A life without meaning is not a life worth living.
I read a quote to this effect a long time ago and it has stuck with me through the years.
But what makes a life meaningful?
Philosophers and thinkers have long grappled with this question. As far back as the 4th century BC, Aristotle declared “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
This is similar to the Stoic philosophy of eudaimonia, which is generally translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘welfare’, though it is much more complex than that.
Philosopher Iddo Landau equates meaning with the value we derive from our pursuits. He says:
“A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”
How to figure out what gives your life meaning
Philosophy is all well and good, how do we actually figure out what gives our life meaning?
Before we dive in to that, we need a working definition, because there are many different lenses through which we can find meaning.
When I think about living a meaningful life, I think about the things I value (how I spend my time), the impact I’m creating (legacy), and how connected I’m feeling with myself, the divine, and others (connection).
So broadly speaking, these are the three strands that need to work together to help us find meaning.
How you spend your time
When it comes to determining how meaningfully you spend your time, do remember that all of us spend some time on things that have little to no value. Pointless debates on social media and doomscrolling come to mind. It’s also not possible to spend all your waking hours doing meaningful work – there are things you do to unwind and to ensure your life runs smoothly, as well as various obligations that may be essential but perhaps are not meaningful.
Often, people think that meaning needs to stem from what they do for work. This isn’t always true — and not all of us are privileged to be in positions where we can pursue meaningful work that puts the bread on the table.
And while a less than optimal corporate job may take a significant chunk of your time, you can still find interests that you value, that make you feel fulfilled and that give you a sense of meaning and purpose.
One way in which you can figure out what you really value is to imagine that you’re at your death bed. What do you regret not doing the most deeply? I’m willing to bet it won’t be “giving a better presentation”! Whatever your deepest regrets, those are the things you value, and therefore those are the things that will give your life meaning.
What is your legacy?
When thinking about legacy, a lot of people believe their children are their legacy. This is not necessarily true. Implicit in this assumption is that everyone will have children. If you don’t, do you have no legacy?
The other assumption is that you and your child will have shared values, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, either.
When you think about legacy, what you’re really considering is the impact you are creating on the world around you.
As an example, Mahatma Gandhi’s lasting legacy is the non-violent movement, which influenced Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid in South Africa, and is an inspiration to oppressed people around the world.
Of course, not everyone creates impact on that scale. But when you consider your legacy, that’s the question you’re considering.
“One of the most meaningful things we can do is to serve other people, to try to improve their lives, either by alleviating sources of suffering or else by generating new sources of pleasure. One should add that in order for service to feel meaningful, it has to be in synch with our native, sincere interests. Not everyone will find medicine or social work, ballet or graphic design meaningful. It’s a case of knowing enough about ourselves to find our particular path to service.”
So ask yourself, in what ways are you impacting the people around you? How are you giving back to your community, to nature? It is important here to be true to your beliefs and what you hold dear, and not to simply pursue a course of action because that’s what most people are doing.
You could argue that Gandhi didn’t decide to launch a non-violent movement because he was thinking of his legacy, and you would be right. He believed in the idea of an independent India, free from colonial rule. That was the the thing he valued. That was how he decided to serve his country. He launched the non-violent movement because it aligned with his personal value system and what he believed in, and that became his legacy. Had he done what the other freedom fighters around the time were doing, there would have been a lot more violence against the colonizers, and Gandhi would have been another footnote in history.
Your legacy flows almost automatically from what you value doing and your personal value system.
For me, my work is my legacy. This isn’t my 9-5 job, but The Work that defines me, that fills me with joy, that nourishes me, where I find value. For me, that is the intersection between painting, writing, spiritual seeking, and psychological and philosophical thinking.
Ultimately, your legacy is, in many ways, related to the body of work you create during the pursuit of your long-term projects and interests. Both my websites, therefore, are part of my legacy.
How do you find connection?
Connection may feel a bit vague when you think about living meaningfully. Yet, if you’re not connected with yourself; unaware of your feelings, emotions, and desires; it becomes difficult to draw meaning from anything else that you may be doing with your time.
Similarly, without a sense of connection with something larger than yourself — be that the divine, Source, God, the Universe, however you want to think of it; or nature — there’s a sense of division and isolation that cuts us off from feeling truly whole.
Connection also comes from friends who “get you”; music that moves you and books that inspire you. All of these connections fuel your self-understanding, helping you understand what makes you tick, which in turn helps you to figure out where you find meaning.
Once you’ve had some time to think over these strands, you can begin to tease out the things that feel meaningful to you. This is a process that requires some reflection and introspection, and that often takes a significant amount of time to work through.
“Whereas pleasure manifests itself immediately, our taste in meaning may be more elusive. We can be relatively far into our lives before we securely identify what lends them their meaning.”
What do you think makes for a meaningful life?
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