“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Humans are wired for meaning.
It’s the ultimate goal of life in a complex and imperfect world. The pursuit of anything that makes you deeply come alive can make life incredibly enjoyable.
Psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, author of the 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, believes that everyone is born with an instinct for meaning. He also says it’s a matter of responsibility — you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning.
Each of us exists on this earth for a short period of time. During this time, we focus on two things — important things that give our lives fulfilment, and other things that basically kill time without necessarily making us happy in the long-term.
So what can you do with your limited time that is important and answers your existential crisis questions?
Searching For Meaning
Millions of people feel overwhelmed, lonely, and unfulfilled. They seem to spend their whole lives dissatisfied.
They’re forced to chase the “good life,” and in the process, they have to sacrifice what makes them come alive. They feel empty because they’ve lost connection with themselves. Others feel like hamsters on the treadmill of life, running faster and faster and still getting nowhere.
The bigger problem is, many people are not sure what to do about it. And if they know what to do — or at least think they know what to do about it — they still don’t take action in the direction of meaning.
They have their reasons, no doubt. And they’ve been repeating these reasons to themselves for years. But what are those reasons? Are they worth the sacrifices they’ve made over all these years?
What most people don’t realise is that finding meaning is the result of action.
Taking Action to Find Meaning
For many people who feel unmotivated, unsure of themselves, aimless, or can’t lose themselves in their present work, life is always a struggle.
They are facing an existential crisis, which has been studied by psychologists and psychiatrists for decades. Existential vacuums often lead many people to question their purpose in life.
Purpose produces better health, according to research. In a study of nearly 7,000 individuals, those without a sense of purpose were more likely to die from all-cause mortality. More interestingly, those without meaning were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
Your purpose in life is to find and do the things that make you smile, laugh, forget time, and become a better version of yourself. Even if you aren’t sure yet, move into the exploration and experimentation phase of your life and enjoy the journey.
Today, instead of “chasing the good life,” millions of people are hungry for meaning, for purpose, for the feeling that life is worth more than the sum of its parts. They want to go back to the basics and build a culture of meaning into their lives to find fulfilment and true joy.
Tom Path, author of “Are You Fully Charged,” said, “The odds of being completely engaged in your job increases by 250% if you work on meaningful projects each day.”
People are pursuing more meaningful side projects than ever before. Purpose eases the pain of the long hours and gives you the fortitude to fail and still try again. Choose your pursuits prudently!
When you seek purpose, you acknowledge room for possibility. It challenges you — and it invites others to help you pursue something of greater significance to you, and sometimes even the rest of the world.
“Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression,” explains Emily Esfahani Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.”
In her book, Emily Esfahani Smith reviewed hundreds of empirical papers from the growing body of research on meaningfulness. She found that the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self.
Meaning can be found in big and small moments— experiencing a new culture, spending quality time with loved ones, quitting something that makes you unhappy, enjoying time alone, learning a new skill, etc.
Deeper and personal experiences make us feel alive. They are the ones we look back on and say, “Wow, imagine if I didn’t do that? My life wouldn’t be the same,” or, “I would’ve never known I was capable of this.”
“The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones,” Esfahani Smith recently wrote in “The New York Times.” “They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”
Where to Look For Meaning
Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. The more meaningful our lives feel, then the more joy we experience.
Meaningful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections, both of which increase our satisfaction with life.
Pursuing meaning makes you feel good about yourself because you are pursuing something bigger than yourself. Something that makes you come alive.
“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning,” says Viktor Frankl, the world-renowned psychiatrist, existential philosopher, and author of the classic bestseller, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Viktor suggests three ways of finding meaning in our lives:
- By creating a work or doing a deed.
- By experiencing something or encountering someone.
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
You have one life, and it’s yours completely to control. Choose what makes you come alive, and do it often.
If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t have enough time, go back to your calendar and create time for those life-changing experiences.
The only way to overcome your existential crisis is to pursue intentional living. Ultimately, you are the master of our own fate. You will be more fulfilled once you fully accept that it’s your hands on the steering wheel. You are fully responsible for your life.
“The secret to a meaningful life may be to remind ourselves every day to do the right thing, love fully, pursue fascinating experiences, and undertake important tasks,” says David B. Feldman, Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University.
The meaningful life is presently plausible.
“Find something more important than you are,” philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness, “and dedicate your life to it.”
Embrace activities that connect you with something greater.
Whatever small step you take toward pursuing meaning in life is a step toward a more fulfilling, and longer, life.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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