Every morning you get out of bed, drink your coffee, tend to your tasks, go to work, interact with your family and friends, then come home and do it all over again. Day after day.
There is some variation. You’ll have days that are exciting and passionate. Others are boring and monotonous. Sometimes you feel happy, peaceful, and self-confident. Other times you experience despair, loneliness, and anxiety.
In your relationships, there are times you feel close and connected, and other times you find these same people irritating, difficult and hard to love.
When you view the world around you, you might see evidence of compassion and beauty. Or you might encounter hatred, violence, and suffering.
What does all of this mean?
What, more specifically, does it mean for you?
In a life of contradictions, randomness, and complexity, how do you find meaning?
Humans are wired to seek meaning in life. We long to understand our experiences, gain some clarity about our own identity and have some sense of purpose. We want to know our lives and experiences make sense and matter in the larger scheme of things.
If you envision one individual life relative to the enormity of the universe (or multiverse if indeed there are infinite possible universes), then human existence does appear wildly insignificant. There are 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. And there are more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe.
Our little lives seem very fragile indeed when viewed through the lens of a telescope. And this is all the more reason we are compelled to seek meaning.
For most people, simply living and experiencing the good, bad, and ugly of life isn’t enough. We want to understand our place in it and have some certainty that our particular lives make a difference. And we recognize on some level that meaning equals happiness.
According to Michael Steger, associate professor in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programmes at Colorado State University, and a researcher on meaning in life, “People who feel this way, who have a sense of meaning in life, also report feeling more happy, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed and anxious and more satisfied with their jobs.”
Having a sense of meaning in life helps us cope with the existential crisis of awareness that our lives are short and our place in universe is small. It helps us enjoy and appreciate the here and now and invites us to create a dynamic future of passion and purpose each and every day.
What’s the secret to finding meaning for each individual?
Steger suggests that the most compelling way to find meaning is through having career passion. “Few other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes as creating meaning in work—both in terms of individual flourishing, citizenship, commitment and engagement and in terms of long-term, sustainable innovation, culture maintenance and performance in organizations,” says Steger.
When you find a purpose and passion in life, and express that passion through your work, you will enjoy a greater sense of well-being, happiness and general contentment in life. This has been supported through Steger’s research at the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life.
Steger suggests there are three core components of meaningful work:
The degree to which people find their work to have significance and purpose; the contribution work makes to finding broader meaning in life; and the desire and means for one’s work to make a positive contribution to the greater good.
Viewing one’s work as meaningful or purposeful and serving a higher purpose are key defining characteristics of work that is a calling or a passion.
Of course another element of meaningful work involves doing work you enjoy, work that utilizes your strengths and aptitudes, work you feel passionate about.
Gregg Levoy says in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “Passion is what we are most deeply curious about, most hungry for, will most hate to lose in life. It is the most desperate wish we need to yell down the well of our lives. It is whatever we pursue merely for its own sake, what we study when there are no tests to take, what we create though no one may ever see it.”
When you explore this kind of passion in the context of your work, you have found the secret to meaning in life. Of course the tricky part of this secret is finding your passion and making a career of it.
If you already know your life passion, then your mission is to seek out business ideas or career opportunities that involve your passion. If you can’t find work with your passion, then pursue it as an avocation, side interest, or act of service. You can still experience meaning through your passion, and eventually your passion will lead to meaningful work if you keep searching.
The more difficult endeavor is finding your passion if you don’t already know it. We become stuck in the daily routines of our lives and work.
We’re out-of-touch with our dreams and deeper longings.
We have fears and doubts about our ability to succeed or make a living doing what we love.
We get mired down in inertia and deflated with our lack of purpose.
However, knowing that research proves meaningful work is vital to a happy life and a daily sense of well-being, then the pursuit of passion should be a top priority. If you want to find meaning and be happy, then pursue your passion “like it’s the last bus of the night.”
Can you experience meaningful work without finding your passion? I’m convinced that passion leads to meaningful work in most cases. If your work feels meaningful already, then you have found your passion right where you are.
What you call it doesn’t matter so much. If you have a sense of joy, purpose, well-being, and engagement in your work, then you have the makings of a meaningful life. And until you find passion and meaning in your work, fill up the rest of your life with passion. A little is better than none.
If you are seeking meaning, begin by seeking your passion. Find work that has significance and purpose. Discover a way to make a contribution through your work and your passion. This will be your legacy.
(Barrie Davenport is a blog coach)