One of the more common concerns people struggle with from time to time is what their lives mean. I hear this quite often in therapy. When people struggle they often get down to the basic question of their own personal value and meaning. So how do you assess this?
Each person will have to answer this for him or herself. Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, described his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate in his very powerful book. Frankl found that even in extreme suffering people could find meaning based on what they said to themselves in their own minds.
Subsequent research in psychology has shown that optimism is highly correlated with prosocial behavior and good mental health. What that means is if you believe good things will happen you’re more likely to act in ways to bring good things about. And you’re more likely to notice good things when they happen.
So what is the meaning of your life? Frankl believed that we make meaning in every moment. We don’t assess it by looking at the totality of our lives; instead we have a meaningful life but choosing to find meaning and purpose in every moment. That’s clearly much easier to say than to do but it’s a good reminder to stop at least once a day and ask how you can bring meaning to what you’re doing. Often that’s just as simple as taking a moment to see how someone else is doing. Letting someone else know that you care creates ripple effects in the world.
In addition to being in private practice I also teach psychology to college students. One night after class it was raining pretty hard and I just wanted to get home. As I left the school I saw one of my students across the street at the bus stop. Although I just wanted to get home, I put myself in his shoes and thought what a long night he probably had in front of him to get home himself. So I turned around and went back and asked him if I could give him a lift. He was so surprised and then so appreciative. It perhaps took 10 extra minutes for me to go by his house on my way home but it saved him a tremendous amount of time. And years later I still feel good when I think back to that moment.
Meaning in life doesn’t typically come from grand gestures. Instead it happens when we take a moment to help someone else.