The Meaning of Life

Note: This is a guest post by Michael Miles of Effortless Abundance.

Henry David Thoreau said that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ and Miguel Torga, the great Portuguese writer, said that “life has the meaning we give it — our richness, our enthusiasm, our pride — or our cowardice.’

The search for meaning is a constant theme in our lives and we try to find it in many different ways. I believe that meaning can be found in the way we add to the world. Let me explain.

Step One: Take control

Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of the holocaust Victor Frankl tells us in Man’s Search for Meaning that between stimulus and response there is a gap, and in that gap lies the whole of our experience. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, we are free to choose our responses to the things that come our way. Many – perhaps most – people go through life on autopilot, reacting in the same habituated ways they have learned over the course of their life, often rehearsing the scripts they developed as children.

In adult life, many of these scripts are maladaptive and only serve to impoverish our experience and damage us and those we love. When we react defensively to a criticism, when we start to get angry because we are stuck in a traffic jam, when we keep on smoking despite knowing how bad it is, we are ignoring the gap and abdicating our freedom.

But the truth is that we are free – we are not robots, we are not like dogs salivating when a bell rings. We are pulling our own strings and when the stimulus comes we can take control, change our response and hence change our life.

Of course, the power of our habits is strong and keeps pulling us back, but the gap is always there, even after a long lifetime of unconscious behavior, and over time we can expand the gap and become more free. In The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey calls this being proactive, the first step towards a life of meaning. In truth, we have always been in control, but we need to realize this before can move on.

Step Two: Adding Value

Once we have seen that we can change our own life and construct our own experience, we are able to orchestrate things so that we experience greater meaning.

But what gives meaning to our lives? Is it money, property, a successful career, a big car, an attractive spouse or partner? I’m sure most people would agree that these things in themselves do not add lasting and profound meaning to us.

Albert Einstein said that “only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,’ and I believe that a life of service to others is what truly brings meaning. I prefer to use the term adding value, since this describes what I mean more accurately.

The term “service’ suggests that we have to give up our jobs and money to go help the poor and destitute. I know several people who have done just this, and they have certainly found happiness and peace in their choice of lifestyle. But a life of adding value does not mean abandoning your own needs and desires. It is not the same as sacrifice. Far from it – when we truly add value to the lives of others, we cannot help but receive value ourselves.

Examples of this kind of synergy abound in nature. For example, tree roots are often surrounded by fungal growths that take nutrients from the trees. Having no chloroplasts of their own, the fungi cannot synthesize the precursors of respiration, and so they piggyback on the trees’ ability to do this. In return, the tree gets to use the fungi’s vast subterranean network, extending its own reach and sucking in more nutrients from the soil. The soil, of course, gets this all back – and more – when the tree dies.

Our own body is, perhaps, the ultimate example of synergy in nature, all organs and system working together to create a wonderful entity where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Adding value is the only real way to live a meaningful life. Victor Frankl said that we must detect the meaning in our own lives, and I think what he meant by this was that we need to figure out the best way of adding value.

Step Three: Do What You Love

So the question remains, how can we add value? I believe the answer to this is surprisingly simple.

To quote Steve Jobs in a speech he gave in 2005, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.

Through Apple, Steve Jobs has undoubtedly added immense value to the world. He did it by following his heart and has been richly rewarded for it. The same can be said for many famous, successful and wealthy people.

The formula is simple. Find what you love. Do it. Add value. Be a success. Perhaps the first step is the hardest. Do you know what you love? There is little more important in life than finding out.

Finally, some food for thought. In Making a Life, Making a Living, Mark Albion cites a study carried out by Srully Blotnick. The careers of 1,500 business school graduates were tracked from 1969 to 1980 and were split into two groups: group A said they wanted to make money first so they could do what they really wanted later, and group B said they would follow their interests first, regardless of financial considerations. At the end of the study, there were 101 millionaires. All but one came from group B.

Michael Miles writes at Subscribe to his rss feed here.

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About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Love that last bit of food for thought! Guess I must finally be on the right path for becoming a millionaire. ; )

    I’ve always been interested in the meaning of life, and I think you’re absolutely right that the answer is the cross-section between what you love and what helps others. When I tried to help others at my own expense, that was ultimately no good. And, of course, just trying to do things for myself is empty and ultimately unsatisfying. I wrote about my experiences in a post I coincidentally titled “The Meaning of Life” at

  • really interesting post, real thought starter.

    keep it up

  • I also listened to Viktor Frankl. Let me add the 3 ideas he had of how you can find the meaning in your life adding value (I hope I remember that correctly as it is a good while ago I listened to his talk):
    1. Creating something (like painting pictures, building houses and so on).
    2. Doing service for others (like serving dishes, healing others and so on).
    3. Give an example how to master a stroke in life (Frankl gave the example of a person that after an incident could move only the head. She watched newspapers and wrote letters with the mouth and a wooden stick to solace people affected by incidents or crime – but also Frankl himself is a good example as he lost his complete family).

  • Techie24Chick

    This was a very motivating blog post. I always enjoy coming to this site for a special pick me up. Thank you for sharing so many inspirational blogs. I will be back soon.

  • jingo

    how do you find what u love in life?are there any specific steps to take?where do you look?

  • eyowwm

    Seeking the meaning of life can only bring dispair. It is wise to resolve oneself that the true meaning of life is a concept that we as mortal beings do not have the capacity to understand. To know it would be the end of all life. understand that life is perfect, that pain and death is perfect. One only needs to look at the sky, and then contemplate infinity to know it is perfect. We do this again and again. To experience the thrill of living, we must also die. dont worry. be happy. There is more.

  • According to a statistics, there are 430 million English speaking internet users. Are they enough to answer the biggest question? What would happen if all of them visited this website and wrote a sentence? Would we find the ultimate answer? I don’t think so, but who knows…

    Our only goal is to collect as many of these sentences as possible.

    What about you? Have you ever thought about the reason of life? Do you have a minute to do that now?

    We just need a sentence! It can be funny or serious, happy or sad, philosophical or casual. It can be your own thought or a quote from your favourite writer or just from the grocer around the corner.

    It has to meet just one requirement! It should be one of the endless possible answers to the question: