I’m always on the lookout for research papers, from which I can extract ideas, concepts, tools or techniques that you can use to be better students. It is part of my focus on mental fitness, and reflects my underlying assumption that you want to do well at your studies and set yourself up for your life beyond university.
I just spent a couple of hours reading and contemplating a paper written by Sarah Ward and Laura King of the University of Missouri called “Work and the good life: How work contributes to meaning in life“.
The paper is a summary of research on the links between ‘meaning in life’ and our work.
Although the paper is focused on paid work, encapsulated in it are a number of ways that students might be able to obtain greater meaning from their studies, and in turn, engage more closely with their studies and get better outcomes.
In this blog post, I explore how you can derive meaning and purpose from your studies. Warning: this is a fairly long blog post, but hopefully interesting.
First off – what do we mean by ‘meaning in life’?
Ok, to clarify, we are not talking about the “meaning OF life” which is up for debate and is a much bigger question, namely, ‘why does life exist?’
“Meaning IN life” refers to the subjective judgement of each individual about the purpose and significance of their own life. It is how people feel about their lives.
Rather than being some kind of abstract esoteric concept, ‘meaning in life’ is something that most people try to work out at some point in time. Some people seem to know it from very early in life. Others spend their life trying to find it. Regardless of the individual journeys, it is a concept that is relevant to most of us and powerful in its impact.
Perceiving one’s life as meaningful associated with a range of psychological and physical health indicators: life satisfaction, increased positive affect, reduced negative affect, lower mortality, and lower rates of physical illness.
You can get a sense of your own progress towards ‘meaning in life’ using this questionnaire.
Whilst I can’t tell you precisely where you will derive your ‘meaning in life’, research can provide some useful starting points.
Research suggests there are three inter-related components of ‘meaning in life’:
- purpose – having goals, direction or some kind of mission in life;
- significance – feeling/knowing our life has significance, that it matters, that what we give back to the world matters in some way; and
- coherence – the experience of our life making sense or having some kind of order to it
These are built through our experiences, as we interact with the world, and the people in it. Through these experiences, we come to understand ourselves, others, how the world works, and our place in the world.
What is the value of considering ‘meaning in life’ in relation to your university studies?
For many people, their work will be the third biggest use of their time over their life (after sleep and leisure). Whether we like it or not, our experiences at work can play a large part in determining our overall wellbeing. People who find their work meaningful, commonly find their life meaningful. People who feel they have “meaningful work” report higher engagement, organisational commitment, job satisfaction, better relationships at work, higher well-being, increased lifetime earnings; and lower levels of depression, hostility, burnout, exhaustion, and absenteeism.
Not surprisingly therefore, many people look to their work to provide a sense of meaning and purpose.
Because university studies are for many their primary entry point into their work life/ career, pursuing ‘meaning in life’ in parallel with your studies provides a foundation for deriving meaning in the present, but also from your future work. Deriving meaning from studies/work is not something that needs to be done blindly. Research can provide some clues about how to go about it. Rather than treating ‘meaning in life’ as something that just happens to you, it is possible to pursue it as you might pursue healthy eating, or regular physical activity.
It is also worth noting that the relationship works in two direction. Whilst your studies can be a source of meaning and purpose in life, your studies also benefit from you better understanding your ‘meaning in life’. For example we know from the work literature that those people who report higher levels of ‘life satisfaction’ (strongly correlated with ‘meaning in life’) perform better, are more satisfied with their work, are more creative, and have better work relationships.
The basic takeaway message is that
Is your study a ‘calling’, a pathway to a career, or a way of upskilling to earn more money?
This is an important question to open with, because how you perceive the nature of your studies, in the context of your life as a whole, may impact the extent to which you can derive ‘meaning in life’ from your studies.
Those who describe their studies as a ‘calling’ have already identified that the subject of their studies is of intense personal meaning to them. Their studies reflect a pursuit of their mission in life. To not study in the area would cause great regret and stress. Those who see their studies as a ‘calling’ tend to be more focused, committed, enjoy it more and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve highly in their studies. On the downside, they may make sacrifices in other areas of life (e.g. family, friends, leisure) where meaning could also have been derived. This group (assuming they continue to identify their studies as a ‘calling’) are more likely to build careers from which they derive their ‘meaning in life’.
For those that see their studies as a pathway into a particular career, there is still great scope for deriving ‘meaning in life’ from their studies. To an extent it depends on whether the individual’s selection of the desired career is strongly connected to their personal values. If yes, moving closer to their desired career should provide many opportunities for the individual to derive meaning and purpose from their studies. For many students though, their initial choice of career is driven by other factors: family expectations, misunderstandings about the different careers, confusion or apathy. As they study, they may find it hard to derive meaning and purpose from their studies, because it becomes apparent that their career choice does not fit well with their personal goals and values.
For those that see their studies as simply a pathway to earning money (or more money if shifting career), then it is possible that it won’t be their studies from which they derive ‘meaning in life’. It is more likely that their ‘meaning in life’ will come from the activities that the money supports. For example, an individual might be wanting to earn more money so as to support their extended family. In this case, it is the caring for, and support of their family where the individual derives their meaning, not their studies specifically. This isn’t to negate the possibility of them deriving meaning from their studies, but it is less likely.
Practical tips for harnessing the power of the links between ‘meaning in life’ and your studies
If you are still reading I am going to assume that you are open to the idea that your studies may a) be a source of personal meaning, or b) benefit from considering your ‘meaning in life’. I am also going to assume that even the concept of ‘meaning in life’ makes sense to you. It is a topic that is sometimes less popular with younger audiences because (on average) they’ve thought less about these issues because they are still in the early stages of their life. However I think it is a topic that any young adult can and potentially should consider.
So lets get started.
Below is a series of practical tips for exploring ‘meaning in life’ in the context of your studies, but also ways that you can use ‘meaning in life’ derived from other sources to enhance your studies.
1. Find space for play, fun and happiness, both within your studies but also outside of your studies.
Feelings of happiness, joy, and playfulness are deeply interconnected with our subjective evaluation of whether our life has meaning. We use our feelings as a guide as to whether we a meaningful life. This is not to suggest that feeling happy all the time is a good goal (it is unrealistic and unhelpful) but the presence of positive oriented feelings is a signal to us we have people and activities and purpose we are moving towards.
Humans however have a bit of a bias towards negative evaluations and feelings. The basic argument is it is more evolutionary adaptive to have our attention systems biased towards threat than safety. This means our emotional landscape can often become quite negative. It is easy to get trapped in negative thinking and neglect to create opportunities to have fun in our life. Your studies risk becoming just ‘another source of stress’, and as a result, you disengage.
The antidote is to be proactive in finding ways to have fun, both as part of your studies, but also in your life outside of your studies. Fun and happiness in the context of your studies helps you feel closer to, and more engaged with the material. It might involve starting a small study group that meets at the pub to discuss topics from the course. It might involve creating something (a short film, podcast or website) inspired by something in your course. It might be about joining one of the many clubs and societies within the university that is connected to your course, or starting one of your own.
It is also important to look at what fun activities you have outside of your studies. When you are enjoying life outside of your studies, it helps you develop some perspective on where your studies fit in your broader life. Positive moods help you better discriminate between meaningful and meaningless tasks, making scheduling and planning easier.
When therapists tell clients to have more fun in their lives, there is understandable resistance. For some it is “how can I have any fun, when so many shit things are happening to me?” For others, it is “I’m too busy to do anything fun. I don’t have time“. Whilst these are resaonable responses, they are also dead-ends in terms of making positive changes. Fun and happiness are, whether we like it or not, things we have to pursue mindfully and purposefully. Hoping that fun and happiness will emerge naturally from stressful situations is rarely rewarded. Mostly, stress just breeds more stress.
2. Look for social interaction opportunities
We all differ in the extent to which we want to socialise with other people. But even in introverts, who perhaps enjoy a little more solitary time, social exclusion or rejection is very damaging in terms of a sense of meaning and purpose. We all strive for a sense of belongingness through our interactions with other people. Our self-worth is at least partly dependent on being accepted and cared for by others.
Studying at university provides multiple opportunities for social interaction, including social interactions where we have the opportunity to matter to other people, to feel valued, and to communicate to others they they are valued. This includes lectures and tutorials, study groups, clubs, societies and professional networks. Actively participating in these social opportunities can be daunting at first, but are rewarding in the long-term. Joining groups related to your studies will not only help you learn, but also make you feel like what you are learning has greater meaning and purpose.
There are certain groups of students for whom these social opportunities are more difficult to find. This includes international students, who might feel isolated on the basis of language and culture, and online students, who are isolated by distance and location. For international students, I recommend OASIS as a starting point. This on-campus community centre has a strong focus on international students, and helping them connect both with their own culture groups here in Australia, but also helping them adapt to Australian culture.
For online students, and students who find it hard to connect with groups connected to their studies, my suggestion is to focus on those social networks outside of your studies and making sure they are kept strong. I was quite socially isolated at university for the first couple of years, but I was fine because I had a social circle outside of university (girlfriend, bandmates) that gave me that sense of belonging.
One final thing I will say about social interaction opportunities is that I recommend you read this previous post of mine in which I talked about relationships and their link with goals. Making new friends can be difficult, but one way to make it a little easier to think about goals. People who have clear goals attract people to them because people are drawn to purpose and confidence. So perhaps start a project of your own, and invite others to join. The opposite is also true. Try finding people who are trying to build or create something cool and endeavour to help them. Focusing on the mutual achievement of goals is a good foundation for the creation of friendships.
3. Start thinking about what contribution you want to make the world, and start making connections between that and your studies
A central component of ‘meaning in life’ is having an idea of what our contribution to the world is going to to be. It is about knowing that what we do with our life will serve broader and more profound goals. I call the contribution that an individual makes to the world their ‘legacy’. Legacies are (currently) the only way to achieve any type of immortality; the only way to beat death and benefit future generations. The study that you do at university and how you use that learning in your life are key parts of defining that legacy.
It is easy to get caught up in the daily process of study (lectures, tutorials, assignments) and forget that you are accumulating the tools and knowledge required to get out in the world and make a difference. To remind yourself there is a bigger picture, regularly ask yourself these questions;
Where do I want to head with the information that I am learning?
How does what I am learning bring me closer to making my mark on the world?
What effects might me learning this stuff have on future generations?
For some people these questions are really easy to answer. “I want to be a doctor to help people“. “I am becoming a lawyer to ultimately work in human rights law“. “I am becoming a psychologist to help others with their mental health“.
For others it is a bit more challenging. It might be that you are studying simply for the joy of studying. Even in that scenario it is still possible to look to the future and see how your learning might impact others. Your passion for learning might inspire others to do the same. What you learn might fundamentally change aspects of your personality which will have ripple effects through your friendship groups, family, and community.
Regular questioning of what you are doing and its relation to the ‘bigger picture’ is a way that you can imbue assignments, projects and tasks with more meaning. It is also a way to be able to keep the stress of studying in perspective. “I am doing this degree, because I want to work in this area and make a difference“.
If you find it difficult to connect your studies with your future self, consider getting a mentor. Not another student, but someone who is working in the industry/ area that you are studying. Perhaps someone who is recently retired and has some time on their hands. Speaking with people in the field, helps you get a better sense of how the study translates into the job. Many courses now involve job placements or internships. These are similarly great opportunities to get a feel for how your study is linked with the bigger picture.
4. Set goals. Look for places where your study goals and personal goals intertwine.
Part of the ability to create ‘meaning in life’ is understanding the steps you need to take to get there.
There are thousands of articles that talk about how to set goals (i’m even working on one of my own – stay tuned), but I find the ‘why‘ of setting goals to be equally interesting.
Setting goals feel purposeful and motivational. Setting goals requires you to connect with your deeper values and in the process those things that are more meaningful to you. The more you practice setting and pursuing goals, the more frequently you have to connect with those values, and the greater clarity that arises about what you want to do with your life.
When you pursue and achieve goals, you get a sense of accomplishment, feelings of mastery and the sense that you have some control over your life. All of these contribute to ‘meaning in life’. Setting and pursuing goals helps you feel like you are in charge of your life, rather than simply passively responding to what happens to you.
Studying for a degree is an excellent context in which to start getting good at setting and pursuing goals. There is lots of excellent material to learn, opportunities to show your mastery (e.g. assignments, exams), novel challenges, interesting people etc. Goals might be as simple as wanting to get high marks in assignments and exams. For extra meaning though, also think about goals that push you to take what you are learning and apply it some way to the bigger picture (see point 3 above).
The more you can get your personal goals and your study goals to align, the more likely it will be that you will feel your studies are meaningful. When I was studying for my PhD, I was also interested in websites and web development. I found a way to combine the two by developing websites for a psychology discussion group that I facilitated. Combining those interests led to the development of the Psychology and Health Forum, which exists to this day as a networking site for mental health professionals (phf.net.au).
The other important thing about goals which contributes to ‘meaning in life’ is that goals are a powerful basis upon which to develop professional and personal relationships. See my previous post on this topic. Put simple, humans connect around helping each other achieve goals. If you are good at setting goals, you will likely draw people to you.
5. Set up good habits and routines
Order brings meaning. When our life feels structured, we feel more in control.
Also when we structure our life, we create the time and mental energy required to pursue the things that are important to us. If we aren’t devoting mental energy to thinking about what to eat, wear, when to sleep etc, we can instead use that mental energy on the tasks we find more engaging and meaningful.
In the context of your study, this means setting up environmental and behavioral regularities and patterns, so that you have the most stable environment in which to do you studies. What does this mean in practice? Regular sleeping schedule, regular eating schedule, regular work schedule, structured study times. In my experience, mature age students tend to be much better at this because they have had to learn how to schedule all the different parts of their life (e.g. work, family, caring responsibilities, housework) in order to be able to study. Younger students struggle more with developing good routines.
Where possible, when setting routines and habits, try to make them healthy ones. 7-9 hours of sleep, healthy diet, regular exercise. Healthy habits and routines further enhance our ‘meaning in life’ because they ensure we are working at our physical and mental best.
It should be noted that too much order/structure can be stifling and crush creativity, but I suggest balancing it as follows. Structure those parts of your life that are more practical (e.g. sleep, diet, work and study times) but then take risks more in relation to your goals (points 3 and 4). Set yourself bold goals, take risks, but do this against a background of other parts of your life being disciplined and ordered.
The other thing about regular routines is they provide comfort during periods of distress. Knowing that you can spend a couple of hours in front of the TV at the end of a hard day, gives you a predictable, pleasant thing to look forward to.
This was a long post. Congratulations if you got this far.
I’m a big fan of talking about meaning and purpose. I think it addresses a question we all ask at some point in time – why am I here?
For many of you, in your late teens and early twenties, it might unfair to expect you to be seriously addressing this question yet. But university can be a difficult and stressful place to be. Thinking about why you are here and what you want to get out of it is valid and sensible.
I’ll no doubt revisit this topic in future posts. I hope this post however gave you 5 things to think about as you find your own personal ‘meaning in life’.