Is the meaning of life and having meaning in life the same thing? And is the concept of having meaning in life a hippy dippy notion, or does it have credible legs?
Not only does it have legs, having purpose in life is crucial to fulfillment.
Through his extensive studies, Professor Martin Seligman from the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania defined the happiest life as the one with a true sense of meaning. He concluded that the pursuit of pleasure on its own had no bearing on increasing happiness, but that the pursuit of meaning itself was the strongest factor in increasing life satisfaction.
"The meaningful life is about finding a deeper sense of fulfilment by using your strengths in the service of something larger than yourself and nourishing others," Professor Seligman said.
Pretty powerful, huh? It also explains why material possessions offer an excitement spike but rarely fulfil us long term. And perhaps why some of the richest people are the most miserable.
So, how do we know if we have purpose in our lives? Most of us get up and get ready to go to a job that we either love, like or hate. If your love your work, is that fulfilment? And what if you hate your job?
"Having purpose in life means that people find happiness and fulfilment when they have reasons for doing things. It's about having an overarching reason for doing anything. Unless people have that, it becomes very difficult to be fulfilled," Ben Harvey, co-founder of Authentic Education told The Huffington Post Australia.
Harvey's business is Australia's largest education centre that aims to encourage people to find purpose and prosper through discovering their passion. Harvey travels the world working with people like Dr John Demartini (American expert in human behavior), Chris Howard (lifestyle and business turnaround expert) and Jay Conrad Levison (American business author). He's held high-level leadership roles in Fortune 500 companies, including Adecco. He knows his stuff.
It's been said that until we find the cause greater than ourselves we are almost never able to get over ourselves," Harvey said.
"When we want to work out what is fulfilling, we generally look for things that are organised in our lives. The things that are the most important to us and that we find the most inspiring are the things we tend to organise more than other things. There is a point where meaningful things will become autopilot in their nature because we naturally bring organisation and order to things when we love or enjoy them," Harvey said.
Harvey believes that the key to assessing if you have purpose in life is by looking at five elements.
"We call this the 'values track'. When we assess these things it's easier to look at your life and see if you are on track or totally off track," Harvey said.
"We ask people to look at the kind of topics they talk about, think about or discuss with their friends. Quite often what you think about, talk about or research will actually start to tell you what you like. We look at the topics that people are naturally drawn to or spend a lot of time communicating about. So even though they might be going to a job that they hate, when they leave the job and start talking to their friends, those topics let us know what they are passionate about," Harvey said.
"We also look at the tasks that people enjoy doing -- things that they find enjoyably challenging. We find that people who love things put in way more effort and go further and through more pain than others around the same topic. For example, if your computer crashed after five hours of working on something. If you really love the topic, you'll get back on the horse and do that work again. People who continue to persist with challenges regardless of what comes that way will show us what they care about," Harvey said.
"We then look at action, which is what people love practising or refining. If someone enjoys practising or refining their skills in a certain area, that's an indication that that task gives them joy and purpose. Anything that someone refines tells us a lot about what the love," Harvey said.
"The fourth one is confidence. If the people around you would say you're most confident at a task, that indicates that's a passion. And specifically, what is observably confident. So it's important to look for where you posses the most confidence in a certain area," Harvey said.
"The last thing we look for is organised knowledge. Where does a person have the most organised and valuable knowledge? People tend to accumulate knowledge around areas and topics that are inspiring to them."
Assessing these five elements should pretty clearly indicate to you where your passion and purpose lies. Maybe you're an account when your true calling might be a makeup artist, or you are currently studying to be a doctor but your passion lies in literature.
From there it's about working out ways to do more of what you love, either as a career or as a hobby. After all, we can't all just up and leave our jobs to pursue our dreams without considering the consequences.
"There's four ways of approaching next steps if you realise you're perhaps not on the right path. Do [the thing you love] on weekends or in the evenings. Consider going part time at your current job, which surprisingly a lot of people now do. Pull the ripcord and quit completely, and the fourth is to do nothing immediately but but to at least every night think about it," Harvey said.
"Any of those four things will get you closer. To make progress in actioning things that make you feel more fulfilled it is important that you bring in positive people around you, speak to people who have done it before, set very clear goals, and set small actions."
"People assume they need to take giant leaps but that is totally untrue. There is a part of our brain that protects us, the hindbrain, and this part of the brain freezes the whole system any time there's any uncertainly, so when people try to take giant steps, their brain tells them that it's too uncertain and that results in procrastination and disconcerted focus. Small steps are the key."
Another key to true meaning is to ensure your purpose helps others.
"A lot of people just focus on themselves and they wonder why life is a struggle. It's been said that until we find the cause greater than ourselves we are almost never able to get over ourselves," Harvey said.
"People who help other people prior to helping themselves generally go the furthest, provide the most value and have the most fulfillment. Sir Philip Sidney said 'happiness is not perfected until it is shared' and it's true -- people who are wanting to find fulfilment but are thinking too much about themselves are often wondering why it's unobtainable. We are biologically designed to feel good when we share knowledge. When people work that out they realise they get a payoff inside themselves at a biological level that feels like fulfilment and inspiration. If people aim to share their knowledge and help other people, they find fulfilment."