I have been obsessed with finding meaning in my own life, and the meaning of life generally since I was a child. You may deduce from this that I was a bit off, and you would be right! Some say I still am.
Somebody has to think of these things, and I just naturally do.
Nietzsche said “He who has a Why to live for can bear most any How.” What this means to me is that if we have meaning in our lives, we can bear almost anything. The converse is also important. Without meaning in our lives, much of what we experience may be unbearable.
Depression and anxiety are almost an epidemic in our society. The large majority of people do not care for their job. People seek unhealthy ways of escaping stress like drugs, alcohol or extramarital affairs. Church membership is on the decline. I won’t delve into politics, but you can’t turn on the television without witnessing the intense hostility within our own society. People are lost, angry, alienated, afraid and adrift.
Society has changed so much that even the models we used to have for what a good life was have changed, with nothing clear to replace it. Do we really want to go back to a 1950’s family model? I don’t. That was what my parents were raised as the model, but that model is very outdated today. And that is just one example. Life is complicated, messy and we have to figure it out on our own.
Meaning gives us hope, something to live for. This is what I hope you have, that you know – or are aware of – or seek if you aren’t aware.
Victor Frankl says there are three sources of meaning: work (doing something significant), love (caring for another) or through courage in difficult times.
Reflecting back on my life, I often didn’t have a real sense of meaning. I worked, but it was just a job. There is family that I love, but have often taken for granted.
I have gone through some difficult times, if you consider failure, but those experiences were a source of grief, not meaning.
So although some periods were better, I was just going through the motions.
Even worse, many people find meaning in work, which is great, but what happens when that is gone? When you retire or become disabled? Without having a sense of meaning beyond work, people often become depressed or feel lost.
As I stated above, meaning gives us something to live for. That there is an ultimate Purpose in life. Do you know what yours is?
If your browse through this blog, you’ll see that I write about Purpose a lot. You will find other posts that dive into the subject of Purpose in more detail, but meaning is a component of it, and closely related.
Some of the following concepts will help you:
What does lasting meaning represent to you?
If you were to define what your Purpose is, what you live for, what would that be? Really think about this one. You may not know.
I struggle with this myself, but I believe that as important as the answer is, the question and the pursuit of the answer are equally important. I gave lip service to what I knew was important, without it being internalized as a true sense of meaning.
If you are unsatisfied with the state of your life currently, or are depressed and anxious, or somehow believe there is something more for you, you probably need to do some soul searching on what is really important.
What are your core values?
This will offer a great insight as to what you find meaningful for you. Try to make a list of what your values are. Some will come easy, but those are the obvious ones: be a good person, treat others with respect, family, faith etc.
Try to stretch your mind to push beyond what is obvious and define your values in as much detail as you can. Again, the exercise itself has value.
What do you want your legacy to be?
We often live in the moment, caught up in the daily grind. We balance work, kids, schedules, bills and and endless list of activities that are pressing us for time. How often do we take the time to reflect upon how we want to be remembered, but also how we want to reflect back on our lives?
I have spent a lot of time dreaming about success, working for something that has yet to come. I also have spent a fair amount of time dwelling on the past, on bad decisions and on regret.
When I really sat down to think about my life in my later years, much of what I was focusing on was not as important as was family, close relationships, enjoying grandchildren I yet to have. I may now dream of an Airstream, but not so much the Ferarri. My perspective has changed!
Define what is meaningful to you.
Write them down. Be specific. Be clear and concise. Doing this forces you to get beyond generalizations or fleeting images of what is meaningful and makes them concrete. You can read them. More importantly, you can review them.
Being able to read a statement you made about what is meaningful to you etches it on your mind. It makes it real. You can also revisit the list later and refine it as it changes.
All if this is well and good, but if you don’t take actions in your life that are meaningful, it is all for nothing. Having a list helps you make decisions on a daily basis that are consistent with what you have defined as being meaningful.
Results are governed by our actions. Actions are governed by our thoughts. Thoughts are governed by our beliefs. In other words:
Beliefs -> Thoughts -> Actions -> Results
If you want better results, you ultimately need to clarify your beliefs, be cognizant of what you are thinking and taking consistent action.
Is all of this easy? No.
I often struggle with depression and anxiety. Stress is my own nemesis I have to deal with. These are all just adjectives, but it is hard to describe how emotionally numb and spiritually bereft I have been at times.
Reading something like this and doing something about my situation would be out of the question, quite often. I get it that at times you can just be tapped out and not have any more to give.
I also know that despite how low I may be at any given moment that there will be a time when I can give a little. That’s when you take the time to make positive changes.
In my case, I had several things I needed to do for my own mental health, as well as feel a sense of meaning again in my life.
- Drinking. I like beer, wine…well most anything that a) feels good, b) helps me escape, c) helps me get to sleep. Alcohol had to largely go from my diet because it really did interrupt my sleep, increased fatigue, contributed to poor performance and attitude at work, which all led to increased stress and anxiety.
- Diet. Damn, I sound like my doctor! I never struggled with weight much, but I do with blood sugar. Cutting out fast foods, as well as most carbs (bread, potato, pasta, rice), I ate began to eat healthier, which also gave me more energy.
- Exercise. Okay, whoever I didn’t lose at the first two probably stopped reading now, but it’s true! Exercise was my bane all of my life until recently. Now I look better, feel stronger, have more energy and actually have motivation to go to the gym. I wouldn’t have believed it either!
- Mindfulness. I am not a mindfulness guru, and to be honest, I probably couldn’t define it very accurately, so excuse the fact I use this term loosely. For me, it means being aware of what I am thinking and feeling. I acknowledge when I’m stressed, and take steps to lower it. Even if its a few minutes to breathe deep, intentionally relax and focus my mind in more positive ways, it really helps.
These are what work for me, but what works for you will be individual to your circumstance. I’m still tweeking these and I’m sure what works will change over time. The point is, that my stress levels went down, but more importantly, I am more centered, happy and can focus on what is meaningful to me.
The reality is that, per Frankl, no matter what is taken away from you, there is one thing nobody can take away. That is that you can choose how you will respond to a given situation.
If you feel like you are not living life to the fullest, that there is just something more out there, take some time and reflect on finding meaning in your own life.
Finding meaning will give you hope, peace and yes, even contentment. And that’s not a bad thing.
What do you find useful in finding meaning in your own life?