There may be nothing more quintessentially Human than the search for meaning. From the dawn of history, Human beings have been creatures that seek meaning, make meaning, and yearn for meaning. We all want to know that our lives amount to more than the sum of our experiences – that they have worth and count.
When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they describe four things: having rich relationships and bonds to others; having something worthwhile to do with their time; crafting narratives to help understand themselves and the World; and having experiences of awe and wonder. The four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, transcendence.
A sense of belonging comes from having relationships and bonds defined by mutual care. When people are rejected or ignored, they rate their lives as less meaningful. But when people feel valued, they rate their lives as more meaningful – which makes sense. When people treat you like you matter, you feel like you matter, too.
Purpose sounds big, like curing cancer big – but purpose comes in all shapes in sizes. The definition of purpose is a top-level goal that somehow involves contributing to others. One person’s purpose might be to eradicate poverty, while another person’s purpose might be more local: to be a good parent.
Storytelling is taking your experiences and weaving them into a narrative that defines who you are and where you come from. It is how you make sense of your experiences and the World. When you try to get to know someone, you ask them what their story is – and when you want someone to know you, you share your story. Storytelling helps you understand others and ourselves.
Moments of awe, self-loss, and wonder are very powerful builders of meaning. These are experiences when we feel connected to something much bigger. This can happen during meditation and prayer or when you are taking a walk through the woods or looking up in awe at the night sky. People who have had transcendent experiences rate them as among the most powerful sources of meaning.