A former student messaged me two months ago and casually asked, “Zach, what is the meaning of life?”
To which I responded, “Which one? Your life has thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of meanings.”
As a purpose and meaningfulness researcher and consultant, such a question is fairly routine. Some popular variations include: “Zach, what’s my purpose?” “Zach, how do I find my purpose?” “Zach, what am I supposed to be doing with my life?” or “Zach, what should I do next?”
One constant feature of each of these questions is the unrelenting personal and vocational frustration they impart on their askers. Much of this frustration seems brought on by the oddly comforting, almost addicting desire to think of the “meaning” of one’s life as just one thing, somewhere out there beyond the horizon, just out of reach. People then seem to find a sort of aimless but satisfying purpose in finding, chasing, or pursuing “it.”
“If I can just have this experience, I’ll figure it out.” or “If I just get this type of job, I’ll figure it out.” or “If I just get this degree, I’ll figure it out.”
Ultimately, as most discover eventually, this scratching and clawing is futile because there is no “it.”
Because meaning is not found, it is made.
It is made where you are. It is made where you live. It is made where you work. The collective hurriedness to “arrive” somewhere else deprives us of the liberating awareness that our lives already have many meaning(s).
What are the meanings of your life?
Meaning by it’s psychological definition is the output of having made sense of something as significant.
For example, we give significance to souvenirs because they are useful to us – they give us fond memories of trips we’ve taken. We give significance to mementos because they remind us of people we love. Things have meaning because human beings make sense of them as being significant, or meaningful.
The same is true with our lives. Our lives and everything we do with them have meaning because other human beings make sense of us as significant, useful, or helpful (or the opposite!).
So, the meanings of our lives are actually held in the minds of other people.
Now, consider this: On average, research finds we’ll meet and interpersonally interact with three new people every day. Assuming an average life expectancy of 78.3, after we’re five years old, then, we’ll meet an average of 80,000 people over the course of our lifetimes.
That’s a potential of 80,000-plus meanings of our lives.
Hence my answer to my student’s question: Your life has many meanings.
So instead of asking, “What is the meaning of life?” a more powerful and practical question is “What are the meanings of my life?”
When we ask this question, we invite the responsibility that follows when we realize that our lives are defined by our contribution to others – not by money, status, job title, career, or some other arbitrary measurement or label.
Even more powerful is that most of the time, we can determine the types of meanings others make of our lives by choosing how useful or helpful we are to others. This is how we craft a meaningful life.
So, what are the meanings of your life? How do you contribute to others? How are you useful?
In the answers to these questions, we can start to craft our purpose, our contribution, and ultimately, our legacy.