The Meaning of Life Experiment; The Age When You’ll Find Purpose
The calendar has turned the page and we find ourselves facing a brand new year and decade. So many of us take this annual ritual as a signal to assess our life’s purpose and meaning. The very question of the meaning of life has captivated human existence from the very beginning, from philosophy to religion, to science, and metaphysics. But now a scientific study has determined the average age at which people say they believe they’ve found some meaning,
In a 2009 psychological test called “The Meaning of Life Questionnaire,” over 8000 participants displayed two very different scores – the first being how hard the participants felt they were searching for a sense of meaning, or purpose, and the second score showing whether the participants believe they’d found it. The results? The harder participants looked for meaning, the lower their happiness and life satisfaction were rated.
There is no one meaning per se; the meaning of life is both a universal and individual quest and one that is ever-changing. As researchers have discovered, the meaning of life is not a single, specific goal we aim to reach, but a continual striving that we fine-tune and evaluate, transforming as we grow and age.
Searching For Meaning in Life: The Secret to Aging Wisely
Our society is hyper-focused on all the ways we can stay young, from spending hours to the gym, eating the latest health food craze, undergoing plastic surgery, or even reprogramming our DNA. But what if the secret to aging well isn’t about turning back the clock, but instead embracing the wisdom that comes with aging with meaning? A group of psychiatrists at the University of California, San Diego are working to pinpoint the age humans are most likely to find one’s purpose or meaning in life and the results may or may not be surprising.
A cohort of over 1000 people, aged 21 to 100, was interviewed and the results show that we begin to feel our life has meaning by the age of sixty. In fact, according to the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, “the search for meaning is often at its lowest, and the ‘presence’ of meaning is at its highest.” When asked what constitutes meaning or purpose, researchers at the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center suggested that you cultivate the following:
- Positive self-image
- Authentic relationships
- Long-term, meaningful goals
- Contributing to society
- Engagement in creativity
- Reading books
Okay, Boomer: How Millennials Can Learn From Their Elders
When we’re younger, our lives are often looked at as a wide-open book; the world and all its possibilities seem vast and endless. This state of flux, from friendships to jobs, to where we live and how we make our way in the world, is this generation’s norm. These are the years where society expects us to be finding ourselves.
But at a certain point, society expects us to “settle down” in the form of a defined career, a stable relationship, etc. Does this stability translate into the search for meaning being over? Or is this very human desire to understand and live our purpose develop, shift, and transform as we age?
Scientists have discovered while the quest for purpose is natural, not finding it by a certain age can have detrimental impacts on our health and well-being. In other words, searching for the meaning of life is a natural and positive aspect of our lifelong developmental growth and can result in a higher index of connection, meaning or purpose, and health.
Intentionally striving for life’s purpose can be viewed as an advanced human ability, one that is deeply rooted in our patterns of life. Oftentimes, we focus on the negative patterns that might be inhibiting our personal growth, and while recognizing this is important, it’s also critical to take stock of the ways our inherent desire for meaning develops.
What are some of the secrets to finding meaning in one’s life as we age into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond? Sometimes it’s as simple as establishing the rules for your own life or stepping outside of your comfort zone. This is why “60 is the new 40” is redefining aging because so many baby boomers are defying traditional ideas through second (or third) careers, healthy living, and living with the purpose that other generations can learn from.
While it might sound odd, incorporating the act of failing, especially as we age, can also heighten the sense of meaning in your life, as can consciously directing your energy to what brings you joy. These acts do many things, including developing and honing one’s sense of self-awareness and intuition, two key components of finding purpose in one’s life.
How Do You Find Meaning in Life: The Why of What We Do
One of the key life areas that receive the most energy in our search for meaning is in the work we do, or the career choices we make. From an early age we’re asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and the focus on career-centric choices from high school to universities is pervasive.
But what if these questions were also asked – why do you want to be that, or how do you want your work-life to look like? Perhaps if we began asking those questions of younger people as they embark on their pre-career studies, the search for meaning in their life might be more focused, and yes, meaning-full.
Leading experts in the area of work and meaning agree that understanding the “why” of work can help to infuse our nine-to-five existence with a deeper sense of purpose. After all, we spend an inordinate amount of time in our work-life; one that is centered on a shared sense of purpose, personal growth, and positive engagement make going to work all the more meaningful and lead to being part of what authors David and Wendy Ulrich define as an abundant organization.
But what if work doesn’t define your life’s meaning? After all, the average working person can change jobs every three to four years and therefore have a number of careers over their working life. If this is you, focusing on the “how” of work can help to define life’s meaning, and can allow for a sense of autonomy in which work serves to support one’s larger purpose or creative endeavors.
Finding Your Way Toward Meaning
Many are overwhelmed at the idea of finding meaning in their life; they feel it is beyond their budget, or time, or lifestyle. However, as the saying goes, the journey begins with one step. Try this simple mental exercise to help define what matters to you, adapted from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
All you need is a piece of paper, a pen or pencil, and time for yourself. Create a list of the different areas of your life, such as relationships, jobs, education, spirituality, health, family, and recreation. Using a scale from 1 (not important) to 5 (most important), evaluate each item on the list as to the level of importance it holds for you.
After you’ve defined two or three most important things on your list, take some time to write out your relationship to those items and how you would like to find more meaning in them. It’s important to take your time with this exercise – remember, Rome and the meaning of your life weren’t built in a day and the cultivation of patience is one of the most critical parts of discovering, refining, and living with purpose. If writing is not your process, try sitting in stillness while listening to any of the many free guided meditations available online.
Writing not your thing? Try Ashok Gupta’s “Meaning of Life” free meditations, ten and twenty minute guided apps and daily teaching videos that can help support one’s search for a purpose by relaxing the listener’s nervous system. Gupta is the creator of the Gupta Program for Health and Happiness, a neuroplasticity training program for those living with persistent health and well-being issues including fibromyalgia, anxiety, chronic fatigue and more. Gupta has expanded this program, which has assisted those suffering from these conditions achieve a better quality of life and applied it to the search for a more meaningful life itself.
Finding Purpose; The Truest Expression of Being Human
The study exposes a paradox in how we search for meaning and suggests that a more subtle approach could be the answer. Psychiatrists define this as the presence of meaning and the search for meaning. Chronically ill patients were studied over a period of time for how they successfully coped with their ongoing health conditions. The study showed that those who experienced what can be viewed as having a positive presence of meaning had a higher quality of life than those who were in a constant search for meaning.
Rather than making the search about finding meaning, experts have turned to Viktor Frankl as a model for how to live a life of meaning. Frankl, a World War II Holocaust survivor, wrote extensively on how he was able to emerge from the horrific experience that took the life of so many, including his wife and mother. He realized that focusing on finding meaning and purpose was the antidote to suffering and became his life’s mission — to help others discover their purpose, through finding beauty, and engaging in meaningful relationships and endeavors.
Frankl’s model, as well as many others, have provided important life lessons — that by consciously choosing to live with purpose and meaning we not only improve the quality of our lives, but of those around us. The Buddha is quoted as saying, “your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.” It seems to be a very worthy resolution as we enter into 2020.
6 Ways to Deal with Feeling Sad and Lost
Have you ever felt like you don’t know where to go, don’t know what to do, and don’t know how to deal with the inner feeling of too much to bear? It’s a feeling we can probably all relate to, something we’ve all experienced: the feeling of being sad and lost.
Guess what? You have been there, so what does that mean? Exactly! You overcame and “survived” it. This was just another low mood that came and left. It’s like walking underneath a scaffold–it’s a little shaky and scary to walk under, but you know there is an end to it, so you keep walking anyway. And it’s exactly the same when dealing with a low mood. You feel it, you deal with it, and it passes like any other happy or sad mood.
Oh I know, that sounds so simple but it surely isn’t like that. I’ve experienced quite a bit of rejection and even more “waiting periods” in different life situations lately. Also, particularly during the winter months when there is almost no sun and the weather is cold and gloomy, it’s very hard to catch yourself and have happy thoughts. The trick is to keep your head up in those times and to think about better days to come. Here are six strategies that help me whenever I am feeling sad or lost:
1. Acknowledge your sad thoughts and push them to the side.
This is a strategy I’ve been using for a few years now. Whenever I notice a pattern in my negative thoughts, I mentally sort them in the form of little playing cards in front of me, with my negative thoughts summed up in one word like “Rejection” or “Unworthiness,” etc. Then, I look at that card, acknowledge its existence, accept it, and put it to the side or in my imaginary “gift box.” That doesn’t mean that I avoid dealing with it, I am only saving myself from getting caught up with something that I cannot change at this moment, or from making a decision with my temporary emotion. Then, in moments of a better mood, I will take this card out and look at it again, this time from an optimistic standpoint. This usually makes me realize that this really wasn’t an actual problem I had, but rather the sad, fearful, pessimistic “everything is terrible” voice in my head speaking. Believe me, this has prevented me from making decisions too quickly that I might have regretted.
2. Allow yourself to be in a low mood.
It’s okay not to be okay. It’s part of the human condition. Sadness is part of our lives, just as much as happiness is. Interestingly, it almost seems like low moods are looked down upon, like they’re something to be ashamed of and not acceptable. As you might know, I am a big believer in positive thinking and the “Law of Attraction,” however, when I am sad, I am sad. What’s wrong with that? I have learned to be thankful for my low moods because–think about it–being in a low mood means discomfort. You’re obviously “not happy” with your current situation, perhaps because you’ve left or have even been thrown out of your comfort zone. And you know what? That’s awesome! Because that means you are growing, you are learning. Every pain you’ve ever experienced, has made you stronger or at least smarter in your future actions, right?
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” –Winston Churchill
3. Be patient and kind with yourself.
Know yourself. You most likely know when and where your low moods are coming from. Especially during the cold winter months, the weather can be a big factor, the missing sunlight, perhaps a hormonal imbalance, nutritional lack, insufficient sleep… you name it. The majority of the time your low mood is actually not “caused” by a circumstance or situation. It’s the way you cope and deal with it. When you’re in a happy mood or when you can think clearly, draft a contract with yourself for times of low moods. This will confirm your decisions and will give you strength to carry on in low moods or in times of doubt, as well as prevent you from committing, as Richard Carlson called it, “emotional suicide.” So, if you want to cry, then cry! Crying will help you let go of painful thoughts and also clear your mind. Remind yourself that it will all be okay. Like Jonathan Lockwood Huie put it: “The darkest night is often the bridge to the brightest tomorrow.”
4. Don’t overthink it.
When starting to overthink: give it a laugh! Try to think of something funny or watch a funny movie. Make a list with reasons that could make you sad, like the weather, a current waiting period, no vacation time, job pressure, a conflict with someone, big changes ahead, or whatever it is. Again, acknowledge them and accept them for what they are: sad thoughts. Then, remind yourself, that you are in control over your thoughts. And you’ve just busted them! Now, it’s actually easy to grab them and put them into their places. Remember that overthinking truly ruins the situation. It can even go so far as to make you stop believing in the good and start believing your doubts and negative thoughts, or even manipulate it to the outcome you feared the most. Remember, Mr. or Ms. Doubt are not your friends. So, when I catch myself overthinking, I smile and say: this is typical you. You’ve been here before. You’ve experienced this mood before, and it left as quickly as it came. It’s seriously like my mom’s glasses that she is almost always looking for and almost always finds on her head, pushed over her forehead when she didn’t use them. Same goes with our happiness. It’s always there, only sometimes we forget where to find it.
5. Be grateful and forgive.
I strongly believe that gratitude, optimism, and the ability to think less and feel more has helped me to deal with any kind of struggles, unkind people, and lonely moments. It has helped me to see not getting jobs, facing challenges, or lost relationships as blessings and teachers that have actually led me to exactly where I am today. The puzzle pieces can only be put together in hindsight and that’s what makes life so incredibly exciting. Imagine all the great things that will unfold when you’ve been through another storm. You might come out of it with a scar, but this is only another thing that makes you unique. It adds a little “trophy” of another challenge you overcame or battle you’ve won or survived in your story. It’s really so powerful when you’ve reached the point where you truly understand and live the power of your thoughts. As Bob Green once said: “The body achieves what the mind believes.” I cannot tell you how often I told myself this in moments when I felt lost. Remind yourself that you are the creator of your own reality.
6. Take action.
I’ve learned that, whenever you feel lost or stuck, the only way to get out of this is action. Or as Cheryl Strayed put it: “The only way out of a hole is to climb out.”
So get active! Start working on your goal or on something that can change the situation you are in. If you’re trying to find a job and you feel like you’re stuck because you’re waiting for responses, then shoot some more stars into the sky by applying to more jobs, volunteer, get creative, start painting, dancing, writing, singing, or whatever it is that helps you get your emotions out and organize your thoughts. My lowest points have always brought positive changes in my life so far. Without them, I would have never started my Yogilation page and never had the courage to write and share it with others. I would’ve never pushed further by asking questions and simply starting to share my experience. Same goes for rejection. Every job rejection had brought me to my last job, made me move to a city close to home, and guided me to some people who mean a lot to me today. So, find a purpose in your low mood, not a cause. Make the best of it and use it as your chance to get inspired and to inspire other people. You will not only feel inspired, you will also feel motivated and needed. That’s something money cannot buy!