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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Finding A Meaning For Your Life


Is this mere arrogant pompousness? What is meant by finding a meaning for your life? Does it signify going out and being an ambassador for UNICEF like Angelina Jolie? Or working on behalf of starving children in places like Dafur as Michael Douglas or George Clooney do? Or maybe it means volunteering in a soup kitchen in the inner city on your home turf, or reading to elderly bed-ridden residents of hospices or old-age homes.

Is It Your Job?

Others may think that finding a meaning for your life signifies having a job that gives you a sense of self-actualization; working at something that truly fulfills you. The problem is: what if you have a job you hate but are unable to change for the time being…or what if you are retired? Or maybe you are independently wealthy and don’t need to work. While making money is clearly an undeniable necessity of life for most, the mere fact of having a job itself, does not mean you have a meaning in your life.

Intrinsic Satisfaction

In reality, it actually means none of that…or, it can be connected to any or all of the above. A meaning for your life is much more connected to whatever it is that gives you intrinsic satisfaction than to be doing community services, or charity work, or something that is destined for the good of others, or having a specific job that truly fulfills you. Furthermore, ultimately what gives meaning to your life will often lead you towards doing something that benefits another or others, simply because having something that gives meaning to your life, makes you see your life in very different terms than NOT having something that gives you meaning. What gives meaning to your life is something that does not essentially require others for it to work, or for you to do it – more about this very important point later.

Betty Friedan’s Message - Only for Women?

It was the demise of Betty Friedan that caused me to think about this subject. Both in her famous The Feminine Mystique, as well as in her much later The Fountain of Age, she states unequivocally that with no meaning in one’s life, life holds little purpose, promise, satisfaction and contentment. While it is true that her books were mainly written for women, since Friedan was one of the pillars of the North American women’s rights movement in the 20th century, the fact that a meaning in one’s life is as necessary for men as it is for women, is undeniable. Friedan spoke out on behalf of women, urging them to find this meaning, because in her time it was felt that men, with their early socialization to have a profession and work throughout their lives in order to care for their families, already were well on the road to finding that meaning.

But it really is not necessarily the job. Consider how many people are locked in position career-wise, and are dreadfully unhappy, bored, or unfulfilled. Perhaps they chose badly, perhaps the necessity of the moment forced their hand, or perhaps they had no other choice due to any number of circumstances.

Why is it so Important?

Clearly, if I did not share Friedan’s belief in the paramount importance for everyone to have a meaning for their life, this article would never have been written. Being connected to something that you do on a daily, or frequent basis, can make a fundamental difference in the life of the person who feels this connection, as compared to the individuals who do not.

Why?

Simple initial answer: because it only depends on you, and not on others. Your interest in it emanates from you because it is something that means something to you. Ideally, you can do it without necessarily relying on others to share, agree, or otherwise interact with you.

More complicated answer: because it gives a core stability to your life even when all else is falling apart. So it allows you to go on despite other, outer circumstances. It gives you something to hold on to even when other events in your life might cause another person to feel at times that he/she has no idea how to continue. That sounds almost miraculous, doesn’t it? Can such a connection to what you love to do, and what gives meaning to your life make such a difference to the quality of your inner stability and hence, independence? It can…I can only encourage you to try it.

How Can You Find This Elusive “Meaning” For Your Life?

Finding a meaning for your life however, is not necessarily easy. Especially if you have lived a good portion of your life doing something, or dedicating a major component of your time to something that does not truly satisfy or fulfill you. Where – how do you find this elusive meaning? Is it too late?

In the conferences, workshops, and talks I hold, most people respond well to the following suggestions:

1) First, try to remember the sense of adventure you felt when you were in the throes of puberty. At that time you probably felt the entire world could still open up at your feet, and there were some things that you really wanted to do. Dust those ideas off, even if you wanted to be a rock musician at 13 and now you are 64, and see how you can incorporate some of that into your present life. Perhaps you can take up playing the guitar, perhaps you can write a biography of a world-renowned group, it is only your imagination that will limit you in how you might give this desire of yours from decades ago some life in order to give your life some meaning now.

2) Second, you might enjoy taking a look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s wonderful little book “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. In it he explains how the experience of flow, literally being so involved in something that time seems to stand still for as long as you are occupied with whatever the activity is, can help you discover what it is that gives meaning to your life. In other words, if you can think back over your life and discern when you experienced this sensation of flow, you will be several important steps closer to knowing what it is that gives meaning to your life. At the risk of sounding facetious – please don’t choose sex as your activity. Wonderful and thrilling as it can be, for reasons too numerous to go into here, sex simply is not an activity that “flows” in the sense of giving a meaning to your life.

3) Third, pay very close attention to all the messages your body is sending you. Does your breath quicken when National Geographic announces that a documentary about Egyptian pyramids will be airing at 8 pm? Do you sit with bated breath as you listen to the introduction? Does your heart start beating overtime when you hear that bridge classes will be available in your neighbourhood at a time amenable with your schedule? Do you feel flushed when you listen to your neighbour at the dinner party discussing horse-breeding? Do you feel excitement flooding your veins when you contemplate sitting down in front of your computer, your piano, your digital film editor? Guess what? Your body is giving you a discernable clue to what it is that might give meaning to your life. So how would you incorporate that into your daily life? Good question. It would depend a great deal on what you are currently doing, your finances, your time, etc., but the mere deliberating about the subject, and creatively trying to find a place for it in your life, should already do a lot for your endorphins, not to mention the joy with which you get up in your mornings.

Begin to Move in the Right Direction

These suggestions can help to get you moving in the right direction. If your life has a meaning, a true meaning that gives you the sense of intrinsic satisfaction and fulfillment that is loosely independent of other human beings, you will have found one of the pillars of inner freedom that I so fervently attempt to promote in these articles. I wish you much joy in finding your own meaning, and much satisfaction in implementing it, whatever it may be.

Remember This

Remember: if your finances are threatening to turn into daytime nightmares, if the relationship with your partner is free-falling off a steep precipice, if your job is wavering and no longer secure, if you are in emotional pain of any kind, having something in your life that gives it a meaning, will allow you to hold on to this strong, stable inner core, while you work on resolving the other issues. It will allow you to move on ahead with much less of the usual doubt, fear, and trepidation. All it takes is some decision, determination, and tenacity on your part to find this meaning for your life. Begin with the three steps suggested in this article.

Do this for yourself!

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