*This article was revised and updated 23 August 2023
Meaning & Happiness
Many people feel their value to society is limited, that it doesn’t really matter what they do because it isn’t worth very much.
Others feel as though they are invisible to others, that in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t matter if they were here or not.
Yet others feel a lack of relevance, that their value and self-worth have hit rock bottom, and their life is futile and pointless.
When society scrutinizes and judges you on material standards—money, power, social status, physical attractiveness—it can feel bad enough. But when we judge ourselves and compare our material worth to others, it can lead to feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence. Sometimes for a lifetime.
Positive psychologists have shown that our current life-situation and circumstance only accounts for 10% of our happiness and wellbeing. There’s scientific proof that money and fame can’t buy happiness (see The Happiness Formula).
In fact, the most powerful tool for happiness and wellbeing is meaning. Ascribing meaning to your life has a hugely positive effect throughout the entire course of your life.
For instance, meaning and purpose improves your self-belief and self-assuredness. This in turn builds your self-confidence.
You feel you can successfully meet challenges and overcome obstacles. You feel capable of achieving your goals. You feel a sense of competence and accomplishment. You feel successful.
Meaning and purpose also breeds optimism and hope. You believe that life will change for the better, that circumstances will not necessarily stay the same or get worse. You start seeing solutions to problems that you were previously blind to. You start seeking help to improve yourself and others.
Meaning and purpose also channels your focus and concentration. You get into the ‘flow’ quicker and easier, which is a powerful source of wellbeing.
Flow is the term coined by psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and is the state of intense absorption where you forget yourself and your surroundings, especially when you are doing something creative. He said:
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
It is meaning and purpose that extract the best moments in your life. This taps into a fundamental truth that successful people know very well and, unfortunately, many dismiss or ignore:
You determine the meaning of your life.
Not anyone else. Not your mother, your father, your partner, your boss, your best friend. Only you.
Because that’s the nature of free will—you have the power of self-determination.
Mark Twain once said,
The two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.
So what meaning do you ascribe to your life?
Why do you do what you do? Why were you born? Does your life have purpose?
Meaning is Being
When Michael Schumacher was being interviewed at the end of his Formula 1 career, he told the reporter, “I was born to race motorcars.”
He believed with every fibre in his body that racing was his life purpose. He didn’t question it, he just knew that racing was what he had to do. He was a born racer, and he did everything in his power to fulfil his purpose.
I remember that interview vividly. When he looked into the camera, it was as though he was speaking directly through the TV to me. I remember thinking I knew exactly how he felt because I had always known I was born to write books. I was a born writer, a messenger.
My advice, therefore, is to think very seriously about your life purpose. To think what it is you were born to be. Meaning and purpose is your lifeblood. Not only does it affect your happiness and wellbeing, it is imperative to your human identity.
As Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, said:
Man cannot stand a meaningless life.
Some psychologists go further and say that meaning is a distinctive human trait. Meaning is being, in other words, even at your cellular level.
Yet, although today we have greater means to live, we are at risk of losing what it means to live. There are a great many who say there is no meaning to life. You’re born, you spend some time here on earth, then you die. That’s it. Pointless. There is no ‘Why?’ because we all die. Everything is futile. Death defeats life, and nihilism defeats meaning, every single time.
I understand this concern, yet paradoxically, this nihilistic belief indirectly ascribes meaning by not ascribing meaning: the meaning of life is that it has no meaning. This is important because:
The meaning you ascribe to your life is akin to your personal brand of success.
First, you must define it yourself lest somebody else defines it for you.
Second, you must own it—you must take ownership of your meaning and you must be committed to it.
If you fail to do these two things, your meaning is not your own; it’ll be somebody else’s. Consequently, your life will lack integrity, it will lack worth, and it will also lack value.
On the flipside, a life brimming with meaning and purpose is a life brimming with value and worth.
To give meaning to your life, therefore, is to value who you are, what you do, and where you’re going.
And how much you value who you are adds meaning to who you are.
 Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Classic Work on how to Achieve Happiness, Random House, 2002