Ever since I was a child, I've been on a quest to understand what makes life meaningful. Of course, I'm not alone. We all want to know the answer to that question—we all want to know our lives will make a difference and leave a positive mark on the world. But how can we lead a meaningful life? Does everyone have a unique meaning or purpose in life that endows it with significance? And are there things each of us can do to build more meaning day to day?
These were the questions on my mind when I set out to write my book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. What I found in my research was deeply inspiring. Too many of us have put meaning on a pedestal—making it almost inaccessible. We see meaning as some esoteric pursuit—something you have to travel to the temples of India to find. Want to leave something meaningful behind? It takes something like curing a disease to count yourself among the lucky ones whose lives have meaning. But meaning is much simpler than that. I believe each and every one of us can lead meaningful lives by leaning on what I call the four pillars of meaning.
When I asked people about their sources of meaning, no two people told me the exact same thing. For example, I spoke to a former drug dealer named Coss Marte, who found purpose in putting aside drugs and founding a fitness company that today helps hundreds of people lead healthier lives. I spoke to a group of young adults about how listening to Gregorian chants and medieval prayer hymns every Sunday night at a nearby church helps them feel connected to something beyond themselves. And I spoke to a veteran named Bill Curry about how opening coffee shops for struggling vets has helped him find meaning in serving others.
All of us have unique sources of meaning that reflect our own experiences, values, and personalities. At the same time, certain themes come up again and again when you ask people what makes their lives meaningful. They describe connecting to and bonding with other people in positive ways. They discuss finding something worthwhile to do with their time. They mention creating narratives that help them understand themselves and the world. They talk about experiences of awe and self-loss.
So, how do these relate to the four pillars of meaning? Well, let's dig into that.
The four pillars of meaning I've identified are belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. That means experiences people describe as meaningful generally include one or more of these four elements. Let me explain each one a little more.
We all need to find our tribe and forge relationships in which we feel understood, recognized, and valued.
We all need a far-reaching goal that motivates us and drives us to make a contribution to the world.
We all need to take our disparate experiences and assemble them into a coherent narrative that allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world.
We all need to rise above the everyday world and connect to something vast and awe-inspiring.
These pillars are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of our existence. We can find belonging at work, within our families, or even by exchanging warm smiles with a stranger on the street. We can experience transcendence while taking a walk through the park or gazing at the starry night sky. We can find purpose by choosing a career that helps us serve others, or draft our life story to understand how we got to be the way we are. Meaning ultimately comes from connecting and contributing to something beyond the self—and the pillars help us do that.
You don't have to be a spiritual guru to lead a meaningful life—nor do you have to change the world in some grand way. There are untapped sources of meaning all around us. If you tap into them, not only will you make your own life better, but you might just make the world a better place, too. "Being human," as the Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl wrote, "always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is."