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sketch and drawing of Cats in the Cradle song and parents not making time for their children

❝The question is not what the meaning of life is; the question is how to design your life in such a way that you don't have to look for meaning.❞ -Seph Fontane Pennock

I'm in my kitchen, grabbing a bag of popcorn out of the microwave. I'm getting ready to watch a movie I haven't seen yet but heard good things about. It's called Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a comedy about Peter going to Hawaii after a bad breakup, only to find his ex-girlfriend at the same resort with her new boyfriend.

In one scene, Peter is trying to learn how to surf from an instructor named Chuck, who calls himself Kunu. Kunu is a bit of an airhead, and his instructions to Peter are to not try to surf and surf instead. He continues to instruct Peter that the less he does, the more he does, or that he should not do anything in order to do something.

The scene is hilarious; Jason Segel did a fantastic job portraying the absurdity of doing less to do more, and Paul Rudd did what Paul Rudd does and made it feel awkward.

Ten years later, I read Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search For Meaning for the first time. In it, he suggests not aiming at success, happiness, or meaning because when we make those things a target, we miss them. He claims that happiness and meaning cannot be pursued but must ensue as a side effect of our actions. In other words, the more we search for meaning, the less we experience meaning. On one hand, it makes sense; on the other, it sounds absurd; don't look for meaning; just experience meaning.

Then I remembered the movie, and suddenly the surfing lesson scene hit me differently. They were highlighting - in a comedic way - the paradox between wanting and pursuing something.


Frankl believed that humans have an innate drive to find meaning in life and believe that this is our primary motivator. This idea seems pretty simple. I want to find meaning; therefore, I should search for meaning.

sketch and drawing of a person pursuing a meaningful life

Unfortunately, Frankl's idea that meaning can't be pursued has been well-researched since, most notably by Michael Steger and his colleagues. There seems to be an invisible wall between us and a meaningful life, and by searching for meaning in life, we end up hitting that wall.

sketch and drawing of meaning cannot be pursued but must ensue


It seems like a paradox; the more I look for meaning in life, the less I experience meaning in life. It's almost as if there's a fork in the road, and we get to choose whether to look for meaning or experience meaning.

For example, parents could be trying to figure out ways to incorporate more family time – something they find meaningful - and, in doing so, miss out on opportunities to experience family time by going to the park with their children.

Another example is someone who reads the latest book on meaning, trying to find ways to live a more meaningful life. However, by reading this book, there is less time to meet a friend for coffee.

sketch and drawing of the trade off between the presence of meaning and the search for meaning

The Meaning in Life Questionnaire assesses two dimensions of meaning in life, the presence of and search for meaning. Presence measures how full you feel your life is of meaning. Search measures how engaged and motivated you are in efforts to find meaning in your life.


If we can't look for meaning to find meaning, what are we supposed to do?

The answer is to ask yourself what feels meaningful to you. What can you do on a regular basis to experience meaning? These are your sources of meaning.

Meaning in life comprises three components: purpose, coherence, and significance. Ideally, you'll have sources of meaning across all three components. Some sources of meaning may cover two or even three of the components at the same time. Further, as best you can, you want to have multiple sources of meaning so that if you lose the ability to experience a particular source of meaning, you have other sources that can take its place.

sketch and drawing of sources of meaning


The solution to the paradox, then, is to design your life so that you don't have to go looking for meaning because you experience it by default.

sketch and drawing of designing your life you do don't have to look for meaning

By engaging in meaningful activities, you bypass the wall that exists when we search for meaning. We no longer have to search for it; we just do it. The less we search, the more we experience (or at least, the more we can experience).

sketch and drawing of pursuing the experience of meaningful activities

This is what Frankl talked about when he said meaning can't be pursued. Pursuing meaning means searching for meaning, and the more we make this the object of our goals, the less likely we are to achieve it. Meaning instead ensues as a result of engaging in meaningful activities. Thus, meaning cannot be pursued; it can only ensue as a side effect of engaging in meaningful living.

sketch and drawing of meaning ensuing, but being pursued

It sounds paradoxical, but searching for a meaningful life distracts us from living it.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related Reading
References and Influences

Baumeister, Roy: Meanings in Life

Emmons, Robert: THANKS!

Fabry, Joseph: The Pursuit of Meaning

Frankl, Viktor: The Will to Meaning

Lukas, Elisabeth & Bianca Hirsch: Meaningful Living

Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked

Steger, Frazier, Oishi, & Kaler: The Meaning in Life Questionnaire

Steger, Michael & Pninit Russo-Netzer: Meaning360

Vos, Joel: Meaning in Life

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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