I am really sad to report that my highest-performing blog post of all time at the time of this post is 8 Types of People Who Don't Find Life Meaningful; another post that gets a lot of clicks via search engines is Eight Reasons Life Can Seem Insignificant and Meaningless. Unfortunately, it appears (for my work at least) that my posts that start with a negative premise seem to get more attention than positive. I get it...even my search for meaning started at the worst-feeling moment in my life of worthlessness and emptiness from my father leaving when I was a child. But after my years of research, I would like to accelerate the time it takes you, the searcher for meaning, to find more meaning in your life and to stop looking at it negatively.
So let's take the current search terms that are leading people to this site and tackle the questions head on:
These three questions have the same flawed premise: that meaning in your life is something that you find outside of yourself and that you have to search for. If that premise is flawed and meaning is not something you find, then the alternative is simply to stop trying to find it and start creating it.
Life is growth-centric; if you focus on growth, you will find or create meaning within yourself for your life. The reason why people struggle to find meaning externally is that there is nothing out there for you to find. You will never go to a mountaintop, find answers bestowed upon you, and magically everything will have meaning and significance to you. That’s not how it works. Meaning, value, and significance are things that you subjectively give to things, so it's something you assign rather than something you find. However, the good news is that the common thread underlying how all people define purpose and significance is growth, so if you identify within yourself the types of growth that are significant to you and you focus on fostering that growth, you will create more meaning in your life.
Let's test this in the real world with how you perceive meaning and significance of things right now. Think of your favorite actor, athlete, or movie. Why is he/she/it your favorite? Naturally, your decision is based on how good he/she/it is. How did the person or thing get to be that good? It is only due to how hard the person or people worked and how they grew into the person they are to create those magnificent experiences and outcomes. Behind all great achievements or notable accomplishments is growth.
Similarly, you gauge yourself on what you’ve achieved, which is just a result of the skills you’ve developed, the friends you’ve made, the relationships you’ve fostered, etc. So your assignment of significance is mainly growth-based. Similarly, any goal you have is, by definition, something you don’t have now and have to strive for. If you already had it, it would not be a goal. So you have to grow to achieve that goal by earning money, improving your skill set, etc. It’s all growth.
Knowing this, it's likely that you now see why you might've struggled to find meaning to date. When people say that they’ve tried to “find” meaning, they usually mean that they went outside themselves to find something worth believing in or some thing that would make them eternally happy if they attained it. But, as you might now be seeing from these examples, that’s not how meaning works. Your goals, what makes you happy, etc. will constantly change, so you’ll never find that one thing and say, “That’s it. That’s the rest of my life right there.” Peyton Manning transitioned from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time to a pitch man, a businessman, and a family man. There’s always something more. There’s always something new. So if you’re “struggling” to find meaning, you’re doing it wrong because you’re looking for something outside yourself (or, worse, other people) to give you meaning when it is you, a living organism with consciousness and the perception to assign meaning, who gives meaning to things—including, but not limited to, your life.
It’s your job to make something meaningful, not to find it. You’ll know you’ve done it based on your emotions, which are giving you feedback as to whether you’re on the right track or not (happiness, excitement, enthusiasm = on the right track; boredom, depression, dread = on the wrong track). If you don’t find satisfaction in running 3 miles per day, then maybe you need to run 4 (i.e., a higher goal that might be more meaningful to you because it requires growth) or take up boxing (i.e., a different goal that is more interesting and meaningful to you to grow toward). If you don’t find satisfaction in the food you eat, then maybe you need to try something new to shake things up. If you don’t find meaning in your job, then maybe you need to see what else is out there that you like more so you can work toward that. In any of these cases, it’s you either assigning meaning to something, identifying that something is significant/meaningful to you, or giving something more meaning by upping its significance yourself.
Side note: gamblers “hack” this mechanism using betting—if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Care to make it interesting?”, you know what I’m talking about. That statement means that they increase their level of interest in attaining the outcome by increasing the stakes associated with the outcome occurring. While that does work, it's manipulating the natural, healthy mechanism your brain has to assign significance based on what you think will make your life better. So don’t conclude that gambling is the best way to heighten your emotions over an event; it is definitely one of the easiest ways, but it's just because it exploits how your brain assigns significance to things and is by no means a long-term solution.
So that’s my advice to you, the reader who has struggled to find meaning in life. If you keep trying to find meaning outside yourself and failing to see results, then you should try seeking and creating growth opportunities instead. When you care about the improvement/growth you’re getting, you’ll have found something that matters to you. That’s the meaning you’ve been searching for. If you don’t want to create meaning for yourself or don't think that you're able to, then find someone else’s cause and help them. You’ll learn what makes them passionate—though I promise you it will involve some growth toward an improved outcome—and might even find some meaning in helping others while you figure yourself out. In any case, you'll find answers within when you find something that matters to you or create meaning in whatever it is you decide to do or focus on in life.
Arguably, the biggest mistake that people make when finding meaning in their lives is that they belittle whatever it is that they’re actually doing. In other words, they take whatever they're doing now, like their job or hobbies, and deem them to be insignificant. They’re just “flipping burgers” instead of feeding people and helping them spend more quality time with their families. They’re just “selling insurance” instead of keeping people safe from unfortunate circumstances.
If you are doing that, you can easily create more meaning in what you're already doing by simply perceiving it as having more significance. You're not lying about what you're doing; you're reframing your view to its true impact in terms of how it improves the lives of yourself and others. Even if you can't change your outlook too much, you can always be on the lookout for things that you just as more meaningful than what you're currently doing and then pursue those opportunities when you find them.
By doing those two things, you’ll have more meaning in your life than you ever had trying to find it through endless searching. Instead of looking for a magical leap toward something amazing, you'll either add a little more meaning to what you're already doing or find something that's just a little more meaningful. Keep doing that, and you'll have a life full of meaning in less time than it took through hours and hours of aimless pondering.
To recap: If you can't find it, create it. To create it, see the full impact/significance of what you're already doing and look for things that are just a little more meaningful. If you can't create it, find someone else who has it, support their goals, and learn more about how they found what they loved to do, why they love it, and whether you find the same passion in that thing or in something else. Meaning and significance is subjective, so it is completely up to you to assign meaning to whatever it is you choose to do, be, or have in life.
If all else fails, there is one universal fail-safe to find meaning in life: find something you care about and make it better. And, as you've hopefully learned today, if you can't find something you care about, you can simply choose to care about it and, through the act of caring, give it meaning.