personal manifesto: contentment

disciplines - C

Practice and master the art of contentment

We raised our family of four children with little money. Until our youngest child went to school we had no guaranteed salary cheque, and what we did get put us in the lowest income bracket. We had made conscious choices to live simply and frugally. We were immensely happy and for many years felt we lacked for nothing. We practiced the discipline of contentment.

It wasn’t just about money. We chose to savour the seasons; when we had babies, when we had toddlers, kids and when we had teenagers. Without mastering contentment, seeking change is like chasing the wind. Getting unstuck adds colour and stimulus, it expands our appreciation of life and the world in which we live. Contentment facilitates peace.

A commitment to ‘live in the moment’ can sound like a foolish short term approach to life. And wrongly applied that is true. Living in the moment does not mean that every time I see a piece of caramel slice in the café cabinet, I am committed to engaging! It could also imply that I throw caution to the wind in regard to long term financial planning and save nothing for the so-called rainy day or old age, whenever that is supposed to begin. In an ambitious world, where growing your audience is king and the law of the jungle seems to define corporate life, a commitment to contentment can be perceived as weakness. Not so.

A life well-lived is a contented life. The discipline of contentment is the daily commitment to open my eyes to the good and the beautiful on offer now. This is not in conflict with driving ambitions in the arenas of pleasure, betterness and meaning. It is in conflict with an attitude that is so focussed on the fantasy of a desirable alternative, that I am robbed of the opportunities for deep satisfaction and appreciation today. It is about doing my best with what is on my do-list right now, not about an illusion of another do-list.

A contented life also recognises the seasons of life. The freedom (or lack thereof) I have when, for example, there were small children in the home, is fundamentally different than retirement. It feels normal to live for tomorrow, lusting after someone else’s lot in life, or the prospect of a more attractive future. The consistency of life means that if I live for tomorrow now, I will always live for tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes.

The wonderful thing about mastering contentment, is that I always have today. In fact, today is all I ever have. The discipline of contentment is about urging myself to be at my best today; to open my eyes and see the beauty I can engage to feed my desire for pleasure today; to take the opportunities to improve who I am, to become better at what I do today; to be alert to how I can put another little incremental dent in the universe by my actions and behaviour before I go to sleep tonight.

Questions that help me practice contentment

1. What is great about my life right now?

2. What else?

3. What else?

4. How will I enhance my active appreciation of these things?

personal manifesto: modal living

disciplines - ML

Modal living: being intentionally present

We started living and working from our caravan about the same time as I started working week on, week off, in Port Moresby. That meant I was spending large amounts of time in three places; at home, where the focus was family and work; in the caravan where everyday meant swimming in salt water alongside working remotely; and in Port Moresby which was hotel living and office based work.

This stark variety prompted me to behave differently, to develop patterns of living that were customised to each environment. The kinds of clothes I wore, the way I related to people, the pace of life, my diet, work rhythms, were pretty much unrecognisable between contexts despite the reality that I was doing similar work and for the most part maintained relationships with the same people.

What emerged over the year was a conscious effort to acknowledge the particular environment I was in, and adapt my living style to it; I called it modal living.

Being intentional about my inner world and physical habits helps me be fully present. Who am I here for? What do they require of me? What do I need for myself in this space? … are all questions that arise from modal living.

It is immensely frustrating that I only have one go at life. How good would it be to know what it would be like to be a court judge and a hermit? An implication of the discipline to unclutter though, is that I make peace with a focus, to be the best at being myself. Knowing what gives me pleasure and investing in infusing my living with associated experiences. Knowing what I am good at and taking every opportunity to become better and to pursue mastery. And being in touch with what matters most and prioritising my own efforts to contributing to a better future in relation to it. Which is about taking this one life and making peace with all the things I can’t do.

Kind of. There are two ways I can live multiple lives while maintaining the disciplines of contentment (see next week’s post) and uncluttered living.

The first way we can cheat the ‘one life’ shackle is to get and stay unstuck. Who says I can’t do something completely different for a season?

Secondly, I recognise that I live multiple lives within this one life. I have a work life, a home life and some kind of social life. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call them modes of living.

A well lived life is to be fully present within the spheres that make up my living. A common tendency is what I could call vanilla living. Rather than contextualise my attitudes and behaviours to the environment in which I find myself, I impose my undisciplined or that’s-just-who-I-am state on the environment. What I am aiming for here is not about being a conforming chameleon, unsure of my true identity. The discipline of modal living identifies the different roles or contexts that define my living. For each of those modes, I then determine the inner world attitudes and the outer world realities that optimise pleasure, betterness and meaning in those environments.

For example, at work I need to be switched on, organised, agile and confident. While some of these things might come naturally to me, on any given day, they may not. Modal living will mean I determine the things within my control that enable me to be at my best. Interestingly, apparently superficial things make a big difference; the clothes I wear, the radio station I listen to over breakfast, and the speed at which I intentionally walk.

At home on the weekend, wearing different clothes, putting my work bag out of sight, grinding my own coffee to slow me down … all these things help me adopt a fundamentally different demeanour.

Of course, some of this comes naturally. Environments have extraordinary power over me so I involuntarily conform. But simply going with the flow of what the environment imposes on me is not what a well lived life looks like. I am talking here about being precise about what the people and environment needs from me, and determining ways to get my head and heart in the right space.

Variety is the so-called spice of life. By appreciating the different roles I play and being intentional about being at my particular best in those spaces, I can ensure my life is less vanilla. One life, yes, but multiple expressions within it.

One of my hindrances to doing this well is my inability to leave things behind. I take my work home, or I take my holiday fantasies to work. So within the discipline there is an opportunity to apply the discipline of being uncluttered. What does this look like?

In each mode I figure out what is essential. In order to deal with what is not (essential), I must use or create systems, tools or processes that enable me to manage other things in my life with the absolute minimum expenditure of time and energy. This might mean allocating time every early Saturday morning or late Sunday evening to capture the distractions from work. It might mean a regular lunchtime message to Maria as a container to check in on important family matters. Typically, it will involve routines and practices that manage those things not essential to my current mode. They enable me to be fully present, without the constant distraction of ‘the rest of life’.

Modal living is not about sitting at my desk dreaming about the next holiday. It is about committing to booking it on the weekend, and getting back to work. Modal living is not about snapping at the kids when I walk in the door, it is about taking the five minute walk from the tram stop to figuratively stuff the worries of the office into my satchel and throwing it behind the bedroom door on the way to the kitchen. It is about being full alive to the possibilities for pleasure, betterness and meaning in my current environment and making sure my mind and body is primed to grab them.

Questions that help me stay intentionally present

1.Identify my main modes of living. (Think about the different places I am in regularly, the groups of people with whom I live etc)

2.What does each role require of me?

3. How will I manage the other ‘distractions / inclinations / temptations that distract me from the main game in each mode?

personal manifesto: live uncluttered

disciplines - UC

Uncluttered: trump wastefulness

My dorm room in the residential college at university was cluttered with stuff. I liked having bits and pieces around me, symbols of things, posters, ornaments … stuff.

Maria was a minimalist. I’d never heard the word or even knew of the concept back then, but I was drawn to the simplicity of her living. If she hadn’t worn an item of clothing for a while, she would give it away. Somehow, bare rooms still had character … it was an odd and attractive characteristic.

I was slow to learn, but over the years I have loved learning the discipline of purging our lives of stuff. Books have been very important to me, so the three occasions when I have given most of my library away have been emotional. Before the days of digital music I similarly purged my record, cassette and CD collections. I am attracted to the idea, not of ‘how I could live with less?’, but with, ‘what can I not live without?’. When we moved to the Sunshine Coast a few years ago, we took some favourite kitchen equipment and personal belongings that fitted into two cars (and a caravan). We put some photo albums and kids toys in a very small storage unit and gave the rest away … a house load of furniture and memories. So liberating. It was an exercise in determining what we wanted to keep to enhance our lives, and to discard the rest, despite the financial loss.

It is hard to get unstuck when our lives are cluttered with stuff that ties us down.

Busyness is a curse. In a well lived life, it is not worn as a badge of honour. Busyness normally refers to the volume of activity relative to the allotted time, but can also describe the state of my inner world. Cluttered usually means scattered.

Paradoxically, it seems to me that the highest achievers say ‘no’ habitually, in fact they say ‘no’ most of the time. Some people say ‘no’ as a power play, but that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the crystal clarity that comes from determined focus; a simplicity about choices that reflect the underlying outcomes that are being pursued.

A well lived life is characterised by a determination to know the essentials and discard the rest. This commitment to embracing what can’t be lived without, is not an austere minimalism, it is a robust appreciation of what enhances ones experience of pleasure, pursuit of betterness and engagement with meaning.

I accumulate stuff relentlessly. The only antidote is to abstain from my accumulation impulses (committing to not replacing items and making purchasing decisions that will last the long haul) and then periodically doing a de-clutter. The de-clutter can be applied to stuff, to activity, to responsibilities – to anything that hinders my capacity to focus on the things that matter most to me.

The skill to effectively juggle multiple tasks, and the ability to absorb and respond to the complexity of hectic urban living is admirable. But there is an inherent attractiveness about clarity. It betrays a quality of life that charts an intentional course, one that knows where it’s going and what it needs (and doesn’t need) to get there.

Questions to help me stay uncluttered

1. What is essential for me to optimise pleasure, betterness and meaning?

2. What other things are cluttering my life? What could I get rid of?

3. What will I get rid of?

personal manifesto: get and stay unstuck

disciplines - US

The next section of my manifesto is about four disciplines, the exercise of which, for me, are critical for living well.

Get and stay unstuck

In the early 1990s I wrote a life plan that included some ambitious contribution to significant change. I was working within an organisation and was part of a vocational network that I had no reason to doubt would shape the rest of my career. I had significant leadership roles and found kindred spirits whenever I travelled around the world. I felt like I was part of something big and important.

Then I gradually became unsettled. I developed hunches that my contribution would not lead to the kinds of changes I had imagined. Having spent the first fifteen years of my working life on a trajectory within the not-for-profit sector, I wondered what it would look like to work for myself. I had no commercial experience, and I’m mostly glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I really had no idea what I was doing really, I quit the world I knew and ventured into the unknown. And the world opened up for me like a spring flower on time lapse. I got unstuck from the career trajectory that I had expected would define my contribution over a lifetime. I met people, engaged ideas and discovered rich values and communities that I would have never believed existed. I had no regrets about my vocation until then, but the new worlds that I encountered help me appreciate how ‘big’ life can be.

I had tasted what it was like to make a change. A real change. I knew I would never allow myself to be stuck again.

Rituals and habits are fabulous. They give life stability and are an extremely efficient way to make decisions. Imagine if I had to decide what to do afresh every morning in my getting-ready-for-work routine. Debilitating.

One of the ways to determine the healthiness of a particular routine is to assess the ease with which I can choose not to do it. If I find myself without a real choice, then I am addicted. And addiction is always a bad thing. It is healthy to be able to choose to do something, even if I make that choice relentlessly for the rest of my life.

This can be confusing when overlaid with my personality or psychological preferences. These hard-wired attributes incline me to act in certain ways. For example, I might be inclined to wash the dishes every night after dinner. Tick. But if I simply cannot go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink, I have a problem. Trivial at one level maybe, but it reflects being hostage to a habit, rather than a habit being in service to me.

A life well lived is one in which I make choices about the circumstances that define my life and / or my response to them. Choices determine how I spend my time every day, but the accumulation of choices (or non-choices) over time determine how I spend my life.

It is a foolish naivety to believe I can ‘have the life I want’. Such platitudes come from positions of power with rare acknowledgment of the systems, privilege and luck that supported the ‘rise.’ But even with that caveat, sometimes I believe I am stuck when I am not.

I can change careers, I can move cities, I can become healthier. But I must embrace the consequences of the choices to do so. Inertia is insidiously strong. If I am in a pattern of living and relating that has been developed over time, what started as a productive groove can become a debilitating rut. I can feel like I’m stuck on the treadmill.

By looking at my life through the pleasure, betterness and meaning lens, I can determine which levers I need to pull to live more fully. If the ‘ruts are deep’, some disruption may be necessary to make a change. So be it.

I need to beware the inclination to change things that are simply uncomfortable or hard; to avoid responsibility or seek easy-street. That is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about a life where pleasure, betterness and meaning are in harmony over time, a life where I am fully alive. Discretion and wisdom will help me determine what circumstances I am stuck with over the long haul, and which ones I can navigate away from.

Getting unstuck is also not about moving on or leaving. Getting unstuck is about moving to. Making effective life-changing decisions is about executing a long term (or at least a medium term) vision. It is about taking steps to put the elements of life in place that allow me to harmonise pleasure, betterness and meaning for the long haul.

Mountain-top epiphanies aside, there is rarely a compelling time to make the big calls. However, learning to make decisions from a projected five year time frame is a helpful attitude. “If I could look back on my life now from the vantage point of five years down the track, what would I wish I had had the courage to do, but didn’t?” “What am I spending my energy on now, that feels important in the moment, but in five years time will seem like a waste of effort from the perspective of what matters over time?”

The commitment to get unstuck, and the discipline to stay unstuck, is a potent antidote to long term regret.

Questions that help me get and stay unstuck

1. What do I dream of in life? What is holding me back that I could change if I chose to?

2. What are the consequences of biting the bullet and making the change? What will I do to manage those consequences or implications?

personal manifesto: home

(All the pieces of my personal manifesto fit together and build the bigger picture, so to get the full meaning you’ll need to scan the previous posts, in particular, for this post, the one on community.)

Home: a place to love

Identifying with a community or tribe helps me understand and communicate who I am in the world. My drives for pleasure, betterness and meaning are rarely hidden; they are about my engagement in the external world and so by definition are ‘public’ pursuits. But the extent to which my engagement with those communities is healthy, is determined somewhere else. The formation of who I am is inner work. I am who I really am when no one is looking.

‘Home’ is that place where I am free to be my unpolished self. It is also the place where that small number of people I call my family are free to be their unpolished selves too. The quality of my being in the external world, the demeanour and character with which I pursue pleasure, betterness and meaning is determined by the love I experience at ‘home’.

Note that home is not necessarily the family home, or indeed the house where I am living. It is the space, where I am accepted unconditionally and accept unconditionally. If community is about belonging, home is about love.

What happens if I don’t have a ‘home’ in this sense of the word? I compensate, and I look for it in the various communities to which I belong or am seeking belonging. But there is a hard edge to this; without a loving home – a place where I am unconditionally accepted and accept – my engagement in the external world, my pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning, will tend to become a search for ‘home’, and my ‘performance’ and corresponding affirmation in those arenas becomes a surrogate for a loving home. My navigation of life will be characterised by recurring indications that society in general or people specifically ‘owe me something’

The counter is naturally also true; that if I love and am loved unconditionally, if there is a place where I am relationally secure and safe, I will be equipped to engage in the public pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning with confidence and grace.

I am screwed up. I am not free from the psychological impact of living among other screwed up people. This is not about perfection, a sure psychological illusion. It is about a foundation of self esteem and a confidence with which I can engage our society with the primary posture of being a giver rather than a taker. I have a deep need to be loved and affirmed for who I am. Without a ‘home’ where this need is at least partially satisfied, the rest of my life becomes dominated by social maneuvering and manipulation to get people to affirm me.

There is a paradox here, similar to the one in the meaning discussion. The path to be loved is to love. Children aside, there is no shortcut to being loved. I can manipulate people into doing things that look like love, but they aren’t love. Of course just because I love someone does not guarantee that person loves me back, so loving can never be a ‘strategy’ to get loved. Love is simply the highest and most potent human act. But unlike self actualisation that sits on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love is not the end point. Love is the beginning and the end, the foundation and the peak.

The pursuit of a well lived life, the sustained satisfaction that comes from harmonising pleasure, betterness and meaning, starts and ends with a place to love.

Questions to help me understand my home(s).

  1. With whom and where am I most ‘at home’?
  2. Who do I really know and love? Who really knows and loves me?
  3. How will I become more vulnerable and give more ‘at home’? What do those I love need most (from me) in this season of life?

personal manifesto: community – both critical and dangerous

I have learned that there are two foundations, without which my intention to cultivate a life characterised by pleasure, betterness and meaning remains a fantasy. In my personal manifesto, section two is about these two foundations, the first of which I call ‘community’. I think that community is both critical and dangerous.

Community: a place to belong

My pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning almost always happens with other people. The most enjoyable sensual experiences tend to be shared. Of course I have great experiences on my own, but I would feel impoverished if my best encounters with the beauty in the world were always solo. I tend to gravitate to doing fun stuff with others, it is in my nature as a relational being.

The same can be said for our efforts to improve ourselves (betterness). Whether it is scrap booking, space travel, mastering a rubrics cube or playing cricket, we find a community of people who share our passion. In the context of that community we encourage each other, share information and tips, and enjoy the comradeship associated with shared achievement. We do better together than individually. Team sport, is an obvious but potent illustration of how this works in our lives.

If collaboration, comradeship and community are hallmarks in our pursuit of betterness, it is even more foundational in our pursuit of meaning. We find a group of people who believe the same as us when it comes to what is most important in life, and we ‘join up’. Whether it is a young mothers group, a faith community or environmental activist collective, we find in community a collective voice that stirs and fortifies us. Sometimes, in values driven organisations, it is our workplace.

Communities are not, of course, necessarily mutually exclusive. Some of us are sufficiently fortunate to live or work in places where communities associated with the three drivers (pleasure, betterness and meaning) intersect. In some cases family features in one or all communities too.

Community is the place where we determine our social identity in the world. It is where we form answers to the important question of where we belong; who are the people like me? Where is my ‘tribe’?. We understand who we are in the world by how we answer these questions. This is generally a natural and a good thing.

Two things to note about the power of tribes. Firstly, the risk of fundamentalism. When we experience each of pleasure, goodness and meaning within the same tribe, and we live virtually exclusively within that tribe, we can begin to believe that we are objectively ‘right’. This is not just about religious fundamentalism, it also applies to food fundamentalism, exercise fundamentalism and of course political fundamentalism.

This can sneak up on us. At face value, belonging to a community where I experience pleasure, betterness and meaning is a good thing. When the three things combine it becomes a potent attractor and can be intoxicating. Problems emerge however when I live exclusively within that community. I socialise and contribute within a particular homogeneous context. My view of the world, potently formed and reinforced within that community, goes unchallenged by voices that I respect. (Because everyone I truly respect also identifies within the community.)

Secondly, especially when it comes to our pursuit of meaning, we tend to believe we have thought our way to a particular ideological position. In practice, what happens is we adopt the worldview of those with whom we identify as significant others in our lives, those we respect within our chosen communities. This does not mean we don’t develop robust apologetics for our cause, just that we tend to select the data to affirm the position we already hold.

However, the key point here is that a life well lived is lived in community. Community is the context within which we experience pleasure, become better at being ourselves, and contribute meaningfully to the things that matter most to us. Community is where we know we are (meaningfully) part of something bigger than ourselves. Without community my pleasure is empty, my pursuit of excellence is pointless and my contribution is futile.

Questions to help me understand my communities

1.  Who are my kindred spirits?

a. With whom do I do fun stuff?

b. With whom do I share the journey of personal (including sports and hobbies) and professional development?

c. With whom do I collaborate in seeking to make the/your world a better place?

2.  What will I do to improve my relationships with people in these groups or communities?

3. How would I describe my ‘tribe’? What other communities in my life provide a healthy challenge to the dominant perspective within my tribe? To ensure my growth and development is characterised by wisdom alongside commitment, do I need to intentionally experience pleasure, betterness or meaning with a broader range of people? If yes, what will I do?

personal manifesto: design

This is post 5 of 15 in a series sharing my personal manifesto. You can read why I ended up writing it here. There are 4 parts or sections in my manifesto, this is the last bit in the section about the three key drivers in my life: pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Design: using the three drivers as design elements

The pleasure, betterness and meaning lens is very helpful in assessing the ‘design’ of more specific parts of life. For example, at the west end of Bourke Street in Melbourne is Donkey Wheel House (dwh), a building that is home to social enterprise and a plethora of innovative business practitioners. It has the X factor. But what is the X factor? We use the term to attribute a positive trait that we can’t really put our finger on. Let’s apply the pleasure, betterness, meaning framework to a few things to see how in combination and harmony they produce a so-called X factor, starting with dwh.

The building is a physically pleasing place. It is a heritage building that has been renovated tastefully into great spaces fit for purpose. It has corridors, workspaces, meeting rooms, shop fronts, and interesting utility spaces that are appropriately if interestingly connected. It has good natural light to complement the internal colours. It includes kitchens and cafes so smells and tastes are catered for. (pleasure)

dwh is a place where people do what they are good at – whatever that is. Designing, cooking, administration. Legal work, coding and politics. The social power of the networks in the building inspire people to broaden and deepen their competencies. There are communities within the building that value care alongside professional competencies, whether the support networks in The Hub, the staff gatherings at Kinfolk Café, or the comradeship in The Difference Incubator. (betterness)

And overlaid is an overwhelming sense that this is a place committed to a better future for the world. Kinfolk Café is a social enterprise, The School of Life helps people apply practical wisdom to everyday life, Ethical Property Australia’s vision is to facilitate the use of property for the common good … and the list goes on and on. There is mission and vision for a healthier world in every nook and cranny. (meaning)

If any one of these was absent or weak, the whole package loses whatever it is that elevates it to something special.

The Do Lectures is a gathering that changes people’s lives. It is a potent mix of these three design features. It is intentionally held in stunning natural and remote locations. The sensual experience of being in the natural environment alongside the highest quality food is an assault in the most positive sense. (pleasure)

The team that puts on the event ‘do their thing’. It is a team of people in flow, doing what they love to do, and this translates into a collective experience where attention to detail and quality is paramount. (betterness)

And the talks, the discussion and emerging themes are unashamedly about prototyping better ways of living for people in communities and around the world. It is rich with mission. (meaning)

Same deal, it is the mix of these things that elevate the Do Lectures beyond a regularly good event. Diminish one of these and mediocrity is just around the corner.

Pretty much every aspect of life can be assessed through the lens. Here are a few more examples.

A workplace

Frequently we hear of people unsatisfied at work. Every situation is unique, but understanding the pleasure, betterness, meaning design framework offers helpful insight. Every time I have offered this framework to someone who is restless at work they have quickly identified the diminished nature of one of these design elements.

– The workplace is sensually unattractive- it is simply not an enjoyable place to spend time;

– There are too few opportunities for them to do what they are good at. There is no sense of them becoming a better person as a result of being there.

– They can’t reconcile their best energies being spent on things that ultimately don’t matter, or are not important to them (such as making someone else wealthier).

A relationship with a significant other

Our relationships go through seasons. Some times they feel fabulous and other times more ho hum. When we are committed to cultivating growing relationships it can be useful to ask:

– Are we doing fun stuff together? (pleasure)

– Am I appreciated in the relationship for things I am good at, and does the relationship draw out my best? (betterness)

– In our shared experience of life, are we engaged meaningfully with the things that matter most to us? (meaning)

A city

There are various ways to assess cities, with residents of my home city tending to cite the ‘most liveable’ city criteria, as Melbourne frequently scores highly on that scale. But these design features also give me a quick and intuitive sense of why or why not some cities just ‘work’.

– Are there lots of sensually stimulating places to be? (pleasure)

– Does it have a particular strength? Is it known for being ‘good at a particular thing’? As in, ‘Melbourne is really good at ….’ (betterness)

– Do the city and its residence make a contribution to the common good? Do the civic values honour people and the future? (meaning)

In the earlier chapters I have commented on how useful it has been for me to apply these design features to my living. The three drivers can be thought of as ‘sliders’. Each needs to make a contribution; the extent to which we dial up each one will depend on the situation.


Questions to ‘test’ the framework?

1. Think of an event, a space, a relationship or any other aspect of life that comes to mind that you would describe as having a bit of X factor. Assess the extent to which it is an expression of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

2. Now think about an aspect of life that is not quite doing it for you. Look at it through the pleasure, betterness, meaning lens. What is missing?

personal manifesto: harmonising pleasure, betterness & meaning

In the last three posts I have defined and shared some notes on pleasure, betterness and meaning. The introduction to my manifesto gives some context. For me, pleasure, betterness and meaning are three fundamental drivers in life. They explain most of the motivations behind decisions I make – small and big. In this post I explain how they fit together for me.

Harmonising pleasure, betterness, meaning: patterns not balance

Allowing my life to be dominated by just one of these three drivers is a mistake. The hedonist in me is doomed never to have my thirst quenched (pleasure). Despite the relentless parade of so-called successful people getting to the second half of life and asking “what has it all been for?” the pursuit of personal or professional mastery (betterness) is also tempting. Why am I so slow to learn that becoming the best I can be, ‘reaching my full potential’ is only slightly less hollow a goal than the pursuit of pleasure?

Perhaps the reason I am inclined to make decisions based on pleasure and betterness, is because of the paradox of meaningful living. I find it difficult to get my head around the fact that the deepest satisfaction in life, the highest levels of happiness come when I am focussed on the wellbeing of others.

But it is a mistake for me to then make life solely about meaning and relegate pleasure and betterness as the domain of lesser beings. This is what I have done in the past, in statement, if not in reality. The value of ‘the cause’, or ‘the other’ has at times been so elevated that ‘sensual’ pleasure or ‘selfish’ development, was effectively prohibited in my thinking. In statement only though, because my natural and healthy drive for these, ‘found a way’, even if not acknowledged overtly.

A well-lived life harmonises pleasure, betterness and meaning. The idea of harmony is more useful than balance. Balance implies that one thing needs to be diminished for another to be enlarged. But harmony is about the three drivers co-existing in measures and routines that fit with each other, feed off each other and shape life into an integrated rhythm of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

I am always thinking about how life is going. When I am sufficiently fortunate to answer ‘very good’, I have found that it is because the elements of pleasure, betterness and meaning will all feature. I will have consistently done stuff that was sensually enjoyable, pleasurable experiences have been integrated into my life (pleasure). There will have been a pattern over time that I have made valuable contributions by doing what I am good at, and most likely became better at it, either by deepening or broadening my capacities (betterness). And my life will have been shaped by prioritising what matters to me, there will have been integrity in my life because I have acted in ways that have been consistent with what is important to me (meaning).

The converse is naturally true. If things haven’t gone so well, then it will be because one or more of the key drivers was unsatisfied. There was little in my life that gave me genuine pleasure, I had few opportunities to do the things I am good at, or I ended up busy with activity but didn’t really contribute much in areas I believe matter most.

Time and seasons are important. I can neglect one or more drivers for a season, but if diminished over time, I will have a growing unease with my lot in life. And clearly the three are not mutually exclusive. A meaningful contribution will likely require me to do what I’m good at, and I may well experience sensual pleasure along the way.

Pleasure, betterness and meaning are essentially my design features in a well lived life. I look for patterns not balance. Whatever is going on in life, these are elements that I need to find ways to incorporate.

Questions to understand how the three drivers are harmonised in my life

1. Which drivers are most prominent in my life in this season?

2. Are there patterns over time? Are any of pleasure, betterness and meaning dominant or missing over time?

3. What will I do to better harmonise the three drivers in my life for the coming season?

personal manifesto: meaning – purposeful contribution

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.

The table below is a bit of a taxonomy of the three drivers …


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?

Personal manifesto: Betterness – competent participation

I recently posted the introduction to my personal manifesto. Please read this for context if not already. In this post I’ve included some notes on the second of “three drivers”. The “drivers” are the three key motivations that shape our living. Psychologists vary in how they describe these; my framework draws mainly from the work of Martin Seligman.

I want my life to get better. And I want to get better at the things I am good at. My thesis here is that one of the core motivations in life is continual improvement. That somehow if we were to map our desired life on a graph, the line would be ‘going up’, no matter what we were mapping.

Betterness: competent participation

I love the word ‘good’. It is an over-used word, but an underrated one. Goodness has both a sense of competence (‘I’m good at that’) and a moral sense (‘He’s a good man’). In mathematics, a vector has two dimensions; a size and a direction. An application of this in physics is velocity which has both a speed and a direction. In a centred set, an element not only has a position (proximity to the centre) but an orientation (in which direction is it going?). So while ‘good’ is a concept I like, ‘better’ is one I like more because it not only has a value but a sense of movement. Better is to good, what velocity is to speed.

My business Vocate has a tag line: work better, do better work. I like this because at the end of the day, simply improving my skills, becoming better at the things I do is not enough. I am interested in constantly evaluating what I am doing. I don’t only want to do things better, I want to do better things.

My drive for betterness

I want my life to be better. I want the things that dominate my days and weeks this year to be, somehow, better than last year. Improvement. Not to be confused with bigger, richer, more powerful. Quality not quantity. Swap redundant activity for new habits that increase love, joy, peace, hope and health.

It is a seasonal thing too. Living part time in a caravan was great for six years. In the season that followed, selling it was ‘better’. I completely loved cooking elaborate barbeques for the family; now that we eat much less meat, I gravitate more to mixing spices and herbs with vegies. ‘Better’, but contextually so, not absolutely.

I’m also driven to be ‘better’ at the things I’m already ‘good’ at. Over the course of six years, we figured out how to be ‘better’ at living in a caravan, by refining the rhythms and ‘equipment’ that made life better. I am constantly trying to learn how to be better at my work, to improve my kitchen skills, to love my family better and to understand the world more fully. It is a natural drive and when I’m not improving, there is something that gets messed up in my being. Stagnation is death.

The connections between betterness and feeling good about life

In Authentic Happiness, the renowned psychologist Martin Seligman explains research into sources of reported life satisfaction and happiness. Those who’s primary life goals (in practice) are about ‘getting better’ at things for which they have a talent or acquired skill, report higher levels of happiness than those who are primarily serial chasers of pleasurable experiences. Those who leave the warmth of their bed to get up early and exercise before work, or the professional who puts in the hard yards to master their craft, report higher levels of life satisfaction than their hedonist friends. I have found this to be true. I feel better about life when I am consciously including developmental behaviour than if I gorge on pleasure.

Pleasure is essentially about experience. Betterness is about competent participation in society, about achievement. The two are not mutually exclusive; the sensual pleasure of mixing and brewing a good curry and the pride in ‘nailing it’ are connected.

Questions that help me understand betterness

1. What am I good at?

2. To what extent am I using and being recognised for these contributions? (Not at all / every now and then / frequently / my life is full of doing what I’m good at)

3. What will I do to ensure I am doing more of what I’m good at, and that I am constantly bettering?