We are terrified by the question and at the same time, madly thrilled by it.
What is the meaning of life?
It’s an age-old, primordial question at the heart of all humanity.
What’s the point of going through all this fuss? Why were we born? Why do we die? WHY does all this exist anyway?
Wanting to know what the meaning of life is can be compared to opening a humungous can of worms: question after question comes spilling out. Pretty soon, we’re curled up in the fetal position choking on huge existential-crisis-grubs.
Sound macabre? That’s not half of it.
Wondering “what is the meaning of life?” is often at the core of dark and dreary human experiences such as the Dark Night of the Soul, identity crisis, and existential depression.
Of course, we’re all mildly curious from time to time. But if the Holy Grail Answer keeps escaping us, and if we wind up feeling completely lost in life, it will become top damn priority to know the meaning of life.
Without further ado, let’s dive into this deep topic …
Just so you know, by the end of this article you should:
- Be able to understand the difference between meaning and purpose
- Possess a greater sense of clarity
- (Hopefully) feel a sense of relief
- Know what to do with your life next – and how
The Major Difference Between Life Meaning and Life Purpose
People from all walks of life share an innate drive for meaning, direction, and purpose. This drive to understand our life purpose seems as important to our psychological growth as eating is to our biological survival. – Dan Millman, The Life You Were Born to Live
You probably use them interchangeably – and have heard others do likewise – but meaning and purpose are not the same things.
It’s important to make clear distinctions here because otherwise our “what is the meaning of life?” exploration will become very convoluted very quickly.
Here’s how I distinguish the two:
Life meaning is of the mind – it’s a philosophy, idea or belief we ascribe to our lives. It’s subjective. It’s something you create.
Life purpose is innate – it’s “programmed” into everything at a core level. It’s objective. It’s something you fulfill.
Does that make sense?
When talking about the meaning of life we often confuse and mix up the subjective and objective (or personal and impersonal). Hence why it can feel like our brains have been put through a blender when even considering the topic.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, what is the meaning of life? And what does that mean for you? Let’s explore that next:
What is the Meaning of Life?
So … what is the meaning of life? To put it simply, meaning itself is very personal and varied. It’s something that emerges from your soul as a deep calling.
For one person, their meaning in life may be to raise kids, for another, their meaning may be to create a charity, breed horses, become a world-renown artist, live off the grid, write a book, teach others, meditate deeply, travel the world, and so on.
Your meaning can be fixed or it can change.
Ultimately, your core essence (your heart and soul) will know your true meaning in life.
In order to find your meaning, you’ll need to do some soul-searching. You’ll need to understand yourself, your gifts and weaknesses, your passions, and your interests. This is an exciting process that can also be frustrating and disheartening if the voice of your soul is getting drowned out by the stress of daily life.
We’ll explore how to find your meaning in life a little later.
What is the Purpose of Life?
Our soul’s purpose, seen energetically, is already there, within us. – Christa Mackinnon, Shamanism and Spirituality in Therapeutic Practice
As I mentioned above, the purpose of life is more objective.
In other words, it’s not something we have to create or find. Instead, it’s something we realize or tune into.
Because it’s already there, because it’s already intrinsic and innate to who you are, there’s no need to go chasing anything.
Isn’t that kind of a relief?
So what is this innate purpose of life?
In an earthly sense, our purpose is the same as everything we see around us: to grow, change, and expand. Just look at the plants, animals, and trees; they all go through cycles of metamorphosis. The planets also go through cycles, as do the seasons. And the Universe is expanding every moment! We too are destined to go through these cycles of expansion.
But is that it?
Those skeptical about the spiritual dimension of life would shout a hearty, “yes!” But I’m not an atheist. I don’t have a mechanistic outlook nor do I believe that this is “all” there is.
Why reduce the complexity of life in that way? I have personally experienced the spiritual dimension of reality many times, and that is enough for me. And so too have millions since the dawn of time.
However, as the spiritual purpose of life is immaterial, it’s more open to interpretation. (Hence why there are thousands of spiritual movements and religious ideas in the world.)
Personally, I believe that our purpose in life is to mature on ALL levels: the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The spiritual awakening process is an expression of that maturation process: our souls are expanding and growing just like the galaxies. And like pregnancy or childbirth, this growth can be a painful process. But it’s part of life’s purpose.
As professor of cultural anthropology and religious studies, Bonnie Glass-Coffin wrote,
As I have come to realize through my life’s journey, the purpose of our human embodiment is, actually, to grow a soul. Like the making of a body during nine months of gestation, soul-making is also a process. For, although we are born with it, our soul continues to develop with every life experience. Our sufferings are simply the secretions that add to its luster—like a pearl inside an oyster. Making soul is the process of a lifetime, or several lifetimes. Mystics, saints, and shamans of ages past and of today, from places far and near, refer to this eternal sojourn in many ways, yet whatever terms are used implies a conscious engagement with our true potential as divine partners in creation. This is what it means to “grow a soul.” This is what it means to commune with our essential nature.
On a metaphysical level, the question can be asked, “What are we maturing toward?” What is the point of all this hassle?
This is a complex topic, but in a nutshell, our metaphysical purpose is to unite with Life/Spirit, to become one with the Divine. Ancient spiritual traditions all throughout the world have agreed and referred to this by many names: Enlightenment, Illumination, Heaven, Oneness, Nirvana, Bliss, Wholeness, Moksha, non-dual awareness, Buddhahood, and so on. (Read more about Oneness.)
How do we get there?
That’s a topic for a whole other article. But there’s a multitude of spiritual and religious paths that will suit you based on your mental/emotional/spiritual level of maturity. Meditation is a common and recommended path. Inner work is another powerful practice that we heavily focus on within this website. It is a non-dogmatic practice that can be integrated into any belief system. The healing and inner transformation it can produce is quite amazing.
How to Find Your Meaning in Life
Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer. – Joseph Campbell
So far we’ve established the clear difference between what is the meaning vs. purpose of life.
As we’ve seen, meaning is subjective, it is highly personal, it is something your soul feels called to do or create.
To find your meaning in life, you need to learn how to find yourself. You’ll need to do some soul-searching.
If you have no idea how to do that, here are some simple pathways:
1. Think back to what you loved doing as a child
Your inner child is your original self, the first version of “you” that entered the world. S/he holds a tremendous amount of wisdom that is just waiting to be accessed.
As children, we didn’t carry the same level of baggage, social conditioning, or fears that we now lug around everywhere. When you were a child, you were attracted toward the things that brought you the most joy. The most interesting clues can be found within the activities you did the most as a child.
Perhaps you liked to read a lot, construct things, dress up your dolls, care for your toys, climb trees, talk to your pets, pretend you were a police officer, construct imaginary realms, and so on.
Take some time to carefully think about what you most enjoyed doing. Get a journal and make some notes. Look for the activities you did for the longest amount of time and most consistently. The answer may not slap you in the face immediately, but think about what was the heart and core of the activity you did. What quality were you attracted to the most?
2. Explore your personality (by taking tests)
I know this may sound banal, but free personality tests are a wonderful way of getting to know yourself. Plus, they’re fun! Not only do you get to learn about your strengths and weaknesses, but you are growing in self-understanding in a matter of minutes.
Not all free tests online are created equal. As our whole website is dedicated to the pursuit of self-awareness and self-knowledge, you’ll find some unique tests in our free tests area.
As always, take these tests with “a grain of salt.” Take what you need and leave what you don’t. You never quite know what unique things may be revealed about yourself!
3. Expand your mental horizons
We all have a “circle of competence” – a phrase coined by tycoons Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger. What this means is that we all have some things that we’re really knowledgeable about, and other things we aren’t.
Expanding your mental horizons means widening your circle of competence. This could mean exploring a topic you know literally nothing about. This could also mean delving into an area that you’ve always been secretly curious about but have stopped yourself from exploring (for one reason or another).
Take a moment to think about what you would like to learn about if you were given a chance. What thought first pops into your mind? Whatever that thought is reveals the place you need to go next. Even if you feel silly, be an explorer. Soul-searching isn’t always convenient or comfortable. But it is wildly unexpected and can be supremely illuminating, particularly if you’re wanting to find your meaning in life.
4. Think about what life has taught you
We are each given a set of experiences in life. The experiences are neutral. They have no meaning. It is how we interpret the experiences that gives them meaning. The interpretations of experiences shape our beliefs and theories about the world. Our beliefs and theories, in turn, determine what we observe in the world to confirm our beliefs, which, in turn, reinforce our interpretations. – Michael Michalko
Ultimately, answering “what is the meaning of life?” comes down to how you think about and interpret life. Do you ever think about the experiences you’ve had? Do you ever give them a higher meaning? If not, it’s time to.
One of the most powerful ways to find your meaning is to reflect on the entire timeline of your life. What have been the major highs and lows? What successes and tragedies have befallen you? And most of all, what have they TAUGHT you?
If you can answer this single question (“what have all your experiences in life taught you?”) and take a higher perspective, you might just find your meaning in life. For example, if you believe all your experiences have taught you to surrender and let go, you might become interested in studying Zen Buddhism and make that your meaning in life. If you’ve learned that all your experiences have taught you the importance of sticking to your truth, you might become an advocate for something.
Make sense? It’s a simple but powerful soul-searching technique.
5. Visualize yourself on your death bed
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” the poet Mary Oliver once wrote.
This activity may at first appear morbid, but it holds within it the seed of true insight. When death is upon us, everything becomes clear, crystalline, precious. There’s no time to waste and the choices we’ve made in life dance before our eyes.
For this activity, you’ll need to set aside five or ten minutes. Get into a quiet and dark room. You may even like to wear a sleeping mask or blindfold so your vision becomes pitch black. If you want to put yourself into an even deeper mindset, you can play some funereal or ethereal music quietly in the background. (And just in case you feel too uncomfortable, ensure someone is in the house with you.)
Now, once you’re ready, imagine you’re lying on your death bed. You are reflecting on all that you’ve done in your life. When you think of your biggest achievements, what comes to mind? What are you the happiest to have done, practiced, or committed to? Don’t be modest here. Think about something simply amazing you have done. What is that?
If nothing comes to mind, you can always return to this activity later (perhaps in the early morning or late at night). Once you’re ready to stop the visualization, feel into your body, stretch your legs and arms. And take off the blindfold. Consider journaling about your experience – it will be extremely valuable to remember it.
6. Practice inner work
Why is it that we struggle to find the meaning of our lives? One reason is that we are emotionally or psychologically blocked.
We might suffer from self-doubt, low self-worth, or general self-destructive tendencies. We might be trapped within the pits of an existential crisis, a toxic relationship, an addiction, or mental health issue. We may have even experienced a spiritual awakening so strong that our life seems to be melting around us – and we don’t know how to put back the pieces of ourselves.
One way to create inner harmony, balance, and wholeness is through a practice known as inner work. Inner work is the mental, emotional and spiritual practice of exploring your inner self. It is about gaining self-knowledge, learning how to love yourself, working through your core beliefs, and maturing (or individuating) as a human being.
For anyone soul-searching, inner work is a vital practice. It can be all too easy to skim across the surface of life without going deeper. But whatever is buried within you will eventually rise to the surface, sooner or later. Inner work is about exploring and working with the different facets of our inner selves.
7. Think about what type of meaning you need right now
Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once wrote about meaning:
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
It’s true that old German saying, “if a man finds a WHY, he can bear with almost any HOW.” It was men that built the Auschwitz gas ovens, it was man also who marched into them with their heads held high and a prayer song in their lips.
As Frankl pointed out, meaning is not some solid rigid thing, but it is fluid, changeable. We need to focus on finding our meaning of life right now. And the way I see it, there are three types of meaning in life:
The first is meaning in accomplishment or achievements, where we feel fulfillment in completing tasks, goals, and dreams. The second is meaning we find in values such as the loyalty we feel toward a noble cause or the compassion a mother feels toward her child. Finally, the third is meaning in suffering where we embrace a sort of attitude to justify the circumstances, i.e. “this will make me a strong person by anguishing through all this.”
Here I have defined three types of meaning:
- Meaning in accomplishments and achievements
- Meaning in values (e.g. love, friendship, community, loyalty, courage)
- Meaning in suffering (an attitude/belief about why we’re experiencing something)
Think about where you’re currently at in life. What type of meaning do you need the most? Reflect on the most painful feelings you experience on a regular basis – this will be the way to find what type of meaning you need.
For instance, if you suffer from feelings of boredom, fatigue or listlessness you may need to find the first type of meaning (achievement/accomplishments).
If you suffer from feelings of general unhappiness, loneliness or a specific yearning for something, you may need the second type of meaning (values).
And if you are going through an intensely painful period in life that is characterized by anxiety, depression, grief, hopelessness, and other strong forms of emotions, you may need the third type of meaning (attitude/belief about suffering).
Or hell, maybe you need all three types of meaning – that’s okay too! (But perhaps a bit more complex in the long run.)
I’ll leave you with a quote from the Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo,
It takes six million grains of pollen to seed one peony, and salmon need a lifetime of swimming to find their way home, so we mustn’t be alarmed or discouraged when it takes us years to find love or years to understand our calling in life.
There is no race here. You will find your meaning in your own time. And remember, your meaning can stay the same or it can change as you mature. There is no black and white manual of rules here. Very few people just wake up one day and shout “OH! I finally know my indisputable life purpose!” It’s more like a messy awkward food party, where you eat one thing and throw it away until you find something that finally tastes really nice.
You may have come to this article wanting a definitive answer to the notorious “what is the meaning of life?” question. But the thing is, your meaning is of your own creation. Your meaning springs from the depths of your heart and soul. To hear it, you need to find ways of going inwards, of listening carefully. I sincerely hope the above activities will help you to do that.