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"Meaning" - An Antidote for the Loneliness Epidemic

People in 21st-century America have lifestyles beyond the wildest imaginations of those in earlier generations. There is greater wealth, better healthcare, more convenient transportation, cleaner water, and more access to information and education than at any other time in history. America is more connected and comfortable than any society has ever experienced.


Counter to our expanding standard of living in America, many are living in a crisis. Life expectancy is declining faster than any other developed demographic. Chronic stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, attention deficit disorders, and even suicide rates are climbing at catastrophic rates. Despite our remarkable wealth, comfort, and connection, people are describing themselves as feeling empty and without meaning. Social scientists have now identified a “loneliness epidemic,” which experts say is being driven by a lack of meaningful relationships.


Vivek H. Murthy, US Surgeon General, recently stated that loneliness has risen to “epidemic proportions” and is “a profound issue that is affecting people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.” He further explained, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” Ironically, one can have hundreds of “friends” on a myriad of social media platforms, be surrounded by great crowds, and still be very lonely. University of Florida President, Ben Sasse, shared, “Loneliness is not merely isolation or an individual’s perception of being alone and isolated, but rather an inability to find meaning in one’s life.”  


Today, much is being written and shared about happiness and meaning. We believe there is a difference between meaning and happiness. We might be tempted to equate meaning with happiness, and sometimes we experience happiness at the same time as meaning. But meaning can also be felt in moments of suffering and trial if we know that our suffering is taking place in a context that makes sense to us and has a worthwhile purpose. According to positive psychology researchers, happiness is a positive state of well-being that can be short or long-term and can apply to both small and big things. For example, you can feel happy that your soup is hot or you can feel happy that you have people who love you. The overall feeling of happiness is the same. Meaning, on the other hand, is the idea that your life has a purpose and is valuable to both yourself and to others. It’s the feeling that your life is rewarding, that it matters in some way.


A meaningful life is the very essence of a good life, whereas a meaningless life is closely related to despair, depression, and even giving up on life entirely. At Ampelis, we believe that meaning is an individual and lifelong pursuit. That is why we think there is nothing more important than understanding what meaning is and how to cultivate it in our lives. Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, explained that the search for meaning is a fundamental human need, as essential as the need for food, shelter, and love. He argued that individuals are naturally inclined to seek meaning and purpose in their lives.


At Ampelis, our research of meaning—found in philosophy, psychology, religion, science, and even history—has influenced our framework of where we believe meaning is found. Added to our research are the practical observations of those lives whom we would call the “titans of meaning.” Individuals ranging from Jesus Christ, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Joan of Arc, and Socrates, to more modern figures like Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Helen Keller, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., played a role in helping us frame our thesis of defining how meaning is found. Not to be forgotten are perhaps less famous, but just as impactful, personalities like a grandma, grandpa, parent, sibling, teacher, coach, or neighbor, representing those quiet or even hidden lives that seem full of deep purpose and “meaning.”


Through our research and experience helping countless individuals, families, and groups discover more meaning in their lives, we have identified three main areas in life where we believe “meaning" resides: (1) the development of self, (2) relationships with others, and (3) cultivating spirituality. In summary, we identify the meaning framework as, “Self, Others, and Spirituality.”


Development of Self: The development of self is not merely an ancillary aspect of life; it is the very core, the critical essence, that breathes meaning into our existence. It is through the relentless pursuit of self-awareness, growth, and authenticity that we unearth the profound purpose of our journey. The journey toward self-discovery illuminates our values, clarifies our aspirations, and guides us toward our true life’s calling. As we evolve and become the best versions of ourselves—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—we unlock the door to a life imbued with profound meaning, where our actions align with our deepest values, and our contributions to the world take on a significance far greater than personal gain. In nurturing our own development, we not only enrich our lives but also find our place within the tapestry of humanity—contributing our unique threads to the grand narrative of existence. Thus, the development of self is not an optional endeavor; it is the vital heartbeat of a life lived with purpose and profound significance.


Relationship with Others:  Building, nurturing, and maintaining relationships with others significantly contributes to a purposeful and meaningful life in several ways. The longest in-depth longitudinal study on human life ever conducted—The Harvard Study of Adult Development—has highlighted a simple and profound conclusion: quality relationships distinctly impact our overall health and quality of life. Further studies have consistently shown that people with strong and supportive social connections report higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, physical health, and mental health. Most notably, a recent meta-analysis found that those with strong social relationships are 50 percent less likely to die prematurely regardless of age, sex, or health status. Social disconnection, on the other hand, was found to be at least as harmful (if not more) to people as obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Meaningful, quality relationships can bring joy, health, and fulfillment to your life, which are essential components of a purposeful existence. Whether added meaning is found in receiving emotional support, a sense of belonging, aiding personal growth and self-awareness, or relishing in shared experiences and memories, “relationships with others” is an essential component to living a meaningful


Cultivating Spirituality: Cultivating spirituality is undeniably at the core of living a profoundly meaningful life. Spirituality—defined broadly as one’s search for meaning, purpose, and the pursuit toward interconnectedness with self, others, community, and a higher power—has been linked to a myriad of health outcomes. In a systematic review of over 3,000 peer-reviewed studies, Koenig (2012) found a strong link between spirituality and better mental health (e.g., decreased depression and anxiety, improved self-esteem), life satisfaction, decreased completed/attempted suicide, decreased alcohol and drug use/abuse, and increased social support. Spirituality can be a guiding light that illuminates our path through the intricacies of existence, providing a deep sense of purpose that transcends the everyday. Embracing spirituality allows us to delve into the depths of our own souls and recognize our intrinsic connection to something greater than ourselves. Sacred pursuits offer solace during life's trials, impart wisdom in times of doubt, and nurture an endless reservoir of love and compassion to share with others. In essence, the heart of a meaningful life isn't merely found in the pursuit of material wealth or fleeting pleasures; it resides in the quest for higher truths, the acknowledgment of our interconnectedness with something divine, and the profound fulfillment that arises from aligning our lives with the spiritual essence that permeates our being.


Conclusion: We find ourselves in an era of unprecedented comfort, wealth, and connectivity; yet paradoxically, many are grappling with a crisis of meaning and profound loneliness. The pursuit of happiness, while valuable, is distinct from the quest for meaning. Meaning is not just about fleeting moments of joy, but the profound sense that our lives have purpose and value, both to ourselves and others.


At Ampelis, we firmly believe that a meaningful life is the very essence of a good life, and its pursuit is an individual journey deeply rooted in the development of self, building genuine relationships with others, and the cultivation of spirituality. We believe the focus on self, relationships, and spirituality is not optional—it represents the vital threads that weave purpose into the tapestry of our existence.


As we delve into the depths of our own souls, foster connections with those around us, and cultivate spirituality, we illuminate our path towards a life of profound significance and fulfillment. Our actions align with our values, and our contributions to the world take on a significance far greater than personal gain. By understanding that meaning is an individual pursuit, we embark on a transformative journey that enriches not only our lives, but also contributes to the grand narrative of humanity. In the relentless pursuit of meaning, we find our true purpose and our place within the interconnected web of existence. So, let us continue to nurture the development of self, cherish our relationships, and cultivate our spirituality, for in doing so, we unlock the secret to a life lived with depth, purpose, and profound significance.

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