Measuring What Makes Life Meaningful
Can what makes life worthwhile be measured? You might be thinking, "Of course not. It's unique and subjective to every person." As a result, you might be surprised to hear that the answer is actually yes, absolutely. There are key characteristics of people who find life meaningful that you can start tracking and improving to find more meaning in your life.
As a reminder (or introduction for new visitors), there are eight key components to a meaningful life:
- Growth: People who continuously improve and find new growth opportunities find meaning in what they do.
- Experience: People who identify and pursue experiences that are meaningful and significant to them find more meaning in their lives.
- Desire: People who have strong desires and are striving to attain their goals find more meaning than those who do not.
- Belief: People who believe in themselves, others, and the ability to achieve a goal or pursue a cause find more meaning than those who do not.
- Emotions: People who listen to their emotions and adjust their behavior accordingly are more likely to be happy and fulfilled then people who suppress their emotions or mask them with mind-altering substances.
- Ethics: People who live life by a set of principles feel more meaning than those who do not.
- Support: People who help others, receive help toward a greater cause, engage in social interactions, or make emotional connections are more fulfilled than those who do not.
- Choice: People who feel a sense of agency over their lives feel more meaning and importance in what they're doing with their lives than those who do not.
Because these are the top eight drivers in finding meaning in life, you can identify and define ways to measure all of them to get a feel for whether your life will feel worthwhile. Let's give an example for each:
- Growth: The rate you’re growing or amount you’ve grown over time. You see this measurement in business all the time (in terms of Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR)), but you can track your progress toward life goals and make sure you're on a satisfying pace.
- Experience: Like a life résumé, you can track how much experience you have in each growth area. Prospective employees showcase their experience to potential employers in a résumé, and you can track your experiences in anything to feel like you're accomplishing something. Examples abound from weightlifters who record their sets, reps, and weights for various exercises to world travelers who track the countries they've visited.
- Desire: Desire is one of those fuzzy ones that you'll have to qualitatively describe first before you can quantify it. You can describe whether you are interested, enthused, or longing for it, or dying to have it and then rate how badly you want something on a 1–10 or 1-5 scale. Netflix was a great example of this when it had a 5-start scale where 1 was hated it and 5 was loved it. You can do the same with desire, where 5 is the most burning desire you have right now and 1 is simply "meh".
- Belief: Belief is the other one that you'll have to translate a qualitative description into a quantitative score. For example, you can rate your confidence/certainty in a belief or idea or the probability that something will happen. Similar to desire, you could start with your gut feel, such as "anything could happen", and then translate that onto a scale you create, like a 1-5 scale or 0-100% scale for how much you believe in the idea or outcome.
- Emotions: This one is easy, as emotions are already indicators. For this one, you just need to write down a list of emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry), give them an "intensity" score, and then measure where you are based on the emotion and how strong it is. Obviously, the happier and more fulfilled you feel, the more meaningful your life will seem.
- Ethics: This is another one that is quantifiable in a whole set of ways. You can track your crimes, sins, and good deeds. You can rate any act you take based on how ethical you think it is. You can evaluate your whole set of ethics and compare yourself to others with similar or different sets of ethics. This one is probably pretty obvious, but note that you should not use your ethical scoring to conclude that you are "better" than other people—it'll likely cause more problems than your tracking of your ethics solves.
- Support: Here, you can track your volunteer hours or other measures of your providing or receiving support. Again, you don't necessarily want to turn this into a game of who's doing the most for others, but (fortunately or unfortunately) you might notice when you're being taken advantage of if you track this...and you might have marital problems if you track this and don't give your spouse enough credit for their contribution (the adage, "In marriage, never keep score," exists for a reason). Instead, just use this to ensure that you have enough support to get through tough times or that you're giving enough support to feel like a good person.
- Choice: You can always measure the effectiveness of your choices by their outcomes—in other words, you can assess your success in an area to determine whether your choices were good or bad. So if you want to run a marathon, you can track your choices to run 3 miles the first few days, 5 the next, etc. until you get there. If you don't succeed, you can see where you might not've made the right choices. Yes, there are uncontrollable factors, but they're either irrelevant because you can't control them or you can mitigate the risk of them through your choices elsewhere (e.g., in the marathon example, buying a treadmill if bad weather prevents you from training).
So if you track those eight areas over time and try to manage them to a healthy degree, you can find that your sense of meaning and fulfillment in life will improve. It has to, as if you're choosing to grow through desirable experiences that you believe and feel are worthwhile and are doing them correctly and with help, you have everything you need to find meaning in what you're doing.
Why does it work that way? Essentially, a meaningful/worthwhile life will involve growth (both your own and fostering others’ growth) through experience in areas you want to grow in and believe you can. You’ll have to do things ethically and with help to maximize your growth and feel like what you're doing is "greater than you" (i.e., a greater or higher purpose), and you’ll have to take control over your life for it to feel worthwhile. You’ll know you’re doing all of this when you feel good.
Note that, in essence, your emotions are your best measurement of life success: happiness/satisfaction is an indicator of success; sadness is an indicator that you’re off track. But if that one measure is too complex, vague, or ambiguous for you at first, the eight categories above can give you plenty of ways to measure how meaningful you are finding your life and what's probably wrong if you're not. Emotions are the easiest way to see if you're finding what you're doing meaningful, but the others are required for root-cause analysis of what the problem is.