Let’s start with the most important question, Mrs Schnell: Is there a meaning in life?

We explore the meaning of life and not the meaning of life. So it’s not a question of whether there is such a thing as divine or evolutionary meaning to our existence, but rather what gives meaning to our lives. Meaning is always something very subjective. As a person in a certain context, I ascribe a certain meaning to an action, a thing, an event.

From a scientific point of view, the great meaning of life that applies to all people does not exist. So what does meaning have to do with religiosity?

When I started to deal with meaning, many assumed that religion and the experience of meaning are exclusively connected. For a long time, the church had a monopoly on meaning. Today, however, things are different: the churches are empty, but that doesn’t mean that Germany is in a crisis of identity.

Ergo, religiosity is no longer the only thing that can give meaning to our lives. In the course of our research, we identified a total of 26 sources of meaning, which are grouped into five dimensions.

Sources of meaning and dimensions sounds very abstract at first. Can you explain that in a little more detail?

The sources of meaning describe the way in which we live out our meaning. In addition to the dimensions of self-realization, order and a sense of well-being, there are two types of self-transcendence. The vertical orientation describes a sense of life based on the belief that there is a higher power, such as a god. The horizontal orientation describes the meaningful experience of a large whole in the here and now – for example through social commitment or closeness to nature.

Let’s get a little more specific: How does this knowledge help me to give my life more meaning?

The data tells us that there are a multitude of paths to meaning. Above all, the dimension of self-transcendence leads to a pronounced sense of meaning. It’s about looking away from yourself and becoming active for the big picture. Without this alignment, our level of meaning remains low.

This is an important finding, especially in today’s society, in which we increasingly focus on ourselves. Of course, we shouldn’t just keep an eye on the big picture – in the end it’s all about a healthy balance in life.

With 26 sources of meaning, there are many ways to find your own brand of meaning. Is it possible to say which source of meaning is most suitable for whom?

No, it is actually completely individual. What we do know, however, is that anyone who strives strongly for self-realization tends to have a poor sense of order and security. Otherwise it’s actually very colorful.

But there are big differences in the sense of life. There are people who have almost no meaning – and they don’t look for it either. We call this existential indifference. In these people, all 26 sources of meaning are weak.

You were just saying that in a world where it feels like everyone is striving for self-realization, there are people who have absolutely no interest in finding meaning in their existence. How can that be?

Indifference is related to various personality traits. In such a phase, people usually have the attitude that they cannot influence their lives themselves. Rather, they believe in the power of chance or that “those up there” have the upper hand anyway. We also observe a kind of resignation and low expectations of competence in people with no need for meaning. They don’t believe that they can be successful – and therefore don’t even try.

And yet they are not suffering. They are content to live a “normal” life and do what they believe is expected of them. Sometimes, however, this changes, for example when a stroke of fate challenges indifference. Then they start to think about their own lives – and often end up in a crisis of meaning. And while this is a painful condition, it is also a productive one.

So the crisis of meaning brings us into action. Don’t we all need that at some point?

Anyone who actively reflects on himself anyway and asks himself from time to time what really affects him or her, what is right and important and what makes life valuable, can also do without a crisis of meaning. Everyone else could benefit from it. Because we are used to adapting from the start.

At school we want to belong and sometimes put the question of our own values ‚Äč‚Äčaside. But that usually doesn’t stop, but continues in the course of study or everyday work. The desire to belong then often exceeds the search for meaning. A crisis of meaning can be necessary to bring about a rethink.

We often fall into a crisis of meaning when a loved one dies. Why is it that the subject of death throws us so off course?

Death is an impertinence. When we deal with our own finiteness, we realize that at some point we will simply be gone. And that’s a very brutal thought. So it takes courage to face it.

But we know that anyone who seriously deals with death has a much higher level of meaning. Simply because you are thrown back to the essentials. It is not for nothing that the most fun-loving people often work in the hospice. So death can also teach us a lot about life, for example to appreciate it, to shape it and to enjoy it.

So the search for the one big meaning of life actually makes no sense?

Many people search for the one great meaning of life and never come to a conclusion. But the moment they realize this, they can choose to give meaning to their own lives. Then they start thinking about what is important to them personally in life – and that is the first step towards a more meaningful life.

Source: Tatjana Schnell from Sinnforschung.org