4 Universal Elements of a Meaningful Life

universal elements of a meaningful life

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Learn what the universal elements of a meaningful life are and how you can find them.

When I was younger, I fervently wrote in my diary, “I want to do big things when I grow up.” I wrote it with such conviction, the scribbled ink simply had to come true. As my life filled with ordinary milestones – high school graduation, college enrollment, job searches – I kept waiting for the extraordinary opportunities to present themselves.

While I waited, I strove for success in the only way I knew how: the unrelenting pursuit of excellence. (Book club? I finished the book and its sequel last week. Halloween costume contest? I created an outfit so unforgettable you’ll want a photo with me.) In every aspect of my life, I sought above and beyond.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that the answerless questions began to catch up to me. When was the extraordinary going to set in? Why did all of my above-average actions still pale in comparison to the sensational stories I watched and read?

And then the truth surged over me like a wave washing over a sandcastle, damaging it with a suddenness that left only erosion needed to finish the job.

My definition of a meaningful life was wrong.

universal elements of a meaningful life

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The Wrong Elements of a Meaningful Life

Society has a funny way of tricking us about what is meaningful. There are many reasons for this, including outdated brain functions and greedy advertisers. As a result, we buy into false cultural narratives and misguided views on meaning.

We believe we need more to be happy; more money, more stuff, more friends. We also expect our lives to be extraordinary (even though you’re most likely ordinary, cupcake).

All of these false elements of a meaningful life can leave us feeling pretty insignificant.

We all react to this sensation differently. I tried to overcome this insignificance with ambitious pursuits. Some of you might respond by not pursuing anything, unmotivated or afraid. Others might do something drastic, like sell all their belongings and buy an RV and road trip to Tucson, Arizona (I hear it’s great weather this time of year).

Even reading this, we want our reactions to be more meaningful than others’ reactions.

This is because we’re all still buying into the wrong elements of a meaningful life. The sooner we realize society is a lying, contradictory asshole, the sooner we can turn our focus to what really matters.

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4 Universal Elements of a Meaningful Life

These four elements do not apply to some of us; they are valid for every human being on this planet. Inspired by Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, they address the psychology, philosophy, and experience of meaning.

belonging

1. First Element for a Meaningful Life: Belonging

Belonging: the connections we have with others.

Human beings are tribal at heart. We come from a long evolutionary track record of belonging to tribes or groups. (Our alternative choice was death, so it made logical sense.) Because this need to belong is wired into our DNA, we deriving meaning from our connections with others.

For this reason, the first universal element for a meaningful life is rooted in our social connections.

Our society has changed a bit since the caveman days. More and more, we’ve created a culture of individualism, isolation, and loneliness. We’re chasing meaning down in all the wrong places (except for Chipotle. Those burritos are packed full of meaning).

Unfortunately, these misguided pursuits are pulling our attention away from our relationships.

Think about how you spend your time each day. Are you dedicating energy to your connections with others (and I’m talking real connections, not social media ones)? In a 1974 study, researchers asked participants how many people they had a meaningful conversation with in the last six months. The average answer was three.

When the same study was conducted in 2016, the answer was zero.

To create a meaningful life, we need to be prioritizing our relationships above all else.

 

.purpose in life

2. Second Element for a Meaningful Life: Purpose

Purpose: the opportunity to help others and make a difference.

I don’t think anyone would argue against “purpose” as an element for a meaningful life. That being said, how many of us can confidently identify purpose in our lives?

To create a meaningful life, we need to identify and structure our lives around a sense of purpose.

While purpose might seem difficult to define, it’s actually not that complex. We feel purpose when we help others or positively impact other people. In fact, helping others gives us greater happiness than helping ourselves. A study in five different countries showed that, when people were tasked with “making their lives happier,” only the participants from a collective mindset achieved positive results. Their culture taught them to put the group before the self.

We don’t need to dramatically change our lives to feel a sense of purpose. Instead, we simply must shift our mindset to look for where our work benefits others.

Let’s say Steve works on a factory assembly line. Every day, he stands in line, moving one piece of material to the next line. Many might see his work as pointless. However, if he can shift his mindset, he might be able to see how the products will help families in need. Or perhaps that his work, while mundane, allows him the opportunity to connect with coworkers and help talk through their problems with them.

Finding purpose in our actions is crucial in building a meaningful life.

.storytelling

3. Third Element for a Meaningful Life: Storytelling

Storytelling: the narrative we create for ourselves about our lives.

Some of you might be wondering, how do we go from meaning in relationships and purpose to storytelling? For starters, I’m not talking about ghost stories around the fire (or gossip in your friends’ group chat). I’m talking about the stories we tell ourselves to live.

Humans are natural storytellers, and we rely on stories to gain perspective on life.

Science has proven that storytelling has existed since the caveman days. The practice not only reinforced social cooperation, but it helped secure and strengthen relationships. Additionally, our brains have a natural tendency to create patterns with the information we receive. Our minds try to make causal connections. When we do so, we feel the same dopamine reward as addiction (because like, drugs and story punchlines…same, same).

Because of all this, it’s easy to see how our world is shaped by the stories we tell. In particular, our perspective on our lives is shaped by these stories.

Storytelling allows us to bring clarity to the events in our life. If we create a storyline filled with meaning, we can put our attention towards elements of our life that will make us happier.

For example, I created the narrative that I needed to do something extraordinary to live a meaningful life. Had I maintained this story, I’d be unfulfilled and depressed. Instead, I shifted my perspective to define meaning in different ways. Just like that, I can experience a more meaningful life.

Consider the narrative you’ve created in your own life. Are you optimistic? Does your perspective open itself to meaningful events?

.universal elements of a meaningful life

4. Fourth Element for a Meaningful Life: Transcendence

Transcendence: the feeling when we are disconnected from the self and feel like we are a part of something bigger.

Bobby is born, joining the 7.8 billion people in this world. He grows up, goes to school, and gets a job. At some point, he gets married and has kids. Eventually, Bobby will die. Throughout the cycle of his life, he’ll most likely be focused on himself 99% of the time. Our egos make this the case. Sadly, this outlook can make us feel small and meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

It’s when we can detach from the self and disconnect from the physical presence that we can tap into more meaning. This allows us to experience transcendence.

This transcendent experience looks different for everyone. For some, it might come through religion or spirituality. For others, it’s connecting with nature. I sometimes feel a deep appreciation and connection when reading or writing. The stories, words, and creativity fill me in a way that makes me feel tiny, yet a piece of something much bigger than myself.

As an element for a meaningful life, transcendence might seem a bit abstract. However, while we might not be able to turn on transcendence like a television (imagine what that remote would look like), we can make ourselves open to these experiences.

We can also step back and disconnect from the self, reminding ourselves to be aware that there is more out there in the world than just us.

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Questions to Consider

Where do you see these elements of a meaningful life in your lives?

Once you understand each element, consider the questions below:

Belonging

  • Which relationships in your life do you derive meaning from?
  • How much do you prioritize your relationships?
  • How many people have you had a meaningful, face-to-face conversation with in the last month?

Purpose

  • Where do you feel like you positively impact others?
  • How much do you think about helping other people in your daily life?
  • How can you shift your mindset to find purpose in your life?

Storytelling

  • What is the narrative you tell yourself about your life?
  • How positive or negative is your perspective on key life events?
  • How can you work more meaning into your storytelling?

Transcendence

  • When do you feel like you disconnect from the self and tap into something more significant?
  • When do you feel fully engaged or immersed in an activity?
  • How can you create more opportunities for transcendence in your life?

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Conclusion

Our society creates a lot of myths about what is meaningful and how we can create more meaningful lives. At times, it can be difficult to ignore these inaccurate messages.

There are, however, universal elements of a meaningful life that we can all focus on. The more we can prioritize these elements in our life, the closer we’ll be to happiness.

  1. Belonging: the connections we have with others.
  2. Purpose: the opportunity to help others and make a difference.
  3. Storytelling: the narrative we create for ourselves about our lives.
  4. Transcendence: the feeling when we are disconnected with the self and feel like we are a part of something bigger.

Consider the role that each element plays out in your own life. Take the first step by answering one of the questions above or below in the comment section. Don’t miss out on the chance to create a meaningful life.

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FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS

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Comment below with answers, ideas, and more questions, or contact me to collaborate on a future post!

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EXPLORING YOURSELF

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What role do these four elements play in your life?

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Which of these four elements do you need to change the most to find more meaning?

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What is your impression of transcendence?

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EXPANDING YOUR WORLD

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How is the human brain set up for storytelling?

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How do different mindsets affect life outcomes?

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Can feelings of transcendence be created for individuals?

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1 thought on “4 Universal Elements of a Meaningful Life”

  1. With the outbreak of the corona virus I feel like society is really coming together and rallying around a common issue.

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