How to live a fulfilling life, according to science

By Thomas Bainbridge

What is the meaning of life? In an age where scientific rationalism is quickly overtaking religious convictions for many, especially in industrialised nations, this question becomes ever-more pertinent and uncomfortable to grapple with. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Levin describes that “if you once realise that tomorrow, if not today, you will die and nothing will be left of you, everything becomes insignificant!” If this is true (and assuming the absence of any god) how might we find meaning in such a supposedly pointless existence?

Meaning might be described as a sense of significance that one holds in their life. Some might say that such meaning can be found in happiness: a 2013 psychological study in the US found that meaning and happiness do indeed have a substantial overlap regarding peoples’ lives.

However, one did not necessarily constitute the causation of the other (as was found about 50% of the time). For example, participants described an increase in happiness if they arbitrarily received something they wished for, but this did not correlate to an increase in meaning in their lives.

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and polymath, described that, to live a fulfilling life, one should ‘learn everything’

Another example of this was health: those who were healthier were happier, but this did not particularly lead to a more meaningful life in itself. While another 2016 study did find that fulfilment in life can be attained through physical activity, it is rather the act of becoming healthier, and thus breaking through mental barriers, that is meaningful: “having valued goals keeps individuals behaviourally engaged in life.”

Furthermore, a good family setting and social life were shown to be invaluable to a notion of meaning. People gained fulfilment through helping others, even without necessarily seeing an increase in their own overall happiness. In this way, it is obvious that strong connections are intrinsic to a meaningful life.

This maps clearly onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: a psychological theory that compartmentalises human requirements in their differing degrees. As it ascends, the hierarchy increases in complexity and, as one level becomes firm, the next can better be sought after. These levels describe that a human should first (1) have physiological necessities met. These are basics, such as food, water, warmth, and shelter. These would obviously not bring much meaning to a human existence but would merely allow it to survive.

Secondly (2), safety and security, such as a job and knowledge of future access to 1, providing some order to life. Then (3), as shown in the study, the social connections that are so important to our lives (be they romantic or platonic).

Finally, (4) and (5), esteem and self-actualisation, which act as the highest levels that we strive for and underpin our feelings of achievement and manifest themselves in forms of self-respect and confidence, thus increasing the fulfilment one might feel in their life. This might be achieved through anything such as academics, sports, or the arts.

“Pursuing projects that are difficult and uncertain” is a major contributing factor in finding meaning

From a physiological perspective, as someone improves in a specific domain, an elevation in serotonin levels in the body simultaneously occurs. The increase of this ‘feel good’ hormone leads to a resulting confidence that might allow someone to act out one’s life as they wish. A large enough decrease in serotonin, however, might lead to depression, thus showing the palpability of the need for meaning in our lives.

In this vein, Bertrand Russell, philosopher and polymath, described that, to live a fulfilling life, one should ‘learn everything’, as knowledge constitutes the ultimate good. Certainly, education and improvement in general seem paramount. As was found in the original study, “pursuing projects that are difficult and uncertain” is a major contributing factor in finding meaning, even (and in fact especially) if failure occurs along the way.

Simply put, it seems that, beyond a job and the material objects that might allow our continuing existence, we require strong familial bonds and friendships to sustain our sense of meaning, as well as something which we can chase in a productive manner. This echoes Nietzsche’s sentiment that “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  What this why might be, however, is up to the individual.

Image: Austin Chan via Unsplash

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