One of the most challenging aspects of my mental health struggles has been overcoming my belief that my life was meaningless and therefore had no value. It became a self-perpetuating cycle: mental illness made me believe my life had no meaning and prevented me from doing anything which would give it meaning, which became evidence that my life was destined to be meaningless. I never realised I had the ability to create meaning in my life as it was, even during the worst times.
Choose your own path.
The first realisation was an obvious one: people create meaningful lives in different ways. Sometimes they focus on one aspect, such as having children or a specific career path. Many people create meaning “on the side” through art or charity work. There is no standard method of creating meaning, although there are many well-trodden paths.
Think about what you want — if I could grant all your wishes right now, what would your life look like? Choose what works for you: the values you prioritise, activities you enjoy, the goals you most want to achieve.
Creating meaning is about the process, not results, so don’t worry about whether you will be able to accomplish everything. Be open to changing direction as you learn more about yourself. At this stage, you are just beginning to explore how you find and create meaning.
Create a meaningful narrative.
Storytelling is a fantastic way of creating meaning and making sense of your life. What narrative do you want to tell? What do you want to rewrite or edit? You get to decide. You can’t change your past, but you can choose the stories you tell about it.
Forming a clear narrative from the chaos of life is empowering. You can use your story to guide your decisions and create meaning. For example, I decided the story I want to tell is about using my suffering to connect with others through my writing, whether blogging or fiction. Along the way, I want to support, encourage and inspire other people who have mental health issues.
Think about the stories other people tell about their own lives, especially those who have overcome adversity and create positive outcomes. Do any of them resonate with you? Again, don’t stress about whether you can live up to the ending you want. Your story will change many times, even if the core narrative remains the same, often in amazing and unforeseen ways.
The mosaic approach.
If you are struggling to find a narrative thread, try thinking of your life as a mosaic: you can create meaning from discrete activities and relationships, without needing to tie it all together. For instance, you may enjoy running and create meaning by occasionally fundraising when you participate in longer races. Maybe you volunteer for your church and find meaning in helping meet others’ spiritual needs (as well as your own). Perhaps you are an infrequent traveller and find meaning in exploring new cultures when you are able to get away. You could do all of these or a combination of different things.
There doesn’t need to be a single, overarching meaning across all aspects of your life. Yes, some people seem to have it, but you don’t need to. In fact, there might already be a predominant meaning which you haven’t yet identified, or perhaps never will. Your life isn’t a business proposal: you don’t need to reduce it to an elevator pitch.
Make it personal.
Creating meaning is extremely individual. You don’t need to do anything “Important” or “Selfless”. If you don’t follow your own values and preferences, you will find it very difficult to create a life which is meaningful to you. Copying other people won’t work.
You don’t need to save the world to live a meaningful life. You can create meaning in small, precious ways: crafting a beautiful piece of furniture, growing roses, reading to your child.
Mine your past and present.
Where can you already find meaning in your life? Everyone can find meaning, so “nowhere” is not a valid answer. Do you create stuff? Cook for your family? Blog? Study? Spend time with people you love? Look after a pet? Read? Walk outside? You can find meaning in all of these activities.
Check your definition of “meaning” — remember, you don’t need to save the world — and think about how other people and yourself benefit from what you do/have done. Small acts of kindness, chatting with someone, hobbies you enjoy… these have a positive impact in themselves, but can also cause a ripple effect.
Simple tasks can have meaningful outcomes which emerge much later. For example, I started spending a lot of time watching films during the worst phases of depression (well, second worst — I did nothing during the very worst points), which reignited my love of film and eventually led to a Film Studies BA. Going to university helped my confidence a lot and I would be living a very different (worse) life without it. I stayed on to study for a Creative Writing MA and continue to pursue a career in writing fiction. I didn’t know any of this when I first started watching more films and 12 years later, I think I’m only beginning to recognise its impact.
Mining your life for meaning can be slow and you may have to chip away for ages before you find a vein of gold, but it’s invaluable. Time spent searching for meaning and experimenting with ways of creating meaning is never wasted.
Consider alternative perspectives.
Ask other people about what gives their life meaning. What makes them smile? What makes their lives a little easier? You might be surprised by their answers.
How can you look at your life in different ways? For example, if you work in a supermarket and don’t find the work interesting or enjoyable (I’ve been there!), there are several perspectives which demonstrate how it can be meaningful. Perhaps the money you earn supports your family or allows you to pursue your goals. You might be the only person some people talk to all week, therefore your work helps them feel less lonely. You are developing customer service skills which will serve you well in a future job or starting your own business. The hours might enable you to spend more time with your children or pets. Maybe you take pride in doing the best job you can, for its own sake, which increases your confidence and self-esteem.
There are advantages to most situations, even if they are outweighed by the negative aspects, and they can be used to create meaning. Experiencing mental health problems is horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I have learnt many lessons from the pain and challenges. I would never go as far as to say mental illness has made my life better, but it has led to positive outcomes.
Creating meaning is an ongoing process.
Life is ever-changing, so our ways of interpreting it need to continually adapt. We may discover something which we thought would be meaningful turns out not to be. Often, we can be surprised by where we find meaning. Sometimes meaning emerges only with hindsight. As I said, creating meaning is more about the process than results.
Keep experimenting. Ask other people how they create meaning. Google it. Read for inspiration — start with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is impossible to recommend highly enough. Don’t judge yourself for finding meaning in stuff which other people deem superficial or unimportant. Avoid pressuring yourself to find all the answers straightaway. Don’t compare your path to other people’s, especially if their values differ from yours.
Start small. You are already doing many meaningful things every day, even if it’s just getting through the day.