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3 tips for creating a meaningful life

Humans in all places, cultures and times share many things in common. One is our inherent capacity for meaning; to consciously seek meaning in life, to make meaning of events. We are creatures of meaning-making, seekers of recognising the significance of things or events in and throughout our lives.

In times of rapid change, turmoil and global violence, in times of personal stress, anxiety and depression, we become increasingly prone to question our views and beliefs about the world, our place in it and who we really are. In times of personal and/or collective suffering, it’s natural to feel uncertain about beliefs and perspectives that once gave us a sense of meaning.

Meaning in life is experienced as having a sense that your life … has purpose and direction, and that you have a personal place in the grand scheme of things.

Even if you are reasonably comfortable with your day-to-day meanings from work, relationships and interests, the bigger existential questions of meaning can arise: what is my life purpose, who am I, why do we suffer, is there a god and is there anything beyond death? These can often be too overwhelming to deal with. Not having satisfactory answers to these can undermine your contentment and sense of security.

As seekers of meaning we prefer mental, emotional and spiritual certitude, an inner platform to give direction and structure to our experience of reality. When people feel that life is meaningless or sense little coherence or purpose in their life, it can even undermine their will to live.

With that in mind, let’s explore the importance of life meaning from the perspective of connection, covering the types of meaning and some of the ways to create and sustain life meaning.

The meaning of meaning

The most common use of the word “meaning” refers to the sense or significance of a word or phrase; for example, “What do you mean by that?” It also refers to the purpose or significance of something, an event, a relationship. You interpret meaning according to your personal and cultural perspectives. I, for example, as an Anglo-Australian will more likely interpret a different meaning from an encounter with a landscape from that made by an Indigenous Australian.

Meaning is experienced as an idea or understanding as well as an emotional response to some person, event or situation. You tend to experience meaning in two broad ways:

  1. A realisation or intuition of the presence of an overarching significance in your life (meaning in life)
  2. A search to discover and/or enhance meaning in life (search for meaning)

Of course, the converse also applies: you may be struck by meaninglessness and/or lack of interest in or avoidance of seeking meaning.

Meaning in life is experienced as having a sense that your life — not so much a single event, experience or relationship but life overall — has purpose and direction, and that you have a personal place in the grand scheme of things. As psychotherapist Victor Frankl once put it, a meaningful life is not achieved until one connects with a higher and more encompassing purpose.

Searching for meaning, on the other hand, is concerned with the creation of meaning, which often requires looking for significance and purpose in life. It is considered an unstable form of meaning, as it may or may not be “found” and is significantly less associated with life satisfaction and happiness compared to the more stable life meaning. People who cannot find stable meaning in life search for it.

Research indicates that nature connectedness plays an important role in both meaning and happiness.

In this sense, having a stable sense of life meaning can be viewed as the destination — but not a static or immutable one. The search for meaning is about the journey there, however and wherever “there” may be perceived (or re-perceived) as you move along your life trajectory. The search for meaning often changes in intensity and form during different life stages.

Connection: the essence of meaning

With few exceptions, we humans are socially oriented creatures needing healthy inter- and intrapersonal connections to experience psychological wellbeing. We evolved in clans or tribes and within communities, and over the past millennia as part of civilisations. We are hardwired for seeking and maintaining positive social relationships and, for the most part, healthy relations with the worlds of nature and spirit. We therefore as a species and individually tend to have a strong desire, often unconsciously, to belong to something beyond our own lives: community, tribe, spirit and/or place.

Belonging and/or connectedness to some higher grouping, order or purpose is a necessary individual requirement if you want to experience an overarching meaning in life. To belong implies experiencing relatedness, with people, society, nature and/or transcendent powers, and this requires experiencing connection. All sources that give life meaning can be viewed therefore through the prism of experienced connection with humans, animals such as pets, nature, spirit and place. While life meaning includes day-to-day meanings of experiences, it is these myriad meaningful connective experiences that help you sense coherence about your life.

If and when you experience an emptiness of life meaning, there are two basic choices you can make: step back into the old ways of disconnection and habit, or step forward from the edge of meaning and fly.

Experiencing chronic disconnection, like meaninglessness, can lead to reduced vitality, increased despair and reduced self-worth. Any ongoing experience of profound disconnection — from another person, place or nature, for example — tends to undermine or reduce life meaning and consequently psychological wellbeing. Many people respond by searching for meaning with various levels of success. If the search does not yield a stable platform of meaning, you can become stuck in an ongoing cycle of searching for new experiences or highs, taking unnecessary risks and, when you eventually don’t find lasting meaning, falling into the depths of disillusionment — or worse.

Whether you find it through deep, aligned connection with family, peers, community, place, nature or religion or spiritual practice, having meaning in your life provides the resilience to handle existential hardships like sickness, loss, failure and imminent death. Experiencing a stable and deep life meaning can be a deep reservoir of inner resolve to help you face adversity. It also provides the fuel, the motivation to create order and coherence in life, to take a non-egoic or higher perspective towards your life experiences, especially in relation to traumatic or stressful situations.

Experiencing life meaning: tips & reflections

Despite living in a world of hyper-connectivity, many of us feel a sense of disconnection at different times in our lives. To allow the possibility for life meaning to unfold, you need to address your own experiences of this. By experiencing deep connection in your life, you may be able to tap into new perspectives and self-concepts that expand the horizon of meanings that lie within your intuitive and reflective grasp. There are myriad ways to do this; following are three approaches.

Tip 1: experience meaning through immersive nature connection

Research indicates that nature connectedness plays an important role in both meaning and happiness. Experiencing life meaning has been shown to be highly associated with feeling deeply connected to nature. This also goes for, most relevantly for me, adults in mid-life. I can vouch for the mid-life relevance of nature connection: experiencing my mid-life crisis of upheaval over many years was made tolerable by deeply connecting with nature, taking time out to take stock, gain perspective and allow the wonders and love from nature to heal my battered mind and heart.

There are various reasons for nature’s healing effects, including finding comfort in the order and permanence of nature, the perspective-making power of nature and the likelihood of experiences of wonder that can help renew meaning and potential for self-transcendence.

So how do you create deep immersive experiences of connection to nature? Essentially, you need to get out into the bush or landscape and use your senses in a mindful way to engage everything with attentiveness, compassion and love. Give yourself an hour or so to do this; do it as a regular practice each week and observe yourself and your responses, non-judgmentally, as you mindfully perceive. The key is to mindfully watch the flow of experiences as they arise in each moment. This requires that you compassionately engage and re-perceive the world with love and grace in a way that allows the Beauty and complexity of life to imbue your own life with greater meaning and perspective.

Tip 2: meditate on letting go & connecting to self & spirit

If you find your outer world unbearable at times, too threatening, too overwhelming, then an important option is to go within to connect with your deeper self. You need to recognise that your experience of personal suffering can be a reminder of disharmony and often outmoded beliefs and emotional blockages. You need to create a way to understand and let go of the blockages, to step away from the things, people and events that destabilise your sense of purpose, self and meaning. A spiritual practice can allow you the mental and physical space to focus attention inwards and allow the intuitive experience of meaning to arise.

Spiritual practice involving meditation, yoga or other contemplative practices offers structure and guidance to help you focus on a place of stillness and no-boundaries where connection to self and spirit may be tangible. This is the space of being, where meaning of ego-based doing is replaced by the meaning of experiencing a sense of being. In this emptying process of being arises the knowing that you are loved and loving; you are an important part of some greater whole, beyond space and time. This knowing provides the unbreakable understanding that there is higher meaning in life in which suffering and death have no prominence. The first step is critical: to acknowledge and build your practice into your daily and weekly routine.

Tip 3: become mindful of your responses to challenging situations

We all face difficult times along our life paths. Whether it’s inner or outer conflict, tension or times of depression, anxiety and grief, these situations can rob us of joy, contentment and meaning. Depression and other negative states such as anger and resentment tend to empty our lives of meaning. It tends to rob us of hope, self-control and self-worth. To take control requires stepping back from the precipice of habitual reacting or slipping on those slippery slopes of blame and self-righteous anger.

The key activity for taking control and responsibility for your actions is mindfulness. Mindful awareness, simply, is a neutrally observant state of awareness in which you perceive your world and yourself (thoughts, feelings, sensations, actions) from a caring, nonjudgmental moment-to-moment perspective. In gaining an honest, non-habitual perspective it can help you to realise that the causes of any suffering lie not so much in the challenging situation but in your habitual reactions to it.

Observing a situation or yourself neutrally from a new perspective can prevent you from being swept away by the strong currents of your thoughts, fears and feelings. This perspective taking, this capacity to acknowledge and let go of past and present hurt, habits and expectations, is critical in taking control of your life and becoming connected. Mindfulness allows you to make better choices in each moment and to interpret, nurture and enhance meaning in the moment. This moment-to-moment meaning gradually joins together to paint a life canvas of greater meaning and contentment.

Now, to you

The essence of a meaningful life requires the intuition and reflection of meaning on day-to-day events, relations and emotions as well as experiencing a sense of connection to something greater than your own life. It is to recognise that life meaning changes through your life and that the need to recognise meaning can be best interpreted during connection and being mindful. If and when you experience an emptiness of life meaning, there are two basic choices you can make: step back into the old ways of disconnection and habit, or step forward from the edge of meaning and fly.

The desire for meaning is part of our humanity and part of the creative act we engage in as we forge our paths through the understoreys of our lives. In recognising this, you may not only take responsibility for creating life meaning but you may weave a more enduring meaning throughout your life that may nourish you and the world that sustains you.

Peter White

Peter White

Peter White’s book In the Presence of Nature: A Guide for Connecting and Healing in a Climate of Change is available at your local bookstore and online bookstores. W: natureconnect.com.au

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