More than making a lot of money, having a successful career, owning a big house, deep down we all want to reach the end of our lives and feel as if it was all worth it – you made a difference in this world and would happily do it all over again. But often this is not the feeling we get from our day-to-day life. Fortunately, there are many great examples of people who can teach us about what makes a meaningful life.
This week I attend the funeral of a friend’s father. He was an esteemed accountant and did important work for a local school for handicapped children, being responsible for the construction of their new building and also in charge of his grandson. He died at age 63 and fought a good battle against cancer, one he couldn’t win but which exceeded everyone’s expectations. You’d think the people who knew him best would comment on his love and devotion for handicapped children and his family (he has 3 daughters and a grandson) but all I heard was: “He was always so busy, working so much and what for? It didn’t do him any good. What a waste.”
“What for?” is the question that kept pounding in my head. I can argue he loved his work and showed it by being dedicated and that according to my friend he also spent time with his family. But then I started asking myself that same question: What for? What am I making of my life and is this a road I wish to follow? Will I feel pleased with the result of my life?
That is the question I would like you to think about. If you’re reading this, you’re still in time to make positive changes for a more meaningful and fulfilled life.
You Can Find Meaning In Any Situation
We’re not here in this world to suffer all the way through. That’s my belief as a therapist. But I also believe suffering is a necessary part of your growth and development as a human being. But how can you extract meaning out of your suffering and personal struggles? What lessons do you need to learn? How can you overcome suffering and prevent it from dominating you?
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl asked the same questions. This doctor, who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps only to lose his wife and most of his family, survived by holding onto the little bits of humanity that remain in all of us when we’re stripped of our dignity. But Frankl writes about hope and caring for others in the direst of circumstances. He realized that when you have practically nothing, sharing a bit of yourself means everything. However, his most important teaching is you can only get past suffering and see a point to it if you feel as if you’re leading a meaningful life. (For more on this wonderful author, read his masterpiece “Man´s Search for Meaning”.)
Meaningful Lives Are Happier Lives
Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, explains in his book “Authentic Happiness – Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” how we cannot only accomplish long-lasting happiness but also how we can unlock so our potential.
Who are the happiest people alive? Nuns. Yes, those devoted women who live in convents that work, pray and live in a tight community. But what is it about nuns that make them so happy for so long? You see, happiness (the long lasting one) is more than just a mere search for pleasure and gratification or just positive emotions – it’s a combination of all of that with a deep sense of meaning, of mattering, of close relationships with friends and family and ties to community.
The more focused you are on yourself (your things and your own little world) the more disconnected and unhappy you feel. You will start to think: is it all worth it without love? The answer here is balance: be a bit selfish but also take the time to care for others, to be involved in a cause or your community – to be close to others.
In his 2011 book “Flourish”, Martin Seligman expanded his initial theory and started to talk about a theory of Well-Being instead of happiness. Based on the amount of research the field of Positive Psychology has produced over the years, Seligman states that
“the people with higher levels of positive emotion, feelings of engagement and meaning in their lives are the ones with a greater satisfaction in life.”
Nonetheless, how can this help you find meaning in your life? In his PERMA model, Seligman acknowledges the five elements of life satisfaction are:
- Positive Emotions
- Positive Relationships
- Personal accomplishment
Meaning is understood as a subjective and individual evaluation of transcendence. Do you feel like you’re a part of something bigger? Are you on your life’s mission? Then you’re on the right track to finding meaning.
Recommendations To Find Meaning (Adapted from Flourish)
Please bare in mind these are just small hints. You need to start your own path and be patient. Change and growth is a process, but then again, so is the course of your life. Think of yourself as a constant “work-in-progress” and it won’t feel so hard to accomplish.
- Find joy in what you do. It’s not about money; it’s about the pleasure you take out of what you do, whether it’s volunteering to coach your son’s soccer league or helping a friend move on your day off. If it feels right, then don’t feel guilty for enjoying it.
- Connect deeply with friends and family. We often ignore friends and family and get too caught up in work or our own lives. This contributes to a feeling of being disconnected from others. It’s time to re-connect and be around the people you love.
- Do it for a greater good. Help out in your children’s school, participating in a charity event, collect clothes and food at your church for the poor. You name it, as long as it feels natural and fulfilling.
Please remember these are just a few hints and if you’re not doing it with an open heart it will not help you in your quest for meaning.
And about my friend’s father, I can tell you he was a man in love with life and his family and his work. He still felt like there was a lot to do and he wanted to keep on doing it, that’s why the doctors gave him a week to live and he resisted for three more months – he was truly a fighter and an inspiration. If he could have answered those at his funeral, he would have said he was very proud of his work and his family, and that he lived a happy and fulfilled life, in spite of being too short.
Oh, and if you’re wondering if I feel like I’m leading a meaningful life, I’ll have to answer “I’m working on it.”