The meaning of life in one word?

The meaning of life in one word?

Well, sort of …

• Matter
• It matters
• What matters
• Mattering – you matter

So, matter, matters, mattering … [1]

Matter: Connection requires stuff. Matter is stuff. Without stuff, nothing matters.

It matters: The fact that there’s stuff and that we emerged from that stuff (stardust) places everything in a context, an import for being.

What matters: Interactions & relationships – at every scale from the cosmic (10^n) to the local, interpersonal, and personal – set the stage for valued connections. Dependence and interdependence.

Mattering: Within more immediate connections and interactions, each of us matters. [2]


[1] My working one-word answer for some time has been “connection.” But a recent article noted: “Increasingly a consensus is building that mattering stands on its own in psychological terms” – regarding mental health. Perhaps social health, a society’s health, as well.

While possibly available from several sources, this article was published as “Do You ‘Matter’ to Others? The Answer Could Predict Your Mental Health” by Scientific American on 10-6-2022.

[2] With the caution that mattering has a darkside. Life (and history) is full of examples where mattering is pathologically twisted. Preying upon “people’s need to feel valued and seen by others as important.”

13 comments on “The meaning of life in one word?

  1. Here’s an article which summarizes a study on the role of daily conversation in maintaining a sense of belonging. A sense of connection. And managing stress.

    • Science Daily > “Just one quality conversation with a friend boosts daily well-being” by University of Kansas (February 2, 2023) – These are among the results of a new study co-authored by University of Kansas professor of Communication Studies and friendship expert Jeffrey Hall, director of KU’s Relationships and Technology Lab.

    Conversing with a friend just once during the day to catch up, joke around or tell them you’re thinking of them can increase your happiness and lower your stress level by day’s end.

    [Hall said that] it didn’t matter which of these quality conversations [listed in the article] someone had. The very act of intentionally reaching out to a friend in one of these ways was what mattered most.

    … once is enough, but more is better. Participants who chose to have more quality conversations had better days.

    “If at least one of their quality conversations was face-to-face, that mattered,” Hall said.


  2. Connections matter. Even casual contacts.

    • The Washington Post > “How — and why — you should increase your social network as you age” by Judith Graham (April 22, 2023) – Relationships aren’t only about emotional closeness, … They’re also a source of social support, practical help, valuable information and ongoing engagement with the world around us.

    There’s no substitute for people who’ve known you a long time, who understand you deeply. … [yet] “It’s never too late to develop meaningful relationships,” said Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

    That study, now in its 85th year, has shown that people with strong connections to family, friends and their communities are “happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected,” according to “The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,” a new book describing its findings, co-written by Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the Harvard study’s associate director.

    Say you’ve joined a gym and you enjoy the back-and-forth chatter among people you’ve met there. “That can be nourishing and stimulating,” Waldinger said. Or, say, a woman from your neighborhood has volunteered to give you rides to the doctor. “Maybe you don’t know each other well or confide in each other, but that person is providing practical help you really need,” he [Waldinger] said.

    Even casual contacts — the person you chat with in the coffee shop or a cashier you see regularly at the supermarket — “can give us a significant hit of well-being,” Waldinger said.

    well-being connections

  3. In the news cycle, this week a United States Surgeon General advisory on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, addressed the need to cultivate more connected lives and more connected communities – resilient belonging, mattering. For everyone, for young people and older adults …

    • U.S Department of Health and Human Services > “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation 2023” (PDF) – a framework for the United States to establish a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection based on six foundational pillars:

    1. Strengthen Social Infrastructure
    2. Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies:
    3. Mobilize the Health Sector
    4. Reform Digital Environments
    5. Deepen Our Knowledge
    6. Cultivate a Culture of Connection

    The informal practices of everyday life (the norms and culture of how we engage one another) significantly influence the relationships we have in our lives. We cannot be successful in the other pillars without a culture of connection.

    • LA Times > “Americans face epidemic of loneliness” by Alexandra E. Petri (5-3-2023) – Surgeon general warns that isolation also has ‘profound’ health risks …

    Being socially disconnected can have both mental and physical consequences.

    The report describes social isolation as objectively having few social connections or interactions, while loneliness is a subjective and internal feeling resulting from a gap between the actual connections people experience versus the desired connections they yearn for.

    Research shows people are spending less time with friends and family or participating in clubs or organizations, driven in part by technology winding its way into our social interactions. Some people move away from their communities; many others focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships. Studies cited in the advisory showed that between 2003 and 2020, time spent with friends decreased by 20 hours per month while time spent alone increased by about 24 hours per month.

    • CNET > “Loneliness Is an ‘Epidemic,’ Surgeon General Says. Here’s What to Know” by Jessica Rendall (May 2, 2023) – Advisories are reserved for “significant public health challenges” that require immediate awareness and action, according to the surgeon general’s office.

    There’s no getting around the fact that we are social beings at our core. If we’re removed from a sense of community or do not have a feeling of belonging, it’s a threat to public health and can cause myriad health effects for the individual, as outlined in a new advisory from the Office of the US Surgeon General.

    There are lots of factors that may contribute to a person being isolated from others or feeling persistent loneliness – some of them outlined in the advisory include shrinking social networks, increased social media use and people feeling polarized from each other due to differing ideologies.

    Hands of well-being

  4. There’s no “loneliness gene,” eh.

    Thinking about America’s societal myths and “cage of norms” … erosion of deep community … escaping the past … “what connects and what alienates” … being tethered for weathering the times …

    This article cites depictions by America’s early art movements and by Hollywood films (like John Ford’s Westerns): Fundamental American tall tales portray a nation built on notions of rugged individualism and heroic loners.

    Societal strains of individual-over-community sentiment [1] can be as deadly as biological epidemics.

    Will our plans for space exploration and off-world colonization just be other settings – more vast landscapes – for such sentiment?

    • AP News > “How the American Dream convinces people loneliness is normal” by Ted Anthony (May 16, 2023) – In the age before democracy, for better and for worse, “People weren’t lonely. They were tied up in a web of connections …” [Colin Woodard, director of the Nationhood Lab at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.]

    In reality, loneliness in America can be deadly. This month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared it an American epidemic, …

    Do the contours of American society — that emphasis on individualism, that spreading out with impunity over a vast, sometimes outsized landscape — encourage isolation and alienation?

    [Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the mid-1800s:] “They [Americans] acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands, … [making] every man forget his ancestors, …”

    … many frontier myths skip over how important community has been in the settling and growth of the nation. Some of the biggest stories of cooperation … sometimes get lost in the fervor for character-driven stories of individualism. … to the point where advocacy about community thinking is sometimes met with accusations of socialism.

    Solitude and isolation do not automatically equal loneliness. But they all live in the same part of town.


    [1] The importance of place and community is discussed in Rana Foroohar’s 2022 book Homecoming – The Path to Prosperity in a Post-Global World. For example, the difference between people as “somewheres” or “anywheres.”

    See also these books re social change in America:

    Putnam, Robert D.. Bowling Alone – The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster (2000). Kindle Edition.

    Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books (2011). Kindle Edition.

    Alone in the stars

  5. Another perspective on meaning, connections, community. In 5 words.

    • CNBC > “I’m a psychology expert in Finland, the No. 1 happiest country in the world – here’s the real meaning of life in 5 words” by Frank Martela (June 9, 2023)

    … the bigger question isn’t about some cosmic meaning of life. It’s about how to find meaning in life. What makes life feel worthy and valuable to you?

    I’ve learned that finding meaning in life boils down to five words: Make yourself meaningful to others.

    You can do this by opening yourself up to deep connections with both your community and your passions.

    Key points (see article for details)

    1. Live for yourself, not someone else’s expectations.

    2. Become an expert and share your knowledge.

    3. Practice random acts of kindness.

    4. Be a good neighbor [communal work].

    5. Embrace quiet time together.

    * Frank Martela, PhD, is a Finnish philosopher and psychology researcher who studies the fundamentals of happiness. He is a lecturer at Aalto University in Finland and the author of “A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence.”

    Communal meaning

  6. Paradoxes. This article reminded me about an insight when I was in grad school: paradoxes reveal deeper meanings. Making the world look different (“things are fresh, new”). And all my poetry then when.

    (quotes from article)

    “Poetry helps us meditate on what is both true and amazing … where people do extended imaginative thinking about slippery paradoxes … the true strangeness of human experience.”

    “Meaning [the meaningscape] is … a roiling mess of too much meaning and too much nonsense …”

    “Rituals and poetry help us feel these connections.”

    • Big Think > “Why the search for meaning is not a job for science — or religion” by Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of The Wonder Paradox (June 16, 2023) – Paradoxically, a lot of us are awfully wise and awfully miserable. What matters to us is what matters.


    Life is full of paradoxes, and perhaps the best way to approach them is through “poetic realism,” [1] which encourages a sense of wonder and curiosity without the supernatural [2][3].

    Many nonbelievers claim that the search for meaning is an individual pursuit. But this is incorrect because meaning is found in our relationships. [Meaning is relational – “we exist in webs of meaning.”][4]

    Rituals, art, meditation, and community serve as alternative pathways to finding meaning traditionally served by religion.

    [The path to a more connected understanding – working to know more:] the more we know, the less trapped we are. The ways of being that we are stuck in as individuals and as communities are not the only ways of being.


    (quotes from article)

    I call myself a poetic realist, by which I specifically mean that I think about the world we have, without the supernatural, but with all the big questions.

    … where we can’t speak with measurements [science], and we reject belief in stories that aren’t sensible outside a given culture, we can speak in poetic [vs. mystic] terms. The inner lives of human beings and their relationships with others and with nature is a world which can be understood poetically with as much flair and fancy, wisdom and depth, mystery and wonder, as any supernatural confection.

    [Regarding holidays,] I try to feel the connection we have with each other, everyone, but especially what I call the interfaithless — those of us at our various old rituals, not believing any of it, but believing in the “inter.”


    [1] Cf. physicist Sean Carroll’s “poetic naturalism.”

    [2] Cf. my poem: MORE LESSONS … (from gerbil poems)

    “what preserves wonder
    without regressing all to mean utility?”

    [3] Cf. my poem: from Sisyphus in the back yard

    “the gods sported and faded from the press, …”

    [4] Likewise, many believers see “saving their soul” as an individual pursuit. But this perspective often marginalizes any social gospel.

    Up is down ...

  7. Pearls of wisdom … life lessons …

    • CNBC > “71-year-old shares the 22 ‘most useful’ life lessons for young people – ‘how much to tip’ and handling ‘rude people’” by Kevin Kelly, Contributor [1] (June 15, 2023)


    Active listening is a superpower.

    Hanging out with smarter folks enhances learning.

    Being interested in others makes you more interesting.

    Living cheaply when young – owning as little as possible, living in a tiny room, eating mostly beans & rice (for at least six months) – prepares you for taking risks in the future (“you won’t be afraid of the worst-case scenario”).

    Being honest about (owning) your faults will earn respect.

    Treating rude people like they have an affliction or illness “will make it easier to have empathy towards them, which can soften the conflict.”

    Finding your passion (e.g., being an expert on one thing) will help center your bliss.

    Wanting what you already have (vs. what others have) leads to happiness.


    [1] Kevin Kelly helped launch and edit Wired magazine. He has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and is the author of “Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier” and “What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable.” He frequently gives presentations about the consequences of technology.

    In the jar ...

  8. Life is full of distractions from what matters most. D’oh!

    Insights from evolutionary and social & psychological sciences provide a framework for happiness. (Yes, there’s a Journal of Happiness Studies.)

    • The Atlantic > “The Path to Happiness Is Narrow But Easy” by Arthur C. Brooks [1] (June 15, 2023) – There are more ways to be unhappy than to be happy, but the narrow path is a straightforward one: a conscious focus on your relationships.


    We have a cognitive bias for negative information over positive information. [Negative information has a stronger psychological impact.]

    Negative outcomes have a greater range and variance [a wider “gate” or “on-ramp”] than positive outcomes.

    In general, positive things in life are more similar to one another than negative things are. … one study … showed that people find happy words more interchangeable than unhappy words.

    A (research) project found that happier people are indeed more similar in character to one another than unhappy people are.

    In a 2008 article “What Do Happy People Do?” – two psychologists … put it simply, they are social [with relatives, neighbors, friends, …].

    Happier people also rate the quality of their relationships more highly [cohesive model].

    Membership [in the happiness club] does not depend on whether you have a certain net worth, family configuration, or set of ideological views.


    [1] Arthur Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the host of the How to Build a Happy Life podcast.

    Path to happiness

  9. Some trends predate the pandemic. Job switching. Rethinking work – e.g., reimagining the iconic climbing to bigger & better. Work-life balance, what matters – eliciting (digging out) meaning.

    This article contains excerpts from an interview with Bruce Feiler, author of “The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World.”

    • Yahoo > Finance > “Follow your passion is bad career advice, author finds” by Kerry Hannon, Senior Columnist [1] (June 19, 2023) – What makes people the happiest at work and how do those who succeed discover what brings them meaning?

    (from interview)


    My priority throughout was simple: How can I help people find more meaning through work?

    Every way that we’ve talked about the career in the last century has been through this linear framework [an “iron cage”]: the career path, the corporate ladder, the resume, a linear list of jobs. Each one’s supposed to be bigger — but today we have non-linear lives, but we have linear expectations.

    BAD CAREER ADVICE (see article for more detail)

    … bad career advice No. 1 is “follow your passion”. … Only 1 in 10 followed their passion, the rest discovered it or made it along the way. … your passion will change over time and circumstances …

    Bad career advice No. 2: “Make a 10-year plan”. … the average person goes through 20 “workquakes” in the course of their lives.

    The third bad piece of career advice is: “Separate your life from your work”. … the majority of workquakes – 55% – begin outside of the workplace.


    People want to work hard, but they’re not prepared to sacrifice their own happiness. And that’s a massive change today. … We all go through … moments of change many times in our lives …

    The most important step is to realize work doesn’t have to be miserable. The second most important step is identifying what is work that would not make you miserable, but would instead make you happy. It doesn’t have to be leaving the organization. [2]


    [1] Kerry Hannon is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a workplace futurist, a career and retirement strategist and the author of 14 books, including “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New Work of Work” and “Never Too Old To Get Rich.”

    [2] Cf. this article on Gen Z’s perspective on the workplace.

    • Washington Post > “What Gen Z wants in the workplace” by Britt Peterson (June 16, 2023)

    “What Gen Z wants is to do meaningful work with a sense of autonomy and flexibility and work-life balance and work with people who work collaboratively,” said Julie Lee, director of technology and mental health at Harvard Alumni for Mental Health, and an expert on Gen Z health and employment. Gen Z is less afraid to ask for the things that everyone else really wants and needs, …

    Rethinking the job ladder

  10. Knitting together purpose

    Summary [of this article below]: A sense of purpose in life, irrespective of its nature, can be a robust defense against loneliness.

    • Neuroscience News > “Sense of Purpose May Shield Against Loneliness” by Talia Ogliore, Washington University in St. Louis (June 26, 2023) – It’s not just about being around others.

    A new study, involving over 2,300 Swiss adults, found fewer instances of loneliness among individuals who led a purposeful life. While some activities that provide a sense of purpose entail social interactions, the study stresses that combatting loneliness transcends mere company.

    [This] new study co-authored by Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, offers an important message for our times: A sense of purpose in life — whether it’s a high-minded quest to make a difference or a simple hobby with personal meaning — can offer potent protection against loneliness.

    Many of the activities that can provide a sense of purpose — joining a club, volunteering at a school, playing in a sports league — involve interaction with others, which is one reason why a purpose-filled life tends to be less lonely.

    Key Facts

    1. The study found that feelings of loneliness were less common in people who led a purposeful life, irrespective of their age.

    2. While activities involving social interactions can provide a sense of purpose, it’s not merely the presence of others but the sense of purpose that combats loneliness.

    3. Finding purpose becomes crucial in older adults, especially those in their 70s and beyond, a period often associated with increased loneliness.

  11. Social connections

    At my health club, in the gym, I’ve talked with other members & trainers about exercise and diet. So, what’s “social fitness?” It’s about actively maintaining social connections of all shapes and sizes.

    This article cites several experts, some studies in the UK, and lists other related articles. And notes that social media is a mixed bag.

    • Science Focus > “Social fitness is the biggest predictor of a happy life. Here’s how to improve yours” by Kelly Oakes (June 24, 2023) – The feeling of connection to others and the wider world appears to be the active ingredient that makes social connection so good for our well-being.

    For Sandstrom [Dr Gillian Sandstrom], a senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness at the University of Sussex, talking to strangers didn’t always come naturally. … Now, it’s a skill she’s glad she cultivated. … her research looks at the benefits of those small, day-to-day interactions …

    [Sandstrom’s useful pointers are – see article for more detail]

    1. Choose your “target” wisely
    2. Select your topic
    3. Ask someone a question
    4. Don’t expect the worst

    In fact, [some] research shows that group-based social connections, rather than individual relationships, seem to be most important for our cognitive health. [1]

    The ideal social life will, of course, vary between people [perhaps due to circumstances beyond our control]. … Do you have plenty of friends but lack that feeling of being connected to something bigger? Or are you heavily involved in your community, but long for a close friend to confide in?

    “It’s not about the amount of contact we have with people, it’s much more about the quality of that contact and that sense of belonging that we derive from it,” says Cruwys [Tegan Cruwys, an associate professor and clinical psychologist at the Australian National University].


    [1] As noted previously, social groups can be dysfunctional as well – take us to the darkside, down pathological rabbit holes, and into unreality.

  12. Hello strangers

    Here’s an interesting discussion about social connection and daily conversations. A research project on what makes people happy.

    • NPR > Goats and Soda > “Why a stranger’s hello can do more than just brighten your day” – podcast with Ari Shapiro (Host), Rhitu Chatterjee (Byline), and Gillian Sandstrom (psychologist), Hanne Collins (grad student, Harvard Business School) (August 23, 2023)

    SANDSTROM: In general, people who tended to have more conversations with weak ties [interactions with strangers and other people they didn’t know well] tended to be a little happier than people who had fewer of those kind of interactions on a day-to-day basis.

    CHATTERJEE: And here’s the thing. Other research shows that it’s not just talking to strangers and acquaintances that make us happy, …

    CHATTERJEE: What they found was that the richer the mix of different relationships in someone’s daily conversations, the happier they felt. For example, a person who has spent their day talking to all kinds of people – colleagues, family, friends, strangers, acquaintances – they’re more likely to feel happier than someone who only spoke with, say, colleagues and friends.

    COLLINS: When you have connection with lots of different people and lots of different relationship types, it might kind of build the sense of community and belonging to kind of a larger social structure that might be very powerful.

  13. Friendship circle

    Another article from CNBC’s Make It’s Tools for Happiness series.

    • CNBC > “Harvard happiness expert: There are 3 types of friendships – here’s why you need them all” by Renée Onque (Sep 4, 2023)

    The renowned Greek philosopher Aristotle narrowed down three types of friendships … And Arthur Brooks, a Harvard professor who teaches a course about how to manage happiness, believes we need all three friendships … that appeared in Brooks’ article titled “The Best Friends Can Do Nothing for You” …

    1. Utility friendships
    2. Friendships based on pleasure
    3. “Perfect” friendships

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