A new book argues that there are four pillars of meaning in life: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. What’s yours? Take the meaning quiz here.
There may be nothing more quintessentially human than the search for meaning. From the dawn of history, human beings have been creatures that seek meaning, make meaning, and yearn for meaning. We all want to know that our lives amount to more than the sum of our experiences — that they have worth and count.
The question is how — how can we craft lives that matter?
Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed dozens of people in my quest to understand what makes life meaningful. I spoke to a former drug dealer, a woman with terminal cancer, and a zookeeper who cares for giraffes and kangaroos at the Detroit Zoo. I interviewed psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists. And I turned to the great thinkers of the past, from Buddha to George Eliot to Aristotle.
Along the way, I met lots of different kinds of people. And when I asked them about what makes their lives meaningful, they each told me something unique. One person, for example, told me that what make her life meaningful was serving others, while another person told me that raising his children gave his life purpose. But despite the different answers, I found that there were some themes that came up again and again both in my interviews and in the research on meaning in life.
When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they tend to describe four things: having rich relationships and bonds to others; having something worthwhile to do with their time; crafting narratives that help them understand themselves and the world they live in; and having experiences of awe and wonder. These are what I call the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
Some people will lean on some pillars more than others to find meaning in life. To find out which pillar you lean on most to find meaning in life, you can this quiz I created.
Belonging: A sense of belonging is comes from having relationships and bonds defined by mutual care. When people are rejected or ignored by others, they rate their lives as less meaningful. But when people feel valued by others, they rate their lives as more meaningful — which makes sense. When other people treat you like you matter, you feel like you matter, too.
Purpose: Purpose sounds big, like curing cancer big — but purpose comes in all shapes in sizes. The definition of purpose is a top-level goal that somehow involves contributing to others. One person’s purpose might be to eradicate poverty, while another person’s purpose might be more local: to be a good parent or colleague.
Storytelling: Storytelling is the act of taking our experiences and weaving them into a larger narrative that defines who we are and where we come from. It is how we make sense of our experiences and the world around us. When we’re trying to get to know someone, we ask them what their story is — and when we want someone to know us, we share our story. Storytelling helps us understand others and ourselves.
Transcendence: Moments of awe, self-loss, and wonder are very powerful builders of meaning. These are experiences when we feel connected to something much bigger. This can happen during meditation and prayer — or when you’re taking a walk through the woods or looking up in awe at the starry night sky. People who have had transcendent experiences rate them as among the most powerful sources of meaning in their lives.
The pillar I rely on most to find meaning in life is belonging. I love bonding and connecting with others, whether my family or friends or someone I just met on the street. To find out what your pillar, check out this quiz I created on my website — and then try to think of ways you can build that pillar up in your life!
Originally published at medium.com