In Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot, two characters wait for a man they both claim to know but whom neither would be able to recognize. As they wait, the characters attempt to distract and divert themselves from a terrible silence poised to devour them in their anxious, confused state. This is not a cheery play, really, as hinted at by the following summation of human existence:
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
When psychologists study meaning in life, they do not assume that there is a meaning to life, the universe, and everything. We have observed, however, that any individual life can be made meaningful. Too often, however, it seems like people behave like Beckett’s characters, passively waiting for some meaning they might not even recognize to poke them in the chest and shout, “I am here!”
Whether or not you believe that there is a meaning waiting out there for you, and a purpose behind our lives and universe, there is great value in being the active author of your life’s story. Perhaps your fulfillment lies in searching for—not waiting for—your meaning in life.
Here’s a partial list of the things that might come looking for you, the things you can wait for and not actively seek:
- Catalogues! (Who doesn’t like three or four hundred pounds of glossy, environmentally irresponsible direct mail every week!)
- Tantalizing leads on incredible male enhancement products!
- Upper respiratory infections!
- People who have a lot to get off their chests during a trans-Pacific flight!
Sounds awesome! Of course, you might think this list misses some cool things. Won’t true love come find me? Doesn’t my destiny lie in wait for me like a flasher in Central Park? I’d hazard a guess that you’ve seen too many 1980s movies about the quiet loner who—through the sheer persistence of their hermit-like affection for isolation—takes the hottest senior to prom. This life doesn’t seem to reward passive, clingy tactics. Social people are happier, people who feel confident they can accomplish important goals are happier, and when you are motivated to pursue good things—versus avoid bad things—you’re happier, too.
Viktor Frankl, inspirational figurehead for many of us psychologists, encouraged us all to go out into the world and seek the purpose that awaits us. Despite this charge, and all the evidence that activity is better than passivity, I’ve found in study after study that—at least in America—the search for meaning seems to be a pretty anxious, miserable activity for most people. How can this be?
People seem to need stable, reliable ways to understand the world around them. We crave certainty, and we freak out when we lose that uncertainty and find ourselves confronting a chaotic mess, void of meaning. Sadly, it appears we’d rather be SURE than RIGHT!
The thing is, though, we don’t have to feel this way about meaning. My research shows two trends. First, people who are open-minded and active in their approach to life seem to search for meaning in their lives in a positive and healthy way. Second, people who already feel their lives are rich in meaning and who are seeking deeper meaning are more satisfied with their lives. To me, this research suggests that having an open, curious, inquisitive thirst for discovering deeper, richer meaning in your life can help you build the life you want.
The best things in life often require us to take risks. When we take the risk of loving someone, we make ourselves vulnerable to loss and hurt. Yet, without that risk, we lose out on the fulfillment that comes from joining another person in a shared journey. It’s no different with finding a meaningful career or calling, discovering a way you can help make the world a better place, or learning how to become a better person. Transform the uncertainty and confusion into curiosity, and you can actively find meaning all around you.
Don’t wait for meaning, search for it.
Join Michael Steger on Tuesday, February 21, at 12:00 pm ET for “Becoming Ourselves: How to Grow through the Lens of Meaning,” part of the WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour series. Register now.
Originally published on PsychologyToday.com.
Michael F. Steger, Ph.D.
Michael F. Steger, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and the founding director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University. His research focuses on how people flourish through building meaning and purpose in their lives and work. His published works include two widely used measurement tools, the Meaning in Life Questionnaire and the Work and Meaning Inventory, as well as three co-edited books, The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work, Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, and Designing Positive Psychology. Mike offers keynotes, lectures, workshops, and consulting around the world on the topics of meaning, purpose, psychological strengths, meaningful work, and creating a happy workplace.