What Matters Beyond the Physical Details of Your Life
The Meaning of Life
What life in general, and your life in particular, are about
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Depending upon your religious and philosophical principles, you may or may not believe that life in general has meaning, or that your own life has some particular meaning.
But whether you believe that life gets its meaning from God or some other source, or whether you believe that your life is meaningful only subjectively – i.e., because you assign meaning to it – it remains your choice what to do with that belief. Will you embrace some vision of the meaning of your life, and will you commit yourself to fulfilling that vision – or will you fight it, deny it, ignore it, let it die out?
One way to look at it: the second half of our life is when we cash in on the investments we made in the first half of our life. In our early years, we gained knowledge, skills, experience, and at least some wisdom – and we paid a price for all of that. In the second half of life, especially when external demands may be starting to decrease, we have the opportunity to turn to good account what we paid for in our younger years. We can decide what we really believe our lives are or should be about, and we can commit ourselves to pursuing the remainder of our lives with that vision in front of us.
And if you need a little extra incentive, at least one study indicates that people who report having a real purpose in life appear less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or its precursor, mild cognitive impairment!
The Meaning of Life relates to other areas of Spirit:
- Beliefs and principles, because your understanding of the meaning of life in general, and of your particular life, is likely to be able to truly sustain you through thick and thin only if it is grounded in firm beliefs.
- Dealing with aging, because aging tests our sense of the meaning of our lives, while a strong sense of meaning and purpose helps us cope with aging.
- Dealing with death, because our sense of life’s meaning and value can strongly influence how we prepare for and experience death.
- Spiritual practices, because our sense of what life is about will guide the content of our contemplation, meditation, prayers, and rituals.
The Meaning of Life relates to other areas besides Spirit:
- Purpose, because the purposeful activities we pursue (work, volunteering, civic engagement) should be a public expression of what we believe our lives are about.
- Love, because for most of us, intimate and other personal relationships are a key source of meaning in our lives, and because a sense of meaning and purpose that is shared with others deepens our relationships with them.
- Avocation, because what we feel our lives are about should influence how we spend our time.
- Security, because our sense of meaning (or lack of meaning) in life will influence our priorities about what we want and what we do – most of which has financial consequences. And because insecurity will make it hard for us to focus on higher purposes.
- Health, because bad health can limit our options concerning what life can be used for, while a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life can help motivate us to take care of our health.
The Meaning of Life Sub-Topics and Resources
If you belong firmly to a particular religious or philosophical tradition, you can easily find materials that discuss the meaning of life within that context. Such references are not provided here. Instead, we offer more generic resources that can be of potential help to just about anyone.
- Free resources:
- Wikipedia's article on the “Meaning of Life” provides a helpful survey of ideas through the ages, including religious, philosophical, and scientific viewpoints. (rating = A).
- “MeaningS of Life” offers quotations, essays, poetry and links to other sources related to the meaning of life. A great site to cruise if you are scouting for ideas about what life is or can be about. (rating = A).
- “Soon You Will Understand,” by William Blank, offers 45 brief reflections on the things that happen in life which, the author suggests, actually constitute the meaning of life. The approach is simple, but you might find that it really speaks to you. (rating = A-).
- “Meaning of Life: What's It All About?” offers a series of videos from the October 2012 Chicago Ideas Week symposium on this topic, including presentations by Deepak Chopra & Rudy Tanzi, Lisa Niemi Swayze, Mitch Albom, Jeff Lieberman, and Natalie Haynes, coming at the question from all different angles (rating = A).
- Other resources:
- The Meaning of Life: A Reader, edited by E.D. Klemke and Stephen M. Cahn, presents 22 essays by various authors, some taking a religious point of view, some taking an opposite point of view, and others questioning what we even mean when we raise this issue. (rating = A).
- What's It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, by Julian Baggini, surveys traditional answers to this question, showing where each of them fails as a truly final answer. But he then uses the best elements of them to construct an answer that will perhaps make good sense to you, and will at least give you some solid food for thought (rating = A+).
- The Little Book on Meaning: Why We Crave It, How We Create It, by Laura Berman Fortgang, muses in a casual but insightful way on sixteen themes arranged in five categories, using lessons from the author's own life to illustrate sources and applications of meaning (rating = A-).
- The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, by Terry Eagleton, provides a brief and lucid review of how modern thinkers have handled this question and how it tends to be dealt with by those of us living in contemporary civilizations; Eagleton then offers a general answer that opens the way for each of us to derive meaning in our own fashion. (rating = A).
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, is a classic book which has inspired people for decades. Frankl, a psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor, explores the idea that our search for meaning is our most fundamental natural drive. (rating = A).
- See also:
- Free resources:
- “The One Question” is a website that helps you answer the question “What should I do with my life?” Although some of its services and materials require registration and/or purchase, there is also a lot of free stuff that is thought-provoking and useful, including articles, exercises, and interviews. (rating = A).
- “The Meaning of Life: Intro,” by Steve Pavlina, is the first of a six-part web posting that offers a practical method for determining what the meaning of your life should be (if you want to skip right to that part, go to “The Meaning of Life: Discover Your Purpose”). Since these are blog posts, there are also some thought-provoking responses from readers, and of course you can add your own. (rating = A-).
- “Discovering What Matters” is a workbook created by Richard J. Leider and the MetLife Mature Market Institute that helps you think about what’s important to you. The workbook is available for free online, but the associated DVD requires that you register with MetLife – and if you do, you should expect to end up on their contact list. (rating = A-).
- Also free (but also requiring registration for some items) is the “Life Reimagined” website, from AARP, offering helpful information, tools, and inspiration to help you get to know yourself better, keep moving forward, and create a personal network of people to support you (rating = A+).
- “Life on Purpose: 15 Questions to Discover Your Personal Mission,” from Think Simple Now, is a simple but pretty effective way to quickly arrive at what your life should focus on. (rating = B+).
- Other resources:
- Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose, by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, offers both inspiration and practical tips to help you find your purpose in life (rating = A). Leider is considered to be a leading guru of “meaning and purpose” in the U.S., and his other books include Something to Live For: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life, and The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better.
- Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, by Gregg Levoy, helps you filter out life's distractions to focus on discerning your life's true "calling," and then finding the right ways to bring it to fruition (rating = A).
- Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck. Sociologist Dr. Beck explains how the social web we form around us can overwhelm the inner person we really are. She offers exercises and examples to help you bring it all into harmony (rating = A).
- Life on Purpose: Six Passages to an Inspired Life, by W. Bradford Swift, offers a six-step process for determining one’s life purpose (rating = A).
- See also:
- Maintaining focus through life changes: What concepts, practices and resources are available to help prepare you for upsets in your view of your own life and of those you care about? How do you deal with actual life crises that occur?
Here are some resources to help you deal with major life changes / crises in general. But help with various specific kinds of life-changing situations is provided elsewhere in this set of pages, so check out the “See also” segment below for links to those sections.
In this section, the “Free resources” entries deal with the (important) details of measuring your stress and finding professional help. For self-help purposes, though, the books listed under “Other resources” are better than the websites in dealing with non-crisis situations, because a longer, slower, more detailed and meditative approach is generally more therapeutic than just a quick analysis of the key concepts.
- Free resources:
- “Transitions and Changes: Practical Strategies” by S. Quick, R.J. Fetsch and M. Rupured of the Colorado State University Extension service, provides sound perspectives and advice on making the psychological transitions that life changes demand (rating = A).
- “The Holmes and Rahe Stress Test” is a long-established tool for rating the amount of stress you are under, based on recent exposure to over forty changes that may have occurred in your life, including some happy ones, since those can also cause stress. This test is available at many other sources besides this one, but we chose StressTips.com because its version is automated and very easy to use (rating = A).
- The Wikipedia article on “Crisis Intervention” explains what crisis intervention is, what kinds of crisis intervention services are available, how they work, how they can help you, and what their limitations can be (rating = A). The “PleaseLive.org” site out of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, explains in very helpful text the benefits of using crisis hotlines, and helps dispel concerns about doing so (rating = A-). To find services in your own area, Google "crisis intervention" and the name of your state or city. You will probably find a lot of options.
- The Nation Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, and can link you (or someone you care about) to one of over 120 local crisis centers across the country (rating = A+). The “Directory of AAS-Accredited Crisis Centers,” from the American Association of Suicidology, lists crisis centers accredited by AAS by state (rating = A).
- Other resources:
- Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition, by William Bridges. By now a classic resource on the subject, this book takes you through the stages of transitions from The Ending that life changes generally present themselves as, to the New Beginning that they should ultimately become (rating = A).
- Life Changes: A Guide to the Seven Stages of Personal Growth, by Sabina A. Spencer and John D. Adams, guides you through seven stages of transition (Losing focus, Minimizing the impact, The Pit, Letting go of the past, Testing the limits, Searching for meaning, and Integrating), and offers advice on how to make the most of this process (rating = A).
- I Will Not Be Broken, by Jerry White. As cofounder of Survivors Corps, White has interviewed thousands of victims of tragedy, and he uses this information and his own experience to elucidate a five-step approach to dealing with life crises (rating = A).
- Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, by Elizabeth Lesser. Discusses how to emerge from suffering stronger, wiser, and more loving, using her own life experience and that of others as examples (rating = A).
- When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions, by Sue Monk Kidd. Kidd discusses her own crisis of loss of meaning, which in her case as in many others occurred in later mid-life. She describes her method of “active waiting” for this crisis to pass, so that she could rediscover renewed sources of meaning in her life (rating = A-).
- See also:
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