Columns like this one often talk about success but rarely about meaning. Why is that?

Perhaps because in the popular imagination meaning is mysterious and hard. We picture wise sages cloistered in remote caves meditating on the deepest questions of the universe, or larger than life crusaders changing the world with heroic acts of will. Meaning feels big and scary. No wonder 500 words or so seems too little to wade into the question of meaning.

It's also no wonder that so many of us worry that perhaps our smaller scale lives don't measure up when it comes to meaning.

And we're right that meaning really is important. People who say their life is meaningful are more likable, happier at work, and healthier, and less likely to suffer psychological problems, according to science. But happily, we're really wrong about how hard it is to achieve meaning.

Surprising new research by University of Missouri psychologist Laura King shows that, far from needing to trek to visit some bearded wise man or renounce normal day-to-day concerns to find purpose, you probably just need to recognize the fact that your life is already way more meaningful than you give yourself credit for.

How to find meaning? Stop searching and start enjoying.

At a recent psychological conference King delivered a myth-busting talk about the science of meaning. In it she explains that far from needing to go to extremes to live a more meaningful life, you just need to pause and recognize the many moments that already give you a sense of direction and accomplishment.

Studies, for instance, show that simply having more social connection -- going out with friends, volunteering, chatting with neighbors -- causes people to feel their lives are much more meaningful. One experiment showed that just looking at images of trees changing through the seasons boosts people's sense of meaning. Humans, it seems, find comfort and purpose in everyday patterns like the cycles of nature or our daily routines and rituals.

Nor do you need to think incredibly deeply to experience meaning. "There's no literature showing that thinking super hard about meaning in life leads to more meaning," King reports. "Searching for meaning is negatively related to the experience of meaning." English translation: the harder your work at meaning, the less likely you are to find it.

In fact, achieving meaning seems to be a bit like escaping a Chinese finger trap -- the more you struggle, the less likely you are to achieve your goal.

"People don't need to know how to make their lives meaningful. They need to know that they already are," King concludes.

So if you frequently fret about the meaning of your life, try to put her findings into practice. Rather than worry about finding a grand purpose, instead spend a couple of days looking for the moments of meaningfulness than already exist all around you. Simply noticing them is all you may need for a much greater sense of meaning, science suggests.

Published on: Aug 9, 2017
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