The Meaning of Life (in Under 300 Words)

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Perhaps you think I’ve set myself an impossible challenge here?

Not so. The meaning of life is pretty straightforward to state. Your life has whatever meaning you give to it. So the question becomes: what do people say gives their lives meaning? That’s easy enough to measure and psychologists have done exactly that.

Baumeister and Vohs (2002) have synthesised four factors. When people are asked, the more they report each of these four factors being fulfilled, the more meaningful their lives feel:

  1. Purpose – this could be living happily ever after, going to heaven or even (whisper it) found at work. Whatever it is, meaning in life comes from reaching goals and feeling fulfilled. Even though fulfilment is hard to achieve because the state fades, people need purpose.
  2. Values – people need a moral structure to work out what is right and what is wrong. There are plenty to choose from: some come from religion, others from philosophy and still others from your friends and family.
  3. Efficacy - people want to make a difference and have some control over their environment. Without that, the meaning of life is reduced.
  4. Self-worth – we all want to feel we’re good and worthwhile people. We can do this individually or by hitching ourselves to a worthy cause. Either way we need to be able to view ourselves in a positive light.

So, there you have it: the meaning of life in under 300 words.

Two words of warning. Firstly, it can be difficult to get all these things in the same place, although not impossible. We use family, work, hobbies and other things to fulfil our need for meaning. Secondly, a meaningful life is probably necessary to be happy, but it isn’t sufficient.

What meaning do you give to your life?

Image credit: Noel Shiveley

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 25 August 2011

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Images: Creative Commons License