A Call to Meaning: How Gratitude Guides Your Life

Posted on Nov 11, 2022

what gives life meaning

A Call to Meaning

It’s November. So here in the USA, before we’re called to the Thanksgiving table, we’re called think about what we’re grateful for. We are called to acknowledge the meaning in our lives.

Gratitude is  an expression of love, an appreciation of what you value, a confession of your connection to what you have. In my experience, what I’m most grateful for is evidence of what matters to me. So this year, before we sit down to that well-laden table, let's stop awhile to reflect and give thanks.

What is the meaning of life?

When we talk about meaning, this one meme-like phrase arises. Once you look past the trite quality of this question, you can see two distinct interpretations:

  1. What does life mean? 
  2. What meaning can you find in your life? 

The first interpretation is passive: analyzing, philosophizing, looking for an objective, “true” answer, which often comes from outside yourself. The second interpretation is active: what do I have or do that makes my life mean something ... to me? ...to others?

If you ask the average person, you’ll hear things like:

  • “Realizing my potential.”
  • “I’m here to seek wisdom and acquire knowledge.”
  • “Do the right thing for good in the world.”
  • “To feel, to love, to enjoy being alive.”
  • “To gain power in the world.”
  • “Evolving toward biological perfection.”
  • “What my religion tells me it means.”
  • “Life has no meaning.”
  • “It’s better not to ask.”

But what does the research say?

What makes life meaningful?

In November 2021, the PEW Research Center reported on a study they did asking a different question: “What makes life meaningful?” 

Before you read the results of their study, take a moment to reflect and answer that question yourself:

“What makes your life meaningful?”

The PEW Research Center researchers asked 19,000 adults in 17 advanced economies this one question and then analyzed the answers. Here’s a snapshot of what they found.

  • In 14 of 17 countries, Family ranked number one. People described relationships with parents, siblings, children and grandchildren, frequently mentioning quality time spent with them, the pride they get from their accomplishments and even the desire to live a life that leaves an improved world for their descendants. 
  • In most countries, Work/career ranked in the top three as well. But the percentage varies greatly – from 43% in Italy to just 6% in South Korea, and I was surprised that in the USA only 1/3 of respondents ranked it that high.
  • In 9 of the 17 countries, Finances also ranked in the top three. Most people defined that in terms of having their basic needs met with answers like: “food on the table” and “a roof over my head” to “a decent income to support my family” and “no debt” to “enough money” to enjoy travel and hobbies.
  • In 1/3 of the countries, Health is in the top three. Again there’s a big range. While it was #1 in Spain, only 6% of Taiwanese prioritized it.
  • Spirituality/faith/religion didn’t even make the top 10 anywhere else in the world; only 5% even mentioned it. But in the USA, 13% of mainstream Protestants mentioned it compared to 34% of Evangelical Christians.
  • Countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, France, New Zealand and Sweden ranked time in Nature as an important element of meaning. 

There is an age difference too. Younger people emphasize their friends, education and hobbies. Older people were more likely to talk about meaning in terms of retirement and health, as well as challenges and negative things.

The Building Blocks of Meaning

Then there was an article by the author Arthur C Brooks in The Atlantic. It piqued my interest because I’ve just read his latest book Strength to Strength, which I highly recommend. In The Meaning of Life is Surprisingly Simple he describes…

Three Dimensions of Meaning:

  • Coherence: an understanding that things happen for a reason. We’re usually able to see this in hindsight if not in the moment, so long term you begin to trust the process.
  • Purpose: the belief that you are alive in order to do something, a kind of personal mission statement.
  • Significance: the sense that your life matters. If you have high levels of significance, you’re confident that the world would be poorer if you didn’t exist.

Another question for you:

How would you rate yourself in each of these dimensions?

Three Steps to Meaning

In this article, Brooks also names three steps to find the source of your trouble if you feel your life is lacking meaning:

  1. Check your diet. If coherence, purpose and significance were the nutrients of your nonphysical life, ask yourself these questions:  
  • Do you feel out of control—tossed about in life without rhyme or reason? If so, focus on coherence.
  • Do you lack exciting plans, dreams, or ideas for your future? If so, focus on purpose.
  • Do you feel like it wouldn’t matter if you disappeared, like the world would be no worse—or maybe better—if you did? Then focus on significance.
  1. Search in the forestHinduism’s third ashrama (one of the four stages of a balanced life) is Vanaprastha(translated “retiring to the forest”). This is to step back you’re your day-to-day demands to focus more on life’s deeper meaning through reflection, meditation, and study. While Vanaprastha naturally begins around age 50, you can forest bathe at any stage of life by spending time each day to meditation, prayer, study, therapy, anything that calls you deeper.
  1. Don’t search too hard. Your quest for meaning will be counterproductive if it hinders your happiness. It’s finding the right blend of being present with what you have with a sustainable search for new sources of meaning. for If you feel lost in your search for meaning, cut yourself some slack and go back to basics.

Reflecting on Meaning

Maybe with very little fanfare, you can take five in the forest right now. Set a time and jot down your answers to Brooks’ nutrient analysis, plus these five questions to probe a little deeper:

  1.  What is the light you’re here to shine?
  2. What gives the greatest meaning to your life?
  3. How do giving and receiving both create meaning?
  4. What do you want to be remembered for?
  5. What would add more value to your life today?
“Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something molded.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Exploring Your Path to Meaning

On November 16th, I will offer The Visionista’s Gateway, my quarterly virtual training for Autumn. In this free 90-minute training, we'll focus on your vision, the barriers that keep you from it, the process you go through to bring it into reality, and what's at stake if you stay stuck. 

This will be the last time this year. If you (or someone in your life) is lacking a sense of purpose or significance, come join us to explore even deeper the calling that is asking you to listen and act.

Click here to read the reviews, learn more and register.

A Closing Thought

The research I did for this post validated my personal premise that we create Meaning in our lives through our actions, our responses to our circumstances, and how we hold our presence in the world.

My mission is to remind each one of you - young and old - that you matter. Your presence - even in the simple form of a smile - can keep someone on the planet just long enough to get the help they need. And that is only the beginning.

You may still not have discovered that one thing the doing of which will give meaning to your life.

This holiday season, let's let gratitude be our guide. 

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