’s not much more than a passing thought.  For others, it’s a struggle; a lifelong pursuit in finding the answers to questions such as “what does it all mean?”, “why am I here?”, “what’s my purpose?, or “Is there any purpose?”.  When the sun dies out and the solar system is void of all life, will anything I’ve done have mattered?  If you ask these questions to enough people, you’ll get responses that range from “There is no ultimate purpose in the Universe” to “Your purpose has been assigned by a higher power” and everything in-between – some responses more or less satisfying than others.  What you’ll find proposed here comes not from an authority on the matter, but from a more “existential” sort of view of life that puts an emphasis on freedom and responsibility; freedom to define meaning and purpose for yourself and responsibility to take action now. Struggling with a diminished sense of meaning and purpose can lead to feelings of hopelessness and futility.  Because of this, it’s worth it to not only explore what it is that makes living life meaningful, but to find some kind of a clear definition of meaning as it relates to your unique human experience.

1 – Start by entertaining the idea that you get to assign the meaning yourself.  In a world with so many competing views and values, meaning is established in so many different ways.  In a recent Pew Research Center Study, Americans were asked where they find meaning in their lives.  The most important cited source of fulfillment came from family. Others responded with answers related to career, home, money, learning, spirituality, and faith.  The key to this is that sources of meaning are different for different people – none being necessarily right or wrong.  In defining (or assigning) meaning to yourself, you get to decide what it is that makes your life meaningful.  You have the freedom to choose your purpose.

2 – Think about the kinds of things give you a sense of purpose.  Do those things. People generally get a lot of fulfillment out of helping others and attempting to make some kind of a positive impact in the world.  For some this means pursuing a career consistent with those things.  For others, it means using spare time to do those things.  Whether it be volunteering, helping others, performing random acts of kindness, helping a friend in distress, donating money, or working in a helping capacity – identify the things that give you a sense of purpose and try to work them into your life.

3 – Think about what it is that you love to do. Do those things now.  Not everything you do has to involve serving some greater purpose or cause.  Meaning can come by doing the things that you love to do in life. Engage in the things that you love and give yourself permission to do them without guilt. We’re so often caught up in being productive and meeting the next milestone, that we put doing the things we love to do off to the side until later.  It’s important to recognize that nothing ahead of us is promised.  All we really have is NOW and that NOW is precious.

4 – Define your values and try to live in a way that’s consistent with those values. Make an outline of the values that define you (or that you want to define you).  Getting clear on values can help you figure out if you’re living life and doing work in a way that is consistent with those values.  When our behaviors contradict our values, we experience discomfort, guilt, and a sense of imbalance.

5 – Try new things.  Take up a new hobby, learn something new, join a group, challenge yourself by doing something that scares you, travel to places you’ve never been to before, engage in the arts, meet new people, take a class, learn to play an instrument, be spontaneous.

6 – Connect with new people and the people that you already love.  Human beings are social creatures and healthy social support is key with benefits linked to high life satisfaction, overall mental health, and developing a sense of meaning. Reach out to loved ones you haven’t talked to in a while. Make new friends. Recognize unhealthy and toxic relationships and create boundaries for yourself as it relates to your interaction with them.

7 – Remember that although life is temporary and short – in a universal and big picture kind of way – it means something NOW.  Feelings of futility can arise when it’s hard to find the point of anything. Everything you’ve ever done in your life up until now is done, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t things worth doing at the time.  You wouldn’t opt out of an opportunity to do something amazing because it will eventually end.  You enjoy the moments while they last. Life should be no different.

8 – Be the author of your own book. Life is a story. Although what happens in many of the chapters are beyond our own control, so much of what we write in is up to us.  Recognize the difference between things you can and cannot control. The things you can control – such as the decisions you make everyday, how you respond to adversity, and the steps you take next – are the parts of the story that can be taken any direction you choose. When we make excuses or see ourselves as victim to circumstances or the behaviors of others, we surrender our own power. Write a book worth reading.

9 – Embrace mystery and the unknown. So many of our existential issues and questions we have about meaning are rooted in the questions we have that may never be answered.  Seeking the answers to those questions and approaching life with a sense of curiosity and exploration is healthy. We can, however, continue to explore and marvel in the wonders and mystery of the Universe with a certain level of acceptance of the unknown.  We won’t ever have all of the answers – and that’s okay.

10 – Find ways to come to terms with unresolved issues from the past. Work through unresolved issues by first identifying what those things are. Are you living with regrets? Feeling guilty? Harboring resentment? Suffering from trauma or loss?  Although the past is not something we can erase, there are things we can do to come to terms with those closed chapters.  Write or talk about unresolved issues. Make amends when appropriate or necessary. Seek therapy to process past pain and to gain a new perspective. It’s necessary to resolve those unresolved issues to be able to move forward in a healthy, meaningful, and purposeful kind of way.

If you’re considering therapy to further explore issues surrounding meaning/purpose, consider sending us a message to ask any questions you might have or to schedule your first appointment.  You can also call or text 727-258-5231. Float on Counseling, LLC is in the Carrollwood area of Tampa and offers solution-focused therapy to help you get unstuck.

Joel Schmidt, MA, LMHC


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