Did you take The Death Bed Test to check if you’re living a life of unforgettable stories? Will they say you lived a life larger than yourself? Will they cry when you die?
“When you’re on your death bed and reflecting back on your life, what you are going to be proudest of are the things that made your life meaningful. You won’t necessarily regret not being happy, but you’ll regret if you did not lead a meaningful life.” – Emily Esfahani Smith
So, does your life have a meaning?
We, humans, are the only meaning-seeking and meaning-making species on our planet. Everything about us is related to meaning. There is a meaning beneath how we think and feel, how we see ourselves and others, how we figure out our lives, and how we tell our life’s stories.
So, stop kicking the surface waves. Dive deep to find the exact things you should be doing to find out your life’s true calling. Discover the four ways to find your life’s Meaning.
The key questions are:
Why was life given to you?
What is the meaning of life for you?
Meaning is the larger purpose of your life. But remember, it’s your life’s meaning that you’ve to find. Because when you leave this world, it will be all by yourself. So while you live, and before you die, make sure you’ve answered those questions to yourself at least.
What would you gain by it? Once you find the meaning of your life, it can steer you towards a higher state of satisfaction and wellbeing. It can help you create a life that will be remembered by others. It can make you and others understand why and how your life matters.
Scientifically, meaning is more than hedonia, which is the happiness of the moment. Meaning is one of the four parts of eudemonia.* (see footnote)
Is Happiness Making You Sick?
We are the wealthiest and healthiest than any of our previous generations. We are acquiring goals and items to make us and keep us happy. But we are more unhappy than ever before.
We are perhaps the most miserable humans now than anytime ever before in our history.
By now, we have understood there is a certain problem there. The problem is not with happiness in itself, but with the pursuit of happiness. This chasing of happiness has gone in vain. Research has remarkably shown that being fixated on happiness can actually make people feel more lonely and unhappy.
John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, doubted whether the quest for happiness is something to be desired at all. He said, “It’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” And Robert Nozick, the American philosopher wrote, “There is more to life than feeling happy.”
Remember what Smith told Neo in the movie ‘The Matrix’?
“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program…The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” — Agent Smith, The Matrix, 1999.
It should have been a successful world, with everyone living in endless happiness. And still it failed.
It should have failed.
Ask yourself, would you be living in a plasma tub with neuro-electrodes pumping happy stimulation into your brain in an endless run?
Think of a joyride that you could have for asking only if you choose to be on that train forever. Would you take it?
You wouldn’t. Because all that happiness you get would be unearned and undeserved. After a point, you would start to feel vacuous. And you would die to climb out of the tub or get off the train.
Or wish you rather die.
Why People Die By Suicide?
Every year, throughout the world, almost a million people die by suicide. Of these, about 75 percent are men.
Whenever a man takes his life, it’s always followed by a shock response from his circles: “He seemed so happy all the time.” So, what was their reason to commit suicide?
Look close and you’ll find each of these victims had at least one reason to die that superseded all reasons to live. A reason they didn’t share with those around them.
In a study, about 13 percent of those who left behind suicide notes had said their lives were not worth living. These victims had identified the absence of a reason to live as their final unsolvable problem.
From their notes, it seemed they searched for a reason to keep going, but none appeared. One of the last thoughts that played on their minds in a vicious loop, perhaps as a justification, was: “There’s no reason to live now.” To escape a life without purpose, they had chosen suicide.
In 2013, Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener analyzed a set of data that had come out of 142,000 people from 132 countries being asked these two questions:
- How much satisfied you are with your lives?
- Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?
They found people in wealthy nations had some of the lowest levels of meaning in their lives. While some of the poorest people, as those living in Niger, Togo, and Ethiopia, reported living more meaningful lives.
What Oishi and Diener found next was almost shocking. They found while the wealthier nations had higher levels of happiness, they also had higher rates of suicide.
But the strange thing was, they could not correlate the suicide rates with the happiness levels of their citizens. Happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. Unhappy people were killing themselves. So were the happy people.
Rather, what predicted the suicide trends was whether the people in that country had or had not a meaning in their lives. Absence of a meaning in their lives led men to suicide. And presence of meaning protected them.Absence of meaning led men to suicide. And presence of meaning protected them. Click To Tweet
The researchers also unearthed another set of important findings from the data: People in wealthier countries were more educated, more individualistic, less religious, and had fewer children. While the people from poorer countries showed an opposite trend — less educated, less individualistic, more religious, and had more children.
Oishi and Diener concluded that it was these very factors — mainly religiousness — that made the poorer people feel their lives were more meaningful.
How To Find Your Life’s Meaning?
You can now take the help of science to find a purpose of your life. Research in psychology and cognitive neuroscience is exploring the philosophical views on how we find meaning and purpose in life.
Positive psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith writes about living a meaningful life in her debut book, titled The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. According to her, the meaning of your life stands on these four “pillars”:
- Belonging: Your relationships and positive bonding with others
- Purpose: Your mission of contributing purposefully to the society
- Storytelling: Your unique narrative of your life’s events and moments
- Transcendence: Your connecting to something bigger than yourself
This is the sense of closeness that you feel with the people in your life. You find meaning in belonging to your tribe.
This feeling of belongingness doesn’t only come from your close connections. Your day to day interactions with others, say the few words of empathy you exchanged with the food delivery boy who looked flustered by the heat wave that afternoon, also add to that. These are called “high-quality connections.”
These small-time high-quality connections can make people around you feel more alive. That you didn’t look through them, and instead you saw the importance of their lives, give both of you a better sense of meaning in your lives.
In organisations, these can make those who work far below you more engaged, energetic and resilient. These make them feel part of the ‘tribe,’ and evaluate their role as even more worthwhile.
“We all need to feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners,” Emilia Smith writes, ”we all need to find our tribe . . . where we belong.”
So, open your hearts to others and invite them over with compassion and love. Attend reunions. Go to weddings. Remember birthdays. Meet old friends. Keep up group chats with your faraway friends. In creating a meaning in others’ lives, you will create a meaning for yourself.
Stanford developmental psychologist William Damon says a ‘purpose’ has two facets:
- First, it’s a stable and a far-reaching goal. It’s something that motivates you to work on for years together, without losing any interest. It’s the conviction around which you can organize your behavior and actions.
- Second, it involves a contribution to the world. It makes a difference in the lives of people. It contributes to the matters that are larger than yourself.
People with a purpose have more satisfying and meaningful lives. They have more grit and more resilience.
You can have a different purpose than others around you. Your unique purpose will be one that aligns with your own values, strengths, and experiences. Such a purpose can make you feel more satisfied in your life, as well as at your work too.
In a survey of over 2 million people over 500 different jobs, Adam Grant found that those who ranked their jobs as most meaningful, their jobs were to serve and help others. This also hints that people working in any industry can find purpose in their work.Why was life given to you? What is the purpose of your life? Click To Tweet
Parenting paradox: Children decrease the happiness of their parents, as has been proven by the social scientists, but parents find their parenting duty as meaningful and purposeful. Their larger purpose is to help their children grow into responsible adults. That is their meaning.
Each of us can find a way to help others, starting from our close circles and growing out into the society.
We are all storytellers. We were born to create our own stories and tell them to the world.
Why do we do love to tell stories?
The world around us is always changing and shifting shapes. This outside change also alters our identities. And this is forever creating a chaos in our minds.
Now, as humans we hate chaos, and we have a desperate want to set our worlds in order. So we take these uneven pieces of our lives and neatly string them together into peculiar narratives.
Then we take the beaded string and show the world why and how our lives make sense. We do this to fulfill our primal desire of storytelling.
Rock paintings by early humans from 40, 000 years ago attest this. Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson backs this, “Storytelling is fundamental to human search for meaning.”
But even when we live in the same world, our stories are unique. Because, as Milton Erickson, father of modern hypnotherapy, said, “Every person’s map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint.There are no two people alike. No two people who understand the same sentence the same way.”
We do that — we pick pieces of data from our environments and layer it up with a meaning that’s exclusive to us. But no two people do it the same way. So, each of us has their extraordinary story.
By doing this, we make a sense of our world. We craft a script, and then we edit and rewrite it in a way that’s meaningful to us. And when people want to know who we are, we tell them our Hero’s journey from grief to glory, “That’s my story.”
At some point in our lives, we have all felt transcendence. It’s an experience that goes beyond the ordinary human realm. It’s mind-altering in many ways, and yet often impossible to explain in words.
As Abraham Maslow described it:
“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” — The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1971.
And Viktor Frankl explains it this way:
“Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” — Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946.
Transcendent experiences are some of the some of the most meaningful events in anyone’s life. The memory of such an experience never leaves you.
Two extraordinary things happen when you are in transcendence.
- One, you forget who you are, losing all your sense of self (‘ego-death’).
- Two, you feel a deep level of connection to everyone and everything in the world.
Transcendence is also called awe. We can all sense awe. Learn more about The Power of Awe.
So first, give up your pursuit of happiness. You can’t catch it no matter how good you are at chasing it.
Next, find your life’s meaning. And you know now how to find your meaning.
*There are two types of happiness: Hedonia and Eudemonia.
- Hedonia – the happiness of the moment. It has 2 elements – Pleasure and Comfort.
- Eudemonia – the happiness of our being. It has 4 elements – Growth, Authenticity, Meaning, and Excellence.
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