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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

In Pursuit of Meaningful Living: 3 Contributing Factors



In a recent podcast episode, Courtney Perry shared a story about her childhood that really struck a chord. Whenever asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would respond by saying that she wanted to be happy. What a great answer!


When I think of the concept of happiness, I think about three things.


The first is the Greek notion of eudaemonia. This is a term that is hard to translate into English. The word "happiness" does not do it full justice. Eudaemonia describes a type of deep fulfillment, harmony and flourishing.


The second thing I think about is the great Pixar movie Inside Out. The message of the film is that joy (or happiness) is one important emotion in a family of different emotions. Sadness, fear, disgust, anger and many other emotions are necessary for a balanced life. Our culture's obsession with toxic positivity and instant gratification is a poor example of the type of happiness I think is possible.


The third thing that comes to mind is the line from the United States Declaration of Independence, "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." My therapist would always remind me that it's not happiness by itself but the pursuit of happiness that really matters. However we interpret that, it's clear to me that happiness is not a natural or necessary feature of human existence on this planet. Happiness is something we have to cultivate. Most days I have to fight for it!


While I don't have a problem with the word happiness, it's not my favorite. In my therapeutic work and personal life, I much prefer the concept of meaning in life. In what follows, I want to explore three things that contribute to a meaningful life. I'll end with three practical ideas to help you find greater meaning in life.


3 Factors That Contribute to a Meaningful Life




According to a study by Costin and Vignoles, there are three factors that contribute to a meaningful life. These three are:


  • Coherence: A sense of order and continuity to one's sense of self and life narrative

  • Purpose: A sense that one's life is moving forward and connected to significant values

  • Existential Mattering: A sense that one's life is important and has value in the larger scheme of things.


Coherence



According to Frank and Steger, coherence means, "a sense of comprehensibility and one’s life making sense." Costin and Vignoles define coherence as, Perceptions of order...applied to self-related experiences.


Coherence is about our lives making sense. I like to think about coherence in terms of narrative cohesion and continuity. We are narrative beings. We come into a world that feels like a story that's unfolding before our eyes. There's a beginning and an end, plot twists and turns and a host of characters.


Waters and Fivush found that our sense of well-being is tethered to feeling like we have a stable identity within a larger coherent narrative.


Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han laments the crisis of narration in our world. He believes we live in a world where people feel fragmented rather than connected. He rails against our addiction to the digital. Social media dumps more data and information into our lives and yet we feel more confused and aimless than ever before. We are not encouraged to plot our identity within a larger narrative framework that helps us make sense of our shared humanity.


For Han, narrative helps us cope with the fragility and contingency of human existence. Stories also help build community and solidarity. Instead of sitting by the fire, sharing stories with friends and making sense of life, we pine for "likes" on Facebook and engage in "storyselling." Story gets co-opted by capitalists who want to sell us products and keep us on the never ending hamster wheel of achievement.


In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm highlights frame of orientation as one of our basic human needs. By frame of orientation, Fromm means our need to make sense of our lives within a larger narrative framework. Religion helped establish this frame of orientation in the past. With the decline of religion, many of us are struggling to find a suitable substitute that will help us make sense of our complex lives.


In therapy, I see clients all the time who have lost a sense of coherence. Whether it's grieving a loved one or shocked by the trauma of infidelity, people fall apart when their frame of orientation is shattered.


Purpose



According to Arash Emamzadeh, purpose is, "having an overarching life aim that subsumes and organizes other goals." There are two main aspects of purpose within the psychological research on meaning in life:


  1. Your life having a sense of direction

  2. Your life aligning with your true values


Sense of Direction


I work with young adult men who struggle to know what the next step in their life will be. They feel aimless, tossed around in a tumultuous sea of doubt, depression and dread. They are lacking purpose, they don't know where their life is going.


To have purpose is to know that you're not merely Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill just to see it roll back down to then start all over again.


When I think of purpose, I think of your life having a certain trajectory. It's moving forward. It's going somewhere. This doesn't mean you have to know exactly where it's going or even how you'll get there.


Alignment with True Values


In the world of psychology, values are "an enduring belief upon which a person acts." I like to explain values as the foundational beliefs and convictions you have about yourself and the world that guide the way you live your life."


We know that when a person is living a life out of alignment with their true values, they will likely experience depression.


Authentic and sustainable values are not imposed from the outside but rather emerge through an introspective process of discovery. We have to learn to differentiate between what our parents, religion, or society values and what we actually value. There may be some convergence there but likely quite a few differences too.


Our life feels like it has purpose when we are getting to do the things that actually matter to us. This seems so obvious, but you'd be amazed how many people report not knowing what their values are or feeling like their life is divorced from what matters most to them.


Excursus: The Marketing Orientation In The Achievement Society




Living in what Byung-Chul Han calls the achievement society encourages what Erich Fromm calls the marketing orientation. The achievement society is the world of social media influencers and the modal verb "Can!" This is the world of endless possibility and self-exploitation. We exhaust ourselves trying to achieve and accomplish all the time, without end.


Fromm's marketing orientation describes how we see ourselves and others as commodities. Relationships are reduced to what we can extract from them for our own narcissistic ends. According to Kendra Cherry, "Fromm believed that people with this character type tend to be opportunistic and change their beliefs and values depending on what they think will get them ahead."


What's most relevant here for our purposes is how the marketing orientation encourages us to change our beliefs and values. This is what I see in my therapy office. Men and women who don't know what they believe or value other than a pursuit of temporary pleasure and approval of the herd. Or I see the person addicted to achievement and self-improvement not because they are pursuing well-being but because they have been socialized by social media to be this way.


Existential Mattering



George and Park define existential mattering as, "the degree to which individuals feel that their lives are of value and significance in the world."


Existential mattering is the sense that your life and actions matter in the greater scheme of things. Existential mattering is not only felt by influential people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Theresa. It is something that any of us can experience through our ordinary lives.


The psychological research suggests that existential mattering is often connected to our perceived influence and impact on others. Existential mattering is rooted in the belief that we matter to other people.


I know that I experience existential mattering any time I help a friend in need, listen carefully to a client, or extend kindness to my wife.


Existential mattering is tied to Alfred Adler's emphasis on social interest. Social interst is a,"feeling of cooperation with people, the sense of belonging to and participating in the common good."


We feel greater meaning in life when we find ways to connect to others and experience our lives making a positive difference in a realm outside the confines of our ego.


3 Ideas To Help Cultivate Meaning in Life



There are many ways to enhance your experience of coherence, purpose and existential mattering.


Tell Someone Your Life Story


Whether it's a therapist, pastor, or friend, find someone you trust and begin telling them your story. As you share your journey you'll notice your life has not been completely random. There may be difficult moments and seasons of regret, but you'll also notice how you've changed and grown. Tracing your personal narrative and recognizing the chapters still left to be written can be a great way to increase your meaning in life.


Clarify Your True Values


Alot of the work I do in therapy is helping clients clarify their true values. There are plenty of great free values inventories online that can help with this.

Personally, I like to guide clients through a specific imaginative excercise to help them clarify what they truly value.


Imagine that you've died (I know, morbid right!) and that you're at your funeral. Loved ones come up and talk about what they appreciated most about you. I encourage clients to ask themselves what are three things they would want to be remembered for.


The answer to this question is a window into what people value most.


Get Out of Your Head and Help Someone


While thinking about the meaning of life is important, it rarely helps people actually experience meaning in life.


Carve out time to volunteer at an animal shelter or food pantry. Do something kind for a neighbor in need. The more you can build social interest by cooperating with others and recognizing your life has an impact on the common good , the greater your sense of meaning will be.

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