Tree and a sunset

The psychology of purpose in life

My mama always told me that miracles happen every day. Some people don’t think so, but they do.

—Forrest Gump

The human mind is one of the most fascinating things in the universe; it can understand its environment, it can solve the toughest problems, and it can create its own reality. However, there are a few age-old questions that the majority of people have grappled with at some point in their lives: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? These questions have been explored through a variety of avenues such as religion, music, art, and philosophy. But does meaning in life always have to be about the grand questions, or can it be something else? First, what is “meaning in life?”

Meaning in life can be difficult to define as it may be a highly personal experience. Researchers have defined meaning in life as a feeling that one’s life is significant, purposeful, and coherent; in other words, having a direction that makes sense and has a feeling of worth. From where one derives meaning is directly tied to values. Your values are beliefs of what is important, and they serve as guiding principles to your actions. Understanding how your individual values fit into your life and the world around you provides a sense of meaning. 

An individual may find meaning in various domains of life, including work, relationships, hobbies, and interests. Researchers actually consider meaning in life as a core component to living a successful and happy life. Having meaning in life has been associated with a wide range of benefits. For example, people who consider themselves to have higher levels of meaning in life are much happier in general. Living a meaningful life is associated with better health, greater achievement in life, and stronger personal relationships. Meaning in life is also associated with higher income. Overall, having meaning in life is a great thing! However, for those who are struggling to find meaning, we have some suggestions that could be helpful.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
—Viktor Frankl

Finding meaning is as subjective as can be, which can be a great thing! We can all derive meaning from very different places. For instance, some people may find a great deal of purpose by giving back to their community and volunteering for a greater cause. Others may find purpose by challenging themselves to do something they haven’t ever done, such as cooking new recipes or attempting a fitness goal. One of the best ways to find meaning is to spend quality time with your family, so invite them over for a delicious dinner! Even just writing down your thoughts in a journal and reflecting on your day can help you attain a strong sense of meaning. Whatever is important to you and aligns with your personal values can bring a deep sense of meaning. Remember, finding meaning does not have to be a complicated process, you can find it in the simplest of life’s joys.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson


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Wenceslao (Wen) Martinez is a master’s student in the Translational Research on Aging and Chronic Disease Laboratory in CSU’s Department of Health and Exercise Science — and he finds a lot of purpose in doing science.

Allie Alayan is a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology at CSU. She finds purpose in researching how people find purpose in their lives.