Thriving in Solitude: Making Sense of Your Life

Young Woman Journaling

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In my articles on loneliness, I proposed that transitioning from loneliness to solitude (welcomed aloneness) is a highly effective strategy for staying positive during times of social isolation and loneliness.

However, solitude is not the final destination of your journey. Far from it! During the next series of articles, I hope to convince you that solitude is a powerful state from which you can experience meaning in life.

In this article, I begin by explaining how you can take advantage of periods of solitude to make sense of your life, which is the critical first step of your journey towards meaning.

What is meaning in life?

Meaning in life is arguably the foundation of human flourishing (1). Without meaning, you are unlikely to flourish. But what exactly is meaning in life?

Fortunately for us, this critical question is actively being studied by a group of brilliant, insightful, and empathic researchers (see for example (2-4)). The emerging consensus is that meaning in life consists of three core components (2-4).

First, you can only find meaning if your life is coherent and makes sense (2-4). Second, and perhaps most importantly, having a well-defined sense of purpose is essential for living a meaningful life (2-4). Third, you must feel that your life has value and significance (2-4).

Making sense of life by aligning your values and actions.

The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one’s own mind (5).

Thus guided by Epictetus, I suggest that you begin your search for meaning by first making sense of your own life. Specifically, focus on developing your own set of core values, and then do your best to align your actions with those values.

After all, your life can only make sense if you have a coherent worldview. But how do you know if your worldview is coherent?

Here, you are really asking several related questions. First, are your core values both logical and consistent? Second, do they work together to form a unified ethical framework that makes sense? Finally, are your day-to-day actions consistent with your ethics?

If so, great! However, if (like me) you note some troubling inconsistencies, then consider committing to the project of making your life align with your values.

Note that this process takes time and effort. It demands research, reading, and deep introspection. It may require consultation with trained professionals, mentors, and teachers. However, if you truly seek meaning in life, then you must strive to develop a coherent worldview. This is because developing a coherent worldview, in particular your core values, is a prerequisite for determining your purpose. And purpose is arguably the most important domain for deriving meaning in life (2)!

Fortunately, solitude is the perfect state of being for conducting such deep and difficult work.

Finally, know that people who try to live up to the standards and values set by others are at a high risk of burn-out and depression (3). Moreover, these people can never be authentic. They are therefore far less likely to experience meaning in life (see below).

To avoid this horrible fate, you must develop your own coherent set of values, and strive to live accordingly.

Why should I develop a coherent worldview?

1. Positive mood increases meaning in life.

Our brains evolved to discover patterns and make sense of the world (6). Because of this, increasing the predictability of your daily life by understanding the world, developing self-understanding, and then acting in a manner consistent with your core values is likely to reduce stress and anxiety (3).

This is important because it’s well known that having a positive outlook increases your ability to be happy (3). For example, in a survey of meaning, happiness came in second only to family (7). Simply put, the more often you are in a positive mood, the happier you will be, and the more often you will find life meaningful.

For this reason alone, it is well worth taking time to think deeply about how you fit into the world and work on developing a more accurate and predictive worldview. Not only will this help you extract more meaning from life, but it also has the salutary side effect of helping you make more productive life choices, and thereby avoid unnecessary pain and suffering!

2. Authenticity increases meaning in life.

Another benefit of self-reflection is that it increases self-awareness.

Crucially, self-awareness is far more important for experiencing meaning in life compared to other personality factors, including self-esteem (8).

For example, experiments have shown that people’s meaning in life is enhanced when they are reminded of their true nature, even when recalling their flaws (8)! In contrast, college students who feel alienated from their true selves often feel less motivated and derive less meaning from their studies (9).

A possible link between self-understanding (warts and all) and meaning is authenticity. Multiple studies have revealed a strong connection between authenticity and meaning (3). Thus, it seems likely that developing a strong sense of self increases your feeling of authenticity, which in turn increases your ability to experience meaning in life.

3. Ritual and routine increases meaning in life.

Despite our best efforts, life is often chaotic and confusing. It is during these times that you may struggle to find meaning in your day-to-day existence. Here, ritual and routine are powerful tools that you can use to stay on the path to meaning.

This is because regular behaviors in the form of rituals and daily routines support sense-making (3).

For example, engaging in rituals promotes a feeling of self-control that helps mitigate negative emotions (3). Similarly, positive daily routines have been shown to enhance your ability to experience meaning (3).  Thus, routine and ritual are robust tools that you can use to impose structure in your life during times of stress.

That said, you can (and should) establish rituals and routines that reinforce your core values.

For example, daily prayer is a ritual that supports your religious practice. Meditation is a ritual that enhances your spirituality and expands your consciousness. Developing an exercise routine will help maintain your good health.

Importantly, these practices can be performed by yourself. For this reason, cultivating positive daily routines and rituals provides an effective way to increase meaning in life, even in solitude.

Take Home Message

If you lack self-awareness or there is a conflict between your core values and how you behave, it’s likely that your life feels out of control, lacks authenticity, and most importantly, lacks meaning.

In contrast, when you are self-aware and your values and actions are aligned, life makes sense. As a result, you have a more positive outlook, you feel authentic, and you are on the path to meaning.

Please click on the link below for your free PDF.

FREE PDF

Thriving In Solitude Part One

References and Further Reading

1.            V. E. Frankl, Man’s search for meaning.  (Simon and Schuster, 1985).

2.            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).

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

4.            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).

5.            C. Eliot, H. Crossley, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. Harvard Classics,  (1909).

6.            R. F. Baumeister, W. v. Hippel, Meaning and Evolution: Why Nature Selected Human Minds to Use Meaning. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 4, 1-18 (2020).

7.            N. M. Lambert et al., Family as a salient source of meaning in young adulthood. The Journal of Positive Psychology 5, 367-376 (2010).

8.            R. J. Schlegel, J. A. Hicks, J. Arndt, L. A. King, Thine own self: true self-concept accessibility and meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, 473 (2009).

9.            J. Kim, A. G. Christy, R. J. Schlegel, M. B. Donnellan, J. A. Hicks, Existential ennui: Examining the reciprocal relationship between self-alienation and academic amotivation. Social Psychological and Personality Science 9, 853-862 (2018).

Acknowledgements

Images by Ranta Images and dusanpetkovic

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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

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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.