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Be part of something bigger

People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of what they do. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression. [1] But where do we find 'meaning and purpose'? It might be our religious faith, being a parent or doing a job that makes a difference. The answers vary for each of us but they all involve being connected to something bigger than ourselves. 

Why does meaning matter?

Scientific research shows that having a connection to something bigger than ourselves, a religious belief or spiritual side to our lives makes us happier and healthier.

Studies of people who believe their lives 'have meaning' show big benefits for wellbeing and Martin Seligman - the founder of positive psychology - describes meaning as a vital component of happiness and wellbeing. [8]

What does meaning mean?

A simple way to describe having 'meaning' in your life is that it's about being part of something that we really believe in that is bigger than ourselves. [8] It helps us answer the question: why are we here? Often it's something that can't be reduced or goes beyond the day-to-day. It guides us in how we choose to live our lives, what we strive for and provides a framework for the goals we set. It can help make sense of what happens to us, provide a source of comfort and strength in tough times and helps us feel that we are not alone.

Religious faith or other spiritual practices provide meaning for many people and research suggests that people with faith tend to have higher average levels of happiness and well-being than people with no religious beliefs. [10] But religion and spirituality are not the only sources of meaning. For many of us, our relationships with others are a key source of meaning in our lives - as parents, friends and members of a community (see Connect with people). In fact one of the benefits with religious faith is the connection that comes from being part of a shared community of like-minded people.

Other important sources of meaning include finding your 'calling' - a job or activity that you're passionate about - or having a deep connection to the natural world. What is certain is that 'meaning' is something very individual. No one can tell us what gives meaning to our lives - we have to find out for ourselves.

How do we find meaning?

There are many different ways of finding meaning in our lives. For some people it comes through experiences (often difficult ones), others through deep reflection, others from loving and being loved and others just from the way they choose to approach other people and the world around. We can each find our own way - but it's important to remember the imporance of meaning when making the big choices about our families, jobs, lifestyles and priorities.

Although finding meaning is about connecting to something beyond ourselves, it also seems to tap into to something fundamental within all of us. For some people this becomes obvious early on - for example a calling to teach or become a doctor or to follow a particular faith. For many however it is a search that can take a lifetime. And sometimes a practice, such as meditation, can help us become more in touch with our feelings and deepest selves.

Interestingly, although there is strong evidence that having meaning in our lives is good for our wellbeing, there appears to be relatively little research on the search for meaning. Some research even seems to suggest that those in active pursuit of meaning may be more likely to be anxious or depressed. [1] This suggests it can be a bit of 'chicken or egg' experience, where the frantic search for meaning implies often its absence.

A good approach is to consciously think about which activities, people and beliefs bring us the strongest sense of purpose and passion. Then we can focus on making sure that we prioritise these things in our busy lives. Often we're so busy just hurtling ahead and end up exhausted at the end of each day without ever finding time to think about what really gives our lives meaning.

Sometimes it is only when we reach important new stages in our lives, such as parenthood, middle age or retirement - or when something happens to disrupt our lives such as a trauma - that we start to think about the point of being here and what is really important. But it's never too soon (or too late) to start putting the really important things first.

Spirituality: what is it?

Spirituality seems to be an almost fundamental and universal human characteristic, but one that is very personal and subjective. It is commonly defined as the feelings, thoughts and behaviours that both drive and arise from a 'search for the sacred'. [2]

Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman define spirituality as a "universal strength of transcendence" [9], noting that although the content of specific spiritual beliefs may vary, they have in common a sense of ultimate transcendence, the sacred or a divine force. [2][6]

There are many pathways to discovering and experiencing spirituality - both through religious faith (such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism etc) or non-religious ways for example through nature, meditation or creative practices.

Finding your calling

The idea of 'having a calling' originally had religious connotations, but more recently this word has been applied in a non-religious context to refer to a particular approach to work. [3]

Individuals who have a 'calling' do work which is a source of both personal and social meaning. They find their work enjoyable for its own sake and feel that it makes a valuable contribution to society or improving the world in some way. People with a calling feel strongly drawn to pursue their work and think of it as a core part of who they are - so their work is central to their identity. It's possible for people to have more than one calling at the same time, either over the course of their life or even concurrently. [4]

Importantly, callings are not restricted to high status or highly paid jobs but can be any role, at any level. The same occupation may be experienced as a calling by one person but not others. Unfortunately too many people tend to regard their work merely as a means to an end - to pay for necessities and support their families ('a job') or as a route to achievement or prestige ('a career') rather than a source of real fulfilment and meaning. [3]

Callings are generally associated with benefits such as increased job and life satisfaction and health, regardless of level of income, education or type of occupation. People with callings are less likely to suffer from stress and depression, or have conflict between work and non-work parts of their lives. [5] Being unable to pursue a known calling has been linked to frustration or regret, which can undermine psychological wellbeing and job performance. [4]

The search for a calling can be associated with indecision and confusion about our own identity. However as our work is such a big part of our lives, it is often worth some discomfort and soul-searching to find your true purpose.


[1] Stegar, M.F. (2009). Meaning in Life. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.)Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:OxfordUniversity Press.

[2] Pargament, K.I. & Mahoney, A. (2009). Spirituality: the search for the sacred. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.)Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:OxfordUniversity Press.

[3] Wrzesniewski, A. & Tosti, J. (2005). Career as a calling. In J. H. Greenhaus & G. A. Callanan (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Career Development. CA: Sage Publications.

[4] Berg, J. M., Grant, A. M., & Johnson, V. 2010. When callings are calling: Crafting work and leisure in pursuit of unanswered occupational callings.Organization Science, 21: 973-994.

[5] Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). Callings. In K. S. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), In Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. NY:OxfordUniversity Press

[6] Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (2007). Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. CA: Sage Publications

[7] Averill, J. R. (2009). Emotional creativity: Toward "spiritualizing the passions." In C. R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology. NY:OxfordUniversity Press

[8] Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. NY: Free Press

[9] Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.New York:OxfordUniversity Press/Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[10] Gallup(2010). Religious Americans Enjoy Higher Wellbeing. Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index.


Be part of something bigger

Meaning 200

Man's search for meaning

"We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering"

"Everything can be taken from a man but the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way"

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl
Author of "Man's Search for Meaning" about his experience in a concentration camp.