How to find meaning in life: Psychology identifies 4 key pillars

Self-reflection is important but to what extent does it become too much? It seems the most persistent question we ask ourselves is: Am I happy?

This question haunts us every day as we go about our lives. It seems to be a question that is fundamental to what it means to be human.

However, psychology says this question prevents us from finding meaning in life.

In a study conducted by the Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, only ⅓ of Americans report feelings of happiness. The others? Well, not so.

In an age when we are encouraged to consistently evaluate our position in the world, and therefore, how we feel about being in it, the search for happiness not only becomes tedious but discouraging.

Self-reflection becomes a forced part of our culture, telling us to reevaluate our otherwise perfect jobs, relationships, homes, and lives. And the results aren’t very flattering.

If you want to find meaning in life, you need to stop searching for happiness.

In this article, we’ve put together the 4 basic pillars to finding meaning in life. These come from stopping your search for happiness and focusing on these 4 basic pillars instead.

The problem with searching for happiness

Actively looking out for happiness only leads to feelings of unhappiness, according to a study from 2011.

The study was titled “Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness”. The researchers carried out two studies:

  • In Study 1, female participants who valued happiness more reported lower happiness levels when under conditions of low life stress.
  • In Study 2, female participants from a different group who also valued happiness reacted less positively to a happy emotional situation. Their happiness levels were impacted by their expectations of feeling happy.

The researchers concluded as follows:

“Happiness is a key ingredient of well-being. It is thus reasonable to expect that valuing happiness will have beneficial outcomes. We argue that this may not always be the case. Instead, valuing happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.”

Here’s the key point:

Pursuing happiness results in feelings of disappointment when experiences fail to meet expectations.

Therefore, even as your life changes for the better, pursuing happiness contributes to feelings of hopeless and loneliness.

What’s the solution?

The solution, as one psychologist puts it, is not to pursue happiness but meaning in life.

People who do so end up being more positive in life, acquiring better attitudes for everything they do—from pleasure to working.

While searching for meaning may be as big of a task as pining for happiness, researchers say that there are significant differences between the two.

Before we share the 4 basic pillars to finding meaning in life, according to psychology, watch the video below by Ideapod CEO Justin Brown. He shares a counter-intuitive approach to being happy, which involves letting go of your pursuit of happiness.

As Brown says above, you need to let go of the pursuit of happiness and find meaning in life.

Establishing meaning in life comes down to four basic steps:

Pillar 1) to finding meaning in life: Control your perception of life

The problem with looking for happiness is that quite often we don’t find it.

We sit down and reflect. This process of reflecting creates expectations of happiness. Then we realize we’re not as happy as we’d like to be, and we retreat, defeated.

Striving for meaning from life creates a different experience. Striving for meaning causes you to look beyond the current situation of your life and connect with the bigger picture.

Feeling this connection with the bigger picture of your life makes it easier to ride the ups and downs of life. You become less riled up by the bumps in between moments of happiness. Feeling a little low at times (which is completely natural) no longer creates the same feeling of despair as it may have in the past.

Finding a way to seek meaning without focusing on whether or not you are happy in the moment allows you to find a solution that isn’t bound to time.

Instead, you look beyond what you feel, knowing fully well that what you feel now doesn’t define your entire existence.

Pillar 2) to finding meaning in your life: Find things bigger than yourself

Look for things that are bigger than what you are and what you know. In two words: seek transcendence.

This seems complex, but it doesn’t need to be. You don’t need to be overly spiritual or religious in order to find transcendence.

Transcendence involves allowing your sense of self to disappear, or in order words, blend into a different part of your reality.

It’s experienced differently by different people, but it’s often described as elation or a profound feeling of belong to something bigger than yourself.

To you, transcendence could be awe and speechlessness. To someone else, transcendence could be reflection and self-awareness.

You can evoke transcendence by placing yourself in situations that would juxtapose you and the world, allowing you to clearly experience a bigger reality other than your own.

Check out the video below by the Emmy nominated television show host Jason Silva where he explains why humans love to experience transcendence.

Pillar 3) to finding meaning in life: Surround yourself with love

The shaman Rudá Iandé once told me that the greatest experiences of love come from our actions, rather than our feelings. When you act with love towards people, the feelings will naturally result over time.

Love is similar to happiness. Pursuing love is often counter-productive to the experience itself.

You can use these insights to find meaning in life by actively cultivating good relationships in your life. You can surround yourself with people who are on a similar pursuit of meaning.

You see, we often feel as though we are alone, that our existence in the universe has no impact on the greater good.

While we might not be able to test our presence against the greater odds, there are ways to assure our sense of self through belonging. With family, for example. Or with friends.

In short:

With loved ones.

By surrounding yourself with people that genuinely love you, you are able to realize that your existence resounds with the people around you.

Of course, this is different from being popular because of the things you have or the things you believe in.

Deep connections go beyond actions and sometimes even thought. By establishing this kind of kinship with someone, we are able to relate with people outside ourselves and find meaning beyond what we do.

If you’re looking to create deeper connections with people, then check out the famous 36 questions a psychologist says will make you fall in love with anyone. These questions don’t just need to be used in romantic relationships. You can use them with family, friends, colleagues… Basically anyone.

Here are my favorite 5 questions suggested by the psychologist, but make sure you check out all of them:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  • What does friendship mean to you?
  • If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  • What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  • Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

Pillar 4) to finding meaning in your life: Creating a purpose

Justin Brown has written a fantastic article about how to find your purpose in life. Discovering your purpose helps you to articulate your meaning in life.

Brown explains that the conventional approach to finding a purpose gets it all wrong. It assumes that a purpose is something in the future to strive towards.

In fact, your purpose already exists and comes from your values and how you connect with people around you.

He put together 8 counter-intuitive questions that will help you to find your purpose in life.

Here are the questions, but make sure you check out the full article as it provides much more explanation:

  1. What were you passionate about as a child?
  2. If you didn’t have a job, how would you choose to fill your hours?
  3. What makes you forget about the world around you?
  4. What issues do you hold close to your heart?
  5. Who do you spend time with and what do you talk about?
  6. What is on your bucket list?
  7. If you had a dream, could you make it happen?
  8. What are the feelings you desire right now?

These questions take the focus on purpose and meaning from something that exists in the future, to what you are already dreaming about right now.

You see, most people feel like they are waiting to find their purpose in life. Yet this takes away your human agency. You have the power to figure it out right now.

You won’t likely find your purpose from your paycheck or the 9-5 grind. It’s defined by your joyful ability to give to others and create value in their lives.

You may find your purpose in your job because through your work you are able to contribute to societyOn the other hand, finding other channels through which we can affirm our sense of selves passionately will help us find direction in life.

The goal is to find meaning in things that aren’t tied to finite things. Jobs can end. Relationships can disappear. Money can fade away. What’s left when all else collapses is your sense of purpose, and no one can take that away from you.

I hope these 4 basic pillars to finding meaning in life has helped you to let go of your pursuit of happiness and search for meaning instead.

If you need further help in discovering your purpose, check out the video below where Justin Brown gets into a profound discussion with the shaman Rudá Iandé about how to find your purpose.


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Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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