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What Makes Life Meaningful — and How to Find Meaningful Work

In the real world, “meaning” is not just some intellectual theory. It’s something you experience.

When you feel deeply connected to the world and to other people, you will automatically experience moments of meaning.

But if you start asking too many abstract questions — like “What’s the meaning of life?” — it might be a sign that you’ve become intellectually detached.

Joseph Campbell once said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

As someone who holds a PhD in philosophy, at times I’ve thought about things in overly abstract ways.

But I’ve also had hundreds of deeply meaningful experiences. And I’ve noticed one thing all meaningful experiences have common.

What I learned is that meaning is an experience of being bonded to the world and others at the very deepest level.

That’s why the experience of love, for example, always feels meaningful. When you are in love, you feel that you are part of a larger and deeper reality, which includes someone else who is of supreme importance to you — someone who inspires you to go beyond your limited self.

In love, you go beyond your limited self to experience a larger reality. Illustration from a medieval songbook showing two lovers (circa 1304).

In love, you go beyond your limited self to experience a larger reality. Illustration from a medieval songbook showing two lovers (Codex Manesse, 1304).

That’s also why I’ve also felt such a profound sense of meaning when doing astronomy.

To look through a telescope and see distant galaxies containing hundreds of billions of stars … to understand what you’re actually looking at … and then to realize that you are part of that much larger reality — is, to me, both awe-inspiring and meaningful.

Albert Einstein, who was not religious in the conventional sense, called this “the cosmic religious feeling,” and wrote that “the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”

It is deeply meaningful to sense that you belong to a reality that is much larger than yourself, but also a reality in which you play a part.

That is why religions have provided people with a sense of meaning for tens of thousands of years. Because they provide that exact sense: “You belong to a reality that is much larger than yourself, but also a reality in which you participate and play a part.”

Religion, astronomy, love, the beauty of nature and art — they can all provide us with sublime experiences of meaning.

But people experience meaning also

  • by being part of a family
  • by being part of a community or team
  • by going to sporting events or concerts concerts
  • by practicing an art
  • by running a business
  • by connecting with the ideas of great thinkers from earlier times
  • and in many, many other ways

These other ways are also ways of experiencing meaning by participating in a reality or a group that is larger than your limited self.

Unfortunately, like anything else, this experience can have a shadow side.

Groups and movements, cults like “the Islamic State,” and hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, can all misuse the innate human need for meaning — the desire to belong to a larger reality — by twisting it to violent or evil ends. Rather than building up the greater community of humanity, these groups divide people into warring factions.

The Search for Meaningful Work

Why is it that so many people find their work to be lacking in meaning?

Once again, it has to do with feeling connected to a larger reality …

(1) One reason has to do with hyperspecialization.

In the past, work was community-based, so you were at least able to connect with others and catch a glimpse of the real (or natural) world.

But the Industrial Revolution turned work into more specialized functions, especially with the rise of factories. Work became more mechanical, and workers became disposable, like cogs in a machine.

If your only job is clipping Photoshop paths in a digital sweatshop in China, chained in front of a computer all day long, I think it would feel pretty dismal. You might feel a sense of meaning and honor for paying your family’s bills and keeping them from starvation. Beyond that, it would not feel too satisfying, or allow you much chance to grow as a person.

”Work became more mechanical, and workers became disposable, like cogs in a machine.” Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

“Work became more mechanical, and workers became disposable, like cogs in a machine.” Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).

(2) A second reason is that people often work for companies or organizations they don’t really believe in. If that’s the case, you won’t feel genuinely connected with your work. It will then feel meaningless.

(3) Finally, people feel their work is meaningful when they can genuinely help others. Again, it’s part of the same pattern — feeling connected to a larger reality that goes beyond your limited self, and being able to make a contribution to the world or to someone else at the same time.

How to Live in the Best of All Possible Worlds

The key to having meaningful work is doing something that connects with others, doing something that you believe in, and doing something that creates value for others at the same time.

If you can genuinely create value for others and help them to solve their problems, there will also be a market for your work.

If that is the case, you will be living in the best of all worlds —

On the physical level, you will generate income and build financial wealth and security.

But on a higher level, your work will be meaningful. You will create value for others and make a real contribution to the larger world of which you are a part.

— D.R. Fideler

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