One of my favorite studies on the meaning in life asked students to write about their “true self,” about “who you believe you really are.” Another group of students was asked to write about their “everyday self” as defined by how they actually behave in their daily life, and a third group of students was asked to write about the campus bookstore. After the writing task, the students were then asked to rate their meaning in life.
The researchers, led by Rebecca Schlegel from Texas A&M, were interested in how much detail the participants provided in their various essays, their assumption being that the more detailed description one provides about one’s true self, the more likely one is authentically in touch with that sense of self. Not surprisingly, for those people writing about their everyday self or about the campus bookstore, the amount of detail didn’t have any connection with their sense of meaning in life. However, when people wrote about their true selves, the more detailed the essay, the more the person on average experienced meaning in life.
Here, Schlegel’s empirical research backs up what existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and great humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow proposed decades ago: There is inherent value in being able to live authentically and express oneself, and such self-actualization can make our lives feel truly worth living. As the late philosopher Lawrence Becker proclaimed, “autonomous human lives have a dignity that is immeasurable, incommensurable, infinite, beyond price.”
This theoretical insight is backed up by recent empirical research within self-determination theory, which has argued forcefully that autonomy is a fundamental human need the satisfaction of which is important for our psychological growth, integrity and well-being. Just as our body needs food and water for its wellness and health, our mind needs a few basic psychosocial experiences for its wellness and health—and among these needs autonomy stands tall. As self-determination theory is currently the most studied theory of motivation within psychology, there are literally hundreds of studies demonstrating the importance of autonomy for human well-being in various life domains ranging from educational outcomes and work engagement to sport performance and dental hygiene.
Given that the need for autonomy is built into the human motivational system, it is no wonder we find something inherently worthy and fulfilling in being able to live authentically. Basic psychological needs provide a robust foundation for where to find meaning in life, as I argue in my new book A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence. And what applies to whole lives is true also for individual tasks. Hong Zhang from Nanjing University demonstrated that how much autonomy people perceive in goal-pursuit is connected to how meaningful they experienced the goal engagement to be. In my own studies, I’ve shown how having autonomy at work is one of the key qualities that makes work meaningful.
In order to live a meaningful life, then, make sure you are in touch with yourself—that you are living a life endorsed by yourself, not a life aiming at pleasing others. If you don’t follow your own values and dreams, you are most probably following values set by others—in the worst case the shallow, materialistic values promoted by mass culture and advertisements. And there is nothing more disappointing in life than living someone else’s dream. As some wisecracker has put it, it is better to be yourself, as everyone else is already taken.
Meaningfulness is about connection. While this means that a major part of the meaningfulness in our lives comes from connecting with others through intimate, caring relationships and through being able to contribute to society and those one cares about, you cannot connect with others unless you are first in touch with yourself. Otherwise it is not you who is connecting to others but just an empty shell. Only by knowing who you are and where you come from, can you start to authentically connect with others.
Autonomy is about being the author of your own life: making volitional choices to live according to your own preferences, engage in activities you find personally interesting and that express who you are, and pursue goals you find worthy. And therein lies a recipe for more meaningful living.
So, take a moment today to write about your true self and who you believe you really are as a person, what are your most important values, and what you yourself would like to pursue and have in life. Then start to figure out how could you make that true self more the self that is realized in your everyday life and work.