He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
Friedrich Nietzsche (19c German philosopher)
Perceiving one’s life and actions as meaningful is a universal need but, as we will discuss below, meaning cannot be generalised (what is meaningful for one person may not be for another). So this area will focus on what can give us the sense of meaning, the scope of meaning, and the closely related concept of commitment.
Two types of meaning
There are two types of meaning, which are often confused with each other, so let’s clarify the difference between them:
- The meaning of life: this is the big one that relates to the question of whether life in general has a purpose, whether or not there is an overall plan. If there is, it is not up to us to make it but to find it. This type of meaning is usually associated with a divine creator, so many religious people believe that there is a meaning of life while many atheists believe that there is not.
- Meaning in life is a meaning that each individual can create for themselves. While meaning of life may be debatable, there is no doubt that we can all have meaning in life. However, as we create that meaning ourselves, very different things can be meaningful for different people (while the former would be the same for everybody). We will focus here only on meaning in life (the meaning of life is discussed in The Synthesis book)(1).
Why a sense of meaning matters
A number of psychologists assert that we require meaning to survive.(2) The most frequent reason given for suicide is that the person has no purpose for which to continue living.(3) A sense of meaning can help us cope with difficulties (as the above quote sums up well); research shows that people who report a stronger sense of the purpose of their lives remain healthier in the face of stress.(4) Moreover, a feeling that one’s life has some meaning is also correlated with happiness.(5)