How to Find Significance in Life: Thriving in Solitude Part Three

Woman On Mountain

“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Today we are tackling the toughest question of them all. How do you find significance in life?

The greatest minds throughout history have struggled to answer this question. For example, Leo Tolstoy writes ‘My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” ’ (1).

In this article, I argue that your life is indeed significant, and therefore worth living.

First, I begin by explaining why significance is so important for you to find meaning in life. Then, I outline several methods that you can use which may help you feel that your life really does matter. Finally, I will begin to address the elephant in the room: death.

While there is no question that our ‘inevitable death’ does destroy much of the significance of our lives, in the follow-up article I argue that a life well lived continues to have significance long after we die.  

The Importance of Significance in Life

Meaning in life research seeks to identify behaviors and beliefs that provide people with a sense of meaning. Meaning in life is composed of three separate components: coherence, purpose, and significance. We have discussed coherence and purpose in our two previous articles in this series. Our focus today is on the third essential component for meaning in life: Significance.

To feel that your life is significant, you must believe that you are worthwhile and valuable and that your life matters (2, 3). When your life has significance, you feel that your existence has a lasting and profound impact on the world and on those around you (4). Importantly, holding the genuine belief that your life really matters is necessary for you to see any point in living at all (2)!

The Lure of Nihilism

Unfortunately, objective reality provides few reasons to believe that our lives have any significance whatsoever (5). The universe is ancient, vast, and uncaring. Our friends and loved ones die, and their most cherished memories fade over time. Good people suffer and die for no apparent reason. You are just one person amongst billions, and everyone alive will inevitably die to be replaced by billions more (6).

In short, our brief lives seem nothing more than meat in the churn of evolution.

This grim reality presents a serious obstacle for anyone seeking a sense of significance and mattering. One tried-and-true approach to find meaning within the vast, cold cosmos is religion. On this topic, we’ve spoken about the power of genuine spirituality for improving your everyday resilience.

While it’s true that there exists no objective data to support the metaphysical reality of religion, the benefits of religious and spiritual practice for finding meaning in life are strongly supported by science. Because of this, I will be writing an article specifically on the role of spirituality in finding meaning in life in the future.

For now, I address the much more difficult problem of finding significance in life while maintaining a secular, humanist perspective.

The fundamental question is this: how can one believe that their life is significant and worth living while adhering to a rational, evidence-based philosophy?

Internal versus External Significance in Life

Life significance consists of both internal and external significance (7). In this piece, I focus on internal significance, because internal significance offers the most reliable path towards life significance (8, 9).

Internal Significance

First, what is internal significance?

You experience internal significance during flow states when engaged in deep work, during altered states of consciousness during meditation and mindfulness, when appreciating your own day-to-day experiences, engaging in acts of creation, and when living in a self-authentic way (7).

I believe that your ability to experience significance and mattering independently of other people is critically important for your long-term well-being. Why? Because there are many times in life when you must survive and thrive while experiencing solitude.

Loneliness

As we’ve discussed, loneliness is a universal human experience. During inevitable periods of loneliness, having a strong sense of internal significance will allow you to continue to experience meaning in life.

Being Forgotten

Surprisingly, being forgotten is a depressingly common occurrence in everyday life (10)! Usually, this occurs when people forget your name or past interactions (10). Internal significance protects you when you are forgotten.

Social Exclusion

However, by far the most traumatic experience is deliberate social isolation or ostracization (11).  We are all extremely sensitive to being deliberately excluded from social groups (11). Being systematically ignored gives you the ‘feeling of having no purpose, no meaning, no worth’ (11).

In this most trying of conditions, maintaining a robust sense of intrinsic significance is essential for you to continue experiencing meaning in life, which will help you resist succumbing to depression, or worse.

Developing a Sense of Internal Significance

1. Self-enhancement: Fake It Until You Make It?

Despite the greatest minds in history struggling with the question of life’s significance, the everyday person experiences no such problem. In fact, survey after survey questioning people’s ability to find in finding meaning in life has revealed that most people report living meaningful lives (12)! How can this be?

One answer to this riddle is that people tend to inflate their own self-worth, an act known as ‘self-enhancement’.

Briefly, people tend to regard themselves more favorably than reality would suggest (13). Further, people tend to overestimate the amount of control they have in life, are overly optimistic and tend to remember events in a way that puts them in a positive light (14).

Self-enhancement is most strikingly illustrated in people with narcissistic personalities. The hallmarks of narcissistic personalities are grandiosity, dominance, entitlement, self-promotion, and the exploitation of others. These are not characteristics one would associate with a life of significance!  Yet of all the dark personalities, only narcissists experience positive well-being (15). This is because narcissists experience significant levels of life significance, as well as high levels of purpose and coherence, due to their superhuman ability to self-enhance and ignore objective reality (15).

Why Self-enhancement May Not Be For You

Thus, it appears that self-enhancement is both a common and highly effective method for finding meaning in life. This begs the question, should you use it?

I argue that despite self-enhancement being widely and successfully used by people to maintain a sense that their lives are significant, you should NOT rely on self-enhancement to find significance. Why?  Because self-enhancement relies on self-deception.

Consider the narcissist. The narcissist is a creature of self-interest. For them, self-deception is a fundamental feature of their personality, as it allows them to maintain the illusion of being the most important being in creation, despite the many inconvenient facts to the contrary. In contrast, objective facts really matter to rational and ethical people.

Thus, self-deception will inevitably bring you into conflict with your core values, purpose, and life goals. This in turn will sabotage your search for meaning in life.  

2. Stoicism

As an antidote to ‘self-enhancement’, I suggest stoicism.

A deep dive into stoicism is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that Stoicism is a philosophy of life whose aim is to enhance meaning and joy primarily through mitigating personal suffering. In contrast to self-enhancement, a foundational principle within Stoicism is to embrace the world as it is. Thus, false narratives are a big no-no within stoic philosophy.

The utility of stoicism lies in its pragmatic approach to solving life’s problems, combined with the fact that you practice Stoicism by yourself. Further, stoicism can be readily be applied within different cultures and religions.

In short, Stoicism is a simple, effective, and highly adaptable philosophy that helps you maintain a strong sense of significance, even during times of extreme hardship.

To my mind, an excellent place to begin your stoic journey is by reading William B. Irvine’s superb introduction to stoicism ‘A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy’.

3. Rediscover Your Sense of Wonder

Many scholars, philosophers, and everyday people have looked at the vastness of the universe and felt an overwhelming sense of their own insignificance. Granted, this is a completely understandable reaction. However, is feeling insignificant the only rational response when contemplating the vast cosmos?

I argue not.  We are a part of the universe. Our atoms were created within the heart of stars; our brains and bodies are the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and our minds are the most complex and wondrous construct in the known universe.

When you feel insignificant, try to change your perspective by looking for wonder in the world around you. And you won’t have to look far. Plants, animals, birds, weather, the sun, waves crashing on the beach. The list is endless. Then, remind yourself that you are not an insignificant, independent observer. Rather, you are deeply connected to the universe through the laws of physics. Indeed, you are an integral part of the wonder going on all around you.

Consciously changing your perspective in this way can help you avoid feeling insignificant within the vast cosmos. Importantly, this perspective is entirely consistent with the laws of nature.

Extrinsic Significance

Terror Management Theory

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

– Mark Twain

And finally, death. Terror Management Theory (TMT) posits that much of human behavior can be explained by the awareness of our own inevitable death (16). Humans exist in a state of conflict between our evolved desire to survive, and the awareness of our mortality (reviewed in (17, 18)). How did humans overcome the anxiety and depression associated with their mortality awareness to thrive throughout the ages?

TMT argues that humans resist the terror associated with mortality awareness by embedding themselves within strong cultural traditions (16). Culture provides a framework of meaning that serves to minimize the anxiety engendered by death awareness. Notably, culture can provide a meaningful account for the origins of the universe, while establishing behavioral and ethical norms.

Most importantly, culture and religion provide formal beliefs systems around death and dying. This can be a belief in an afterlife, or belief in a symbolic life-after-death such as writing a book, having children, or contributing to a long-lived culture (16). People have long found significance and meaning in life by abiding by the rules, practices, and ceremonies defined by their culture (16). Critically, a belief in immortality and the afterlife goes a long way to assuage the dread of dying!

Importantly, TMT is supported by hundreds of independent experimental observations, placing TMT on an extremely robust scientific footing (19). Finally, TMT reveals that many different cultures and religions can provide significance and meaning in life (19).

The Dark Side of Human Culture

While both ubiquitous and powerful, the protective effects of cultural traditions come at a significant cost. For one, the presence of different beliefs and practices between opposing cultures can degrade the ability of those cultures to protect their people from existential dread. This can (and often does) lead to cultural and religious conflict (17, 18).

Second, cultural norms are neither perfect nor necessarily rational. As a result, many people experience significant psychological distress when their irrational and contradictory cultural norms fail to protect them from the objective reality of their inevitable demise (17, 18).

Nevertheless, being embedded within a strong culture allows many people to experience personal significance and meaning (17, 18). Thus, embracing an enlightened and tolerant culture can certainly help you to find significance and meaning in your life.

Take Home Message

Positive psychology has uncovered many ways for you to experience significance in life.

First, and most importantly, the surest paths to significance are those that are independent of other people.  Some examples include experiencing flow states during deep work, enjoying altered states of consciousness during meditation and mindfulness, appreciating your own day-to-day experiences, engaging in acts of creation, and living in a self-authentic way. Notably, stoicism is particularly helpful in protecting you from needless suffering, while maintaining your sense of wonder can help you feel significant despite existing within a vast cosmos.

Although not as reliable as internal significance, external culture also provides a proven path towards living a significant life. The downside is that conflicts between opposing cultures and religions has caused immense suffering throughout human history. Hence, I recommend seeking out cultures that are both enlightened and tolerant.

In the next instalment of the thriving in solitude series, I will outline a template for finding meaning in life that is suitable for secular readers.

Please click on the link below for your free PDF.

Free PDF

How To Find Significance In Life

References and Further Reading

1.            L. Tolstoy, Confession.  (WW Norton & Company, 1996).

2.            E. Becker, The denial of death.  (Simon and Schuster, 1997).

3.            F. Martela, M. F. Steger, The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. The Journal of Positive Psychology 11, 531-545 (2016).

4.            R. F. Baumeister, Meanings of life.  (Guilford press, 1991).

5.            L. S. George, C. L. Park, Meaning in life as comprehension, purpose, and mattering: Toward integration and new research questions. Review of General Psychology 20, 205-220 (2016).

6.            I. D. Yalom, Existential psychotherapy.  (Hachette UK, 2020).

7.            Z. Li, Y. Liu, K. Peng, J. A. Hicks, X. Gou, Developing a quadripartite existential meaning scale and exploring the internal structure of meaning in life. Journal of Happiness Studies 22, 887-905 (2021).

8.            J. Schimel, J. Arndt, T. Pyszczynski, J. Greenberg, Being accepted for who we are: evidence that social validation of the intrinsic self reduces general defensiveness. J Pers Soc Psychol 80, 35-52 (2001).

9.            M. H. Kernis, Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological inquiry 14, 1-26 (2003).

10.          D. G. Ray, S. Gomillion, A. I. Pintea, I. Hamlin, On being forgotten: Memory and forgetting serve as signals of interpersonal importance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 116, 259 (2019).

11.          K. D. Williams, Ostracism: The impact of being rendered meaningless. In P. R. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (pp. 309–323). American Psychological Association.,  (2012).

12.          L. A. King, J. A. Hicks, The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of Psychology 72, 561-584 (2021).

13.          C. R. Critcher, E. G. Helzer, D. Dunning, Self-enhancement via redefinition: Defining social concepts to ensure positive views of self. Handbook of self-enhancement and self-protection, 69-91 (2011).

14.          Skowronski, J. J. (2011). The positivity bias and the fading affect bias in autobiographical memory: A self-motives perspective. In M. D. Alicke & C. Sedikides (Eds.), Handbook of self-enhancement and self-protection (pp. 211–231). The Guilford Press.

15.          J. Womick, B. Atherton, L. A. King, Lives of significance (and purpose and coherence): subclinical narcissism, meaning in life, and subjective well-being. Heliyon 6, e03982 (2020).

16.          J. Greenberg, T. Pyszczynski, S. Solomon. The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory (New York, NY: Springer New York, New York, NY, 1986), pp. 189-212.

17.          J. Arndt, C. Routledge, C. R. Cox, J. L. Goldenberg, The worm at the core: A terror management perspective on the roots of psychological dysfunction. Applied and Preventive Psychology 11, 191-213 (2005).

18.          Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). The Cultural Animal: Twenty Years of Terror Management Theory and Research. In J. Greenberg, S. L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (pp. 13–34). Guilford Press.

19.          S. Solomon, J. Greenberg, T. Pyszczynski, The worm at the core: On the role of death in life.  (Random House, 2015).

Acknowledgements

Images provided by cynoclub and Santiaga

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Woman Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra for Better Sleep

Disrupted sleep increases anxiety and depression. Yoga Nidra is an effective method that has helped many people overcome insomnia.

Beautiful Woman Running On Treadmill

Low-Intensity Cardio for Metabolic Health

Emerging research shows that low-intensity cardio is the best way to improve your metabolic and cardiovascular health.

Strong bones, strong brain.

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Regular exercise releases osteocalcin from your bones. Once in circulation, osteocalcin enters your brain to support learning and memory.