In the two previous posts I’ve talked about pleasure and betterness; both fundamentally important to live well. But without an intentional commitment to purposeful contribution, no amount of pleasure or self improvement will satisfy. So this post is about the third of the three drivers: meaning. If you haven’t read the last few posts, please read the intro post for context.
Meaning: purposeful contribution
Some things matter to me more than others. A meaningful life is one where what I actually do, how I spend my time every week, the decisions and behaviours that shape my life, are aligned with my beliefs about what matters in life.
I am involuntarily drawn to engage the things that matter to me. I can be interested in a whole range of things, but some things draw my service and my giving of time and money. These are the things that matter to me. Family. Social justice. Environmental care. Local community issues. Poverty …
The drive for meaning
Meaning is the bedrock of a well lived life for me. I cannot embrace existential nihilism’s argument that there is no intrinsic purpose in life, so all meaning is construed. Neither can I accept, at the other end of the scale, fundamental religion’s insistence that we can access an unambiguous God-revealed purpose. Yet I crave meaning in my life. I can ignore it for a time as I busy myself with pleasure and betterness, but it breaks through my mid-life consciousness at any reflective opportunity. I know in my heart of hearts that I am part of something bigger, that my actions or inactions have consequences and that somehow my reason for being is, to a significant extent about contribution.
The contributions that satisfy my need for meaning are related to our shared destiny as people and planet, our connectedness. I derive a sustained sense of meaningfulness, not from activity that is about me (pleasure and betterness), but about the welfare of others individually and us collectively.
Connections between meaning and feeling good about life.
As much as goodness is underrated, busyness is overrated. Despite my inclination to wear it as a badge of honour, it is a contemporary pathology because it can so easily disqualify me from meaningfulness and so robs me of satisfied living. So many things are apparently so important right now. Against this reality is the consistency of voices from those in the twilight of their lives who wish they had spent more of their time being true to themselves and investing in the relationships of those they love.
In the context of my busyness, I feel a corrective call to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’. This is a healthy call, a good one for now. But a better call would be not only to slow down and stop doing, but to ‘do better things’, things that align with my convictions about what matters most in the world. The great lie I tell myself is that the important things can wait until later. “I’ll spend more time with my family once I’ve got through this year”, or “I’ll give back to society once I’m semi-retired.” As I heard someone say recently, if I feel like I’ve got to ‘give back’, it probably means I’ve taken too much in the first place.
When I’m living a meaning-ful life, when I’m clear about what is important and manage to direct my primary energies to engaging and contributing to those things, I am rarely flustered or scattered. There is a calm determination that helps me navigate the complexities of life.
According to Martin Seligman’s research, published in Authentic Happiness, those who report the highest levels of personal happiness are those whose lives are shaped by a commitment to contributing to the wellbeing of others. There is a paradox here. The activities and causes that result in the most sustained satisfaction in life are those where the beneficiary is another. I crave meaning in my life. But my craving sits alongside my drivers for pleasure and betterness, who’s promised rewards are more immediate, and in many cases are more socially acceptable.
The experience of sustained meaningful living, in essence, comes from selflessness. That I derive the most satisfaction from activity that is mainly about contributing to the welfare of others, is a profound statement of my connectedness with other human beings.
Questions that help me understand meaning in my life
1.What matters to me? What do I consider of most importance? What do I believe in? From where do I derive a sense of purpose?
2.To what extent am I engaged and active in pursuit of what matters most to me. Am I making a contribution to a better world? (Not at all / every now and then / frequently / my life is full of meaningful service)
3. What will I do to better align my actual behaviour with what I believe is important?