It's not that only Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Florence Nightingale, Albert Einstein, Dalai Lama & such others could have a meaningful life and the rest of the humanity who somehow eke out a livelihood for themselves & their dependents can never have a meaningful life. Not everybody needs to do something of that magnitude to have a meaningful life.
My contention is that everyone can make his or her life meaningful, doing normal activities like Love, Work & Play.
To sustain well-being, people need supportive, positive relationships and social belonging. Only a few misanthropes have denied that loving relationships are a major part of what gives life meaning. Most people value romantic interactions, family ties and friendships. The 99% of people who are not psychopathic are also capable of caring for people beyond their immediate circle, showing compassion for the suffering of others, whether it is the tsunami victims in Indonesia & Japan or the Victims of 9/11 in USA or the victims of 26/11 in Mumbai or the Delhi Gang-rape case of Damini, aka Nirbhayi.
Initial romantic love or infatuation may be driven by sexual desire and other personal goals but with mature love, another person comes to matter inherently, as do children, parents and close friends. Happiness is not our sole goal, since people often pursue love-induced activities that may not contribute much to happiness, such as caring for a disabled child (Autistic or brain damaged), spouse or parent. I know of one elderly lady in my family, who has nursed her husband struck by Alzheimer's, completely bedridden, for about a decade without complaining. That is love.
A gentleman goes hiking near a stone quarry and sees a stone cutter hammering away at a big boulder and asks, " my dear sir, what are you doing?" To this the stone cutter replies, " I am reducing this boulder to smaller chunks. I get paid to do this. I have a family to support". The gentleman goes further and sees another worker chiseling away at the smaller chunks and asks the same question to which the worker says," Sir, I am doing my best to produce a standard brick of stone. I am the best stone-cutter in the entire county. I have a reputation to keep up to". The gentleman walks further and meets an old man giving finishing touches to the small blocks. He asks the same question to which the old man replies, "Sir, I think I am building a cathedral".
The first stone cutter is seeking financial satisfaction, the second personal satisfaction from his own efficiency & effectiveness, whereas the third man is seeking meaning in his activity through contributions to society at large.
Ideally if all the three kinds of satisfaction are achieved at work, it will make one's work-life very meaningful.
Play is engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose. Listening to music and reading novels or non-fiction of your choice are clearly "Play" in this sense,
For most people, play supplements love & work as a source of meaning. At the beginning and end of life, work is not expected to be of primary importance. Retired people seem to be as happy as those working and no one expects young children to be doing very much in the way of work. Hence the protests against child-labour.
Even for adults there are many kinds of activities outside of work & personal relationships that people enjoy : Reading, Watching TV, Spending time with family & friends, Movies,Parties,Picnics,Computer-related activities, Exercise, Gardening, Music making/appreciation, Drama, sports etc.
Besides our biological needs for oxygen, food, water & shelter, there are three psychological needs of competence, autonomy & Relatedness, which when fulfilled make our lives meaningful.
Competence : is people's need to feel effective in their activities by engaging in challenges and experiencing mastery in the physical & social worlds. The need for competence leads people to seek challenges appropriate to their capacities.
Autonomy : is people's need to feel that their activities are self-chosen and self-endorsed, enabling them to organize and regulate their own behaviour as an expression of their own interests & values.
Relatedness : is the need to feel a sense of closeness with others through attachments and feelings of security, belongingness & intimacy. It requires feeling connected to others whom we care for and who care for us.
HOW LOVE, WORK, & PLAY SATISFY OUR VITAL NEEDS & MAKE OUR LIVES MEANINGFUL
Activities in the realms of love, work and play can contribute enormously to satisfaction of the vital psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness.
Work is highly relevant to competence when it is challenging yet doable, so that people can perceive that they are effective. The failure to satisfy the need for competence is a partial explanation of why menial jobs are so unpleasant. Play can contribute to a sense of competence when it involves challenging activities such as sports, music and hobbies.
Satisfying the need for competence requires a degree a challenge, making it clear why some pastimes, such as watching mindless TV soap operas need not be counted as generating much value. Love, construed broadly to include friendship and compassion as well as romantic involvement, is clearly the major way to satisfy the need for relatedness.
Play, of more frivolous sorts not tied to competence might also be justified as a distraction sometimes needed from the stresses associated with the more inherently valuable pursuits of love & work.
Thus, work, play & love are clearly consonant with the needs for Competence & Relatedness, but what about the proposed need for Autonomy ?
There is some evidence from research that work is more satisfying when it is self-chosen & self-regulated, suggesting that the most enjoyable kinds of work help to satisfy the need for autonomy.
The problem with tedious jobs is not just that they do not permit feelings of effectiveness needed for competence, but also that they are controlled by others and hence do not permit people to choose for themselves & regulate their own behaviour. Games & entertainment are plausibly more satisfying when they are self-chosen. People don't like being told what they have to do for fun.
Religion & the Meaning of Life
For religious people, theology provides major sources of hope, both in their current lives and in a projected afterlife. People genuinely believe that God will provide, that things will work out for the best, that everything happens for a reason, that God loves them and cares for them, and that even if this life is a "vale of tears", it does not matter all that much, because an eternal afterlife will be wonderful. This implicit faith gives meaning to the lives of religious people.
For the skeptics, religion cannot provide meaning in their lives because of the lack of evidence for a caring God or a redeeming afterlife. Immortality, Divine love & Eternal Bliss would be really nice but as I said to myself decades ago : " Kumar, you just have to bite the bullet and learn to live without these tantalizing & puerile delusions."
Fortunately, love, work and play are real & realizable, putting a substantially meaningful life within the reach of most people like me.
The reassurance provided by religion & spirituality that everything will work out in our favour is illusory. Seeking meaning through Religion is like searching for a black cat in a dark room, which is not there.
Anybody can have a meaningful life
But most people like I said before and I reiterate, have the intellectual & material resources to achieve meaningful lives through the moderately successful pursuit of love, work and play.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why religious people are happier is that attending mass prayers, Pravachans (Gospels) and identifying oneself as a member of a religious sect contributes to a sense of Community & belongingness. If so, spirituality is not a vital need but rather a stand-in for relatedness, which can be satisfied through secular communities like Recreation clubs, Book clubs, Music concerts Association, Yoga clubs,Elder citizen's council or Forum for public lectures etc.