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What is a Meaningful Life?
What is a meaningful life? How do we live a life of meaning?
In the early story of Gilgamesh a half human half god dating back to roughly 600BC; Gilgamesh finds that ruling the planet with all of his powers is too easy for him. He creates mischief and troubles the gods to tempt them into a more challenging life. The gods send him a rival and after challenges and exploits friend Enkidu dies at the hands of the gods. Gilgamesh proclaims to himself;
“for whom have I labored? For whom have I journeyed? For whom have I suffered? I have gained absolutely nothing for myself. What does it mean, our struggle through life if in the end we die, if in the end we make mistakes?”
Here we have a powerful demigod with incredible gifts at his disposal yet he yearns for an answer for meaning and he questions his own mortality.
Viktor Frankl an Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor believed that at the heart of being human was purpose and the quest for meaning. Even after seeing friends and others suffer and die, Frankl believed;
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Going back to the early story of Gilgamesh, although we will suffer at times in life, although we will lose loved ones, although we may feel lost, although we are physically small in the universe, we still matter.
The choices we make in our own present moment matters and our meaning is unique. If we live a life of meaning and have purpose no matter what challenges we may face, we have a unique identity and choice in our meaning and a choice to choose ‘our own way.’
With respect to Michael Steger for his remarkable influence on the above.
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by a lack of meaning and purpose.”
Having meaning can not only help us in times of suffering, but it can help us create positive emotion and also create happier communities around us. Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory shows how positive thinking and interactions can physically change us from our eyes broadening all the way to our brains adapting via neuroplasticity. As we engage in positive emotion we become more creative and open to new ideas (broaden) and we then grow our positive emotions and positive community engagement (build). We often find that our strongest values align with positive social relationships and by taking time to create personal values and explore them, then we can begin to find meaning.
How do we begin to find meaning in our lives?
We can break down meaning into two key sections;
Finding daily values through mindfulness and when those moments occur being fully present minded to appreciate those micro moments of emotion. When we practice accepting what is and being present, it can open up our eyes to the beauty all around us.
A purpose, a why that is bigger than ourselves. This will be ‘our lighthouse’ and involves the planet and others. If it was 2am you would answer the call.
The world is full of good but the world is also broken. Have you looked to fix it? Have you done all of your work? This is where our ongoing narrative comes into play. We exchange ideas and emotions with other human beings, animals and nature but only we as individuals will truly understand the full nature of our personal story. Our stories can be told and cross over to one another. Through mindfulness and synchrony we can have moments as we earlier suggested with Barbra Fredrickson. This is our personal narrative.
The Lighthouse Metaphor
The Lighthouse is bigger than us and something for us to navigate towards. We are goal orientated beings and we need something to aim too. The Lighthouse is also the thing that can bring us longer lasting well-being and increased happiness. Although living a happy life and living a meaningful life are different it is become ever apparent of the health benefits of living with a life of meaning.
Dr Pninit Russo-Netzer says that studies have shown that people living with a life purpose is a key predictor in health and well-being in old age. Adults who are concerned with leaving a legacy behind are happier, healthier and more resilient than other adults.
In addition to this studies have shown that adults with a lack of purpose have been associated with a range of psychological difficulties.
Dr Pninit Russo-Netzer suggests;
The lighthouse is essentially the organising principal in our lives. It means that our lives matter and are directed by values and a purpose.
The three main building blocks of the meaning in life;
1. Cognitive comprehension; the ability to understand and make sense of experiences in your life and bring them together into a coherent role.
2. Having Purpose; motivation towards your values in your life.
3. Mattering in life; is the belief that your existence is significant and valued in the world.
One way for us to create Greater Meaning in our lives is through the concept of Hedonic well-being and Eudaimonic well-being.
Hedonic Well Being: This is the process of ‘feeling good’ and this is short lived albeit still an important part of your well-being. For example your boss at work gives you praise or a reward.
Eudaimonic Well Being: This form of well-being is more of a journey and long lived. It is continuous and we integrate both positive and negative emotions and learn throughout this. This can bring deeper and longer lasting well-being as it is continuous and ever evolving.
Dr Itai Ivtzan suggests that if we found a place that we saw as beautiful for example a coastline on holiday we have never seen before; we would be filled with elation and warmth. If we lived in this location the positive feelings from this view could still be reasonably strong but they would dissipate and you would get used to that view. If we practiced mindfulness daily as we have discussed with Daily Values and Daily Meaning we would always appreciate the view of the coast line in a new light each time.
He then suggests that organically though this process we can begin to descend beyond our forms of Daily Meaning and begin to learn more about ourselves and with time discover a Greater Cause.
What action can we take to find values and meaning for ourselves?
- Practice mindful thinking: 1) When with a loved one put your phone away and actively engage in the conversation, the tonality, be present with the conversation and environment. Begin to find deeper values in your social relationships. 2) When walking in nature appreciate the leaves, the breeze, the skyline and begin to find values in nature.
- When you have returned from work ensure you focus on your friends and family with a present mind. We are often guilty of thinking about family when at work and when at home we think about work. A good metaphor would be a parent returning home from work and their child runs up to them to give them a hug; most of us would sadly admit that during that hug we would be focusing on work and also organizing the house for dinner. Instead embrace that hug and that love for those precious ten seconds without thinking about anything else.
- We often live our lives fundamentally around work and financial income. Take time to think deeply about what matters to you in life and write it down on paper. Money is a fuel which can be used for good and bad. We should learn to create our days around things of value instead of our days around work and then using what little energy we have left for our values and loved ones. We can find value in our jobs or move to a job that aligns with our values such as a company that significantly contributes to community good.
- We often focus on our own lives and give to charity as an after thought. Any donation monetarily or through your time is truly generous and a gift from you, it truly is. However as we have learned from the story of Gilgamesh and wise words of Viktor Frankl the foundation of our very being is our choice to choose our own way and our valued meaning behind our view of the world. Take time to think about the world you would like to see for yourself, your family, your friends, your community and the world itself. First focus on your daily values and values in social relationships then gradually grow this to a deeper, greater meaning for the world.
A final note; Emotional Intelligence teaches us that when we feel negative emotions it is a signal telling us that our needs and values are not being met. When we experience positive emotions it is a signal that our needs and values are being met. Needs from a psychological perspective can be anything from autonomy (freedom) all the way to competence and self-efficacy (feeling we can achieve a desired outcome). If our needs and values are aligned then we will experience well-being.
“The search for meaning alone does not guarantee well-being. Dr. Pninit Russo-Netzer found in her research that the key to well-being was prioritizing meaning within our lives. This ultimately means doing things that align with our purpose in life and that give meaning to our life.”
Create values and daily meaning in your day to day life and actively prioritise them for your well-being. Grow into a position to help other people and communities and create a strong passion and purpose for the well-being of others and watch your personal well-being floursih.
For more detail on meaning please take the time to browse our store with eBooks and digital courses.
Wishing you health and well-being.
Thank you for reading.
David Chorlton; Meaningful Paths Founder
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