Photo credit: © Benjamin Louis
An essay on finding meaning in life
Ever feel like you are wasting your life away? Like you sleepwalk through most of it, like a zombie, never questioning the ground your feet are standing on? It feels just like being on one of those very long conveyer belts at the airport, slowly moving through time. The destination is set by default: find stability, fit into the system, merge with the rest of society, become just another person like everyone else.
It feels empty and deeply unsatisfying. You are not the only one feeling this way. Most of your friends and colleagues also feel this emptiness. I know this because mine tell me. They are so desperate to share their anguish with other heartbroken people like them and so ashamed at the same time that when they start talking it just spills out of them like an uncontrollable stream of grief. It’s a strange mix of feelings indeed. On the one hand, you know that it is terribly wrong to go through life like this, but on the other, you feel guilty for even daring to question the status quo. We are surrounded by horrors, poverty and injustice. How dare we get bored in our comfy offices and in our pretty lives while the rest of the world is dying out there? We feel guilty and ashamed for daring to question.
Let’s face it. This is a first world problem. Only people with too much time on their hands actually have the time to stop and question comfort. Or is it? Because most of the people who question comfort, actually feel desperate to accomplish something more meaningful and they simply feel that time is running out. They are not selfish, because something more meaningful does not mean laying around in a resort under a palm tree all day long. Let’s be honest, the thing that makes these resorts, palm trees, and holidays in general special is the very fact that they are not our daily routine. People get tired of laying around on a beach pretty soon, trust me. Something meaningful means something useful for the people, the animals or the planet. We are all looking for ways to reach out to each other, to help, to heal, to create, to contribute to global happiness and though this, contribute to our own happiness too.
Only happiness is truly meaningful. But happiness is not something you can achieve in isolation. You cannot be trully happy while the rest of the world is falling apart. Dalai Lama says that happiness is mostly in our own heads, that it is an attitude, that we can train our mind to be happier. I absolutely agree. However, happiness is only worth it when you can share it. Although the Dalai Lama shares his happiness with the entire world, which is a huge and admirable undertaking, most of us cannot aspire to such a high goal, but the need is vital none the less. This is why we build families to share our happiness with. For the Dalai Lama, the entire humanity is his family. For the rest of us, the world is made out of multiple clusters of families that co-exist with each other. Bearing in mind that one’s family is not necessarily the family he or she has been born in, we all need one and we all have one to share our happiness with.
So we all understand that sharing our happiness is vital, not only within a family but also between families and groups of families. This is why communities exist too. As we progress along this string of thought something goes terribly wrong. When we get to the level of states, what is born out of this positive logic starts to twist and corrupt. All states agree that it is in everyone’s interest to uphold peace. However, instead of building bridges we start to build walls. Instead of sharing we start protecting what is ours. Instead of seeing opportunities we start to see threats. Why? More importantly, how to turn away from this negative, corrupted, hateful system and do something meaningful and positive with your life?
I think it is impossible to figure out why. The answer to this first question is too complex and too uncertain. Moreover, if we knew the answer, I’m not sure we could do something about it anyway. It would probably break our heart. I believe this question is better left unanswered. The truly important question is: how do we build something different? The good news is that this second question can be applied on a more attainable scale, the individual scale. It’s more practical because we can actually do something about it. Start with ourselves. Lead by example.
I would say that one of the best ways to figure out what makes you happy is to think back and try to remember a time you were most happy and analyse it to find out what was it that made you happy in the first place. Most people will tend to think of their childhood and the obvious answer would be to have children to share your happiness with them. Though this will indeed be the answer for some people, there may be danger in this conclusion for others. With time, we tend to hold on to more positive memories than negative experiences, which is a logical and vital healing response. However, if we fail to truly analyse, to truly look deeper and take into account the real picture with all its positive and negative aspects, we may end up closing in on our family and repeating the same negative logic we were trying to fight in the first place. Moreover, our need for meaning will still remain anaswered.
Spoiler alert: the tools are within you but the answer is not. You cannot find real happiness by sealing yourself off from the rest of the world, be it within your own head, family, community or state.
I suspect that some people with kids don’t have the luxury of admitting they are still looking for a higher purpose in life, because our society will make them feel guilty about it. As though having kids and finding a higher purpose in life were somehow incompatible. As though this was somehow unfair to their kids, where really, it should be their most important legacy. Some of them simply may not have the time anymore.
Spoiler alert: time is the most important thing we have. Making time and taking time for us and for life in general, pure and simple, is absolutely vital for our happiness.
Another obvious way out of this puzzle for some people is to equip their kids to build a better world. Their kids become their mission, their positive legacy, their hope of a better future, their higher purpose in life. As noble and as necessary as that is, it’s just a lot of wishful thinking. We are just postponing the task at hand and hoping that the next generation will find the answer. There may definitely be happiness in that, I wouldn’t deny it, but people shouldn’t give up on themselves and their own ideas. Having a family and finding meaning in life are not two incompatible things. If fact, quite on the contrary, they are very much interrelated.
I know what you are thinking: this task is impossible in your own lifetime or it is too late or you can’t afford to spend your time chasing silly dreams. The truth is, whether you try to do something or not, time will pass anyway. You may as well give it your best shot.
We tend to repeat the example of our parents, so your kids may end up repeating your example and postponing looking for an answer for the sake of passing the torch on to their own kids. Now where is the meaning in that? Set an example for them that is worth repeating, break the wheel, dare to find your meaning in life.
I keep reading and researching on this topic and people far more intelligent and experienced in life than me seem to agree that there are two sides to this existential problem. On the one hand, there’s your perspective on your actual life, and on the other there’s your understanding of your future life.
As Dalai Lama said, you can and you should shift your own perspective on your current situation to feel better and to appreciate more the things that you already have right now. We all want more meaning in life, but there’s no use aggravating the situation by adapting a negative perspective on what’s already there. It’s not going to make things better, it will only make them worse, so it’s really counterproductive. In the end, you’re the only one getting hurt here. You are literally making your own bed of frustration and laying in it. The good news is that you can also get out of it and unmake it.
As complicated as that seems, it is really a very simple idea – you just have to start thinking differently. Be kinder to yourself and you will be happier. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t need anything or anyone else to make it happen and you can make it happen right now. We are often our worst enemies. The things we say to ourselves and think about ourselves, we wouldn’t say them to our worst enemies. So why are we so hateful with ourselves? The answer here is simple: once again, “why” doesn’t matter, what matters is what you can do about it and you should just stop right now. Just stop.
Furthermore when you are in a negative mind frame, you will actually attract more negative energy into your life, without realising it. Think about it, who wants to sit next to or talk to a grumpy, depressed, negative or aggressive person? Seriously? Would you, as a boss/colleague/friend, prefer to invite on a mission/trip with you the person who is always complaining about life and bringing you down or the bright and positive person who actually brings you joy on those long flights just because of their refreshing perspective on things? Drama, gossip and misery may be something that attracts our curiosity for a second, but it is never something real bonds are built on, and we all get tired of it eventually. But have you ever heard anyone say they are fed up of being happy? In fact, have you ever heard anyone say they are fed up of positive people? You may feel you deserve to be happy, and you certainly do. You may feel that the world is somehow unjust, that it is ignoring you. That you are a good person, but no-one sees you for who you really are. The truth is, the only one standing in the way of your own happiness is YOU. You are the one chasing opportunities and good people away with your negative vibes. You are the one hiding who you really are from the rest of the world. You put an angry sign on your door, so you go take it off!
If you are having a rough time pulling your head out of your glorified-misery-sand-box, then try this: what if your doctor called you today to tell you that you only have one month left to live? Would you still stay late at the job you secretly hate and complain about it with other negative people/colleagues who only reinforce the toxic situation you are all in? When did stress, misery, and constant complaining start to validate your existence or become a measure of success? When did it become ok to compare yourself to other stressed, miserable and negative people in order to feel important? Where’s the glory in that? Having a vibrant professional life that enables you to have an even more vibrant and happy personal life could be qualified as success. Having a professional life that is so busy it hogs most of your time and sucks the life out of you is not a success, that is a big fat failure.
What if the police called you right now to tell you your loved one has had a fatal accident? Would you appreciate your life and the people you already have in it more? Or would you keep comparing yourself and your life to other people on social media, thinking that there’s something wrong with you, your relationship, and your family or that your life is not adventurous enough?
What if you had an accident and at the hospital they told you that they have to amputate both your legs? Would you appreciate them more? Or would you still think they are too fat or too ugly? Really, think about it, imagine it, right now. Stop reading and think.
I think you got it.
Spoiler: realising that our thinking patterns are toxic is the first step to a very long path. This is incredibly empowering, but it is not a miracle solution. You have to practice every day to get into the habit of shifting your perspective. The first reflex to learn is catching yourself when you are sliding into your old ways and pausing to reflect on what is really going on. Don’t expect to suddenly become a Buddhist monk today. These are things of a lifetime and it’s perfectly ok. You will still fall flat on your face more than your fair share, and that’s ok too. It’s simply life.
Think of it this way: if you never fall, you will never learn how to get up. Just like with skiing, notice how people don’t make a huge deal about falling once they learn how to get up quickly with minimum effort and minimum drama? It’s not a question of skill; it’s a question of practice. They have fallen so many times they know exactly what to do when it happens. More importantly, they don’t go about life expecting to never fall again, because falling is just part of life. You can complain about it or you can just learn how to stand up faster. Same goes for surfing. The key to all of these sports, if you strip them down to their basics is simply – learning how to get up faster or learning how to fall better, if you prefer.
Every fall is an opportunity to learn. Life, at its core, is this simple rhythm – a succession of falls. You can cry, be dramatic, complain about it, feel sorry for yourself and prolong your misery or you can just get on with it and get up. Save yourself some precious time, because time is all you really have. Time is all you had when you came into this world and how you spend that time is all you will ever have when you go. Would you like to think that you spent your life complaining about life? Hell, you are extremely lucky to even be here! What are the odds of you having been born you, not someone else, but you with your character and all your uniqueness? Some scientists, far more skilled in maths than me (obviously), have attempted to figure that out and the answer is: approximately one in 400 trillion. Basically, you are a living, breathing, walking, mathematical miracle! Don’t waste your time complaining; your time is infinitely precious.
The other side of the existential problem we all face involves a certain question that keeps creeping up all the time in my research: what do you want from life, what do you really, really want? I hate that question.
The answer to this question has a lot to do with your expactations. We all expect this to be crystal clear, easy, obvious. But the answer is never easy, you are never quite sure. If you chose something you will lose the opportunity to do something else, right? Time is so precious after all. The problem with this thinking is that you waste time anyway, never daring, and never trying out of fear of losing other opportunities. Out of fear of making the wrong decision you make no decision at all. You see how ridiculous this is? This is absurd. There is no “correct”, “best”, or “only” option. There is only your option and your decision. Yes, you will fall face flat on the floor, but that’s what life is all about. You just get up; try again, and fall better next time.
I could never answer that question. Even as a kid, I could never choose what I wanted to do when I grew up. It simply wasn’t on the menu. However, I did tend to know what I didn’t want. So, I figured that my conviction about what I want should be as strong as my conviction about what I don’t want. I figured that I could never answer that question, because what I really wanted did not exist. Aren’t I special, right? I was wrong.
Turns out that idea was only partly true. What I want does not exist because only by taking the first step can I give a direction to my life. I have no visibility on what comes next if I don’t. Moreover, that visibility is merely an illusion, because the instant I take that second step, fall, get up, and adjust my way, everything else shifts completely. The entire path transforms. This is the fundamental, frustrating as it is, truth. You cannot plan your entire life. You cannot know where one decision will lead you and it is this unknown that stops us from choosing, from making decisions, from taking that first step. There is no right answer to that annoying question, there’s only your decision to just do something. Furthermore, that question is actually utterly ridiculous and destructive. The best answer to that question is simply: I have no freaking idea, but I feel like doing […insert your most recent whim here…] now, so I’m just going to go with that!
Realising this is as terrifying as it is liberating. We are not born with a “life description” that determines who we are and where we will end up. We all expect certainty, but life is all about uncertainty. That’s the beauty of it. You really can do what ever you want to do and be who ever you want to be. Nothing is written for you in the stars. It’s up to you to write your own story. The reason we know with great certainty what we don’t want in life is that this is built by our experience. The reason we don’t know what we do want in life is because this is left open for us to explore and be free.
You only have one life! Choose something to do already! There’s no beauty pageant answer in life. Don’t you see how ridiculous the “I want world peace” answer is? Stop taking life so seriously. Just do stuff now, live, love, share, laugh, cry and stop complaining about your problems, choose other problems you like better. It’s all really a matter of finding problems you like dealing with more, falling on a slope you really like, with people you really like. In that process, who knows, one of those decisions may turn out to be your favourite one, so you can linger a bit longer, repeat it a couple of times. But stop fooling yourself: there’s no true calling and there’s no one mission or one meaning to one’s life. There are as many as you are willing to test!
The only meaning is to do something with your precious time, so go, do, make, try, fall, get up and start again. This is life, your life, you decide, and you can be wrong. It’s ok to be wrong. The only thing that is not ok is to sabotage yourself all the time, to be paralysed by imaginary monsters – you are your enemy, you can also be your best friend, your biggest fan, your own guru. The tools are within you. The answers are out there. Share your time and share your happiness. This is what will truly make your life and this world better.
A few reads/tools worth your curiosity:
- A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, by Daniel Goleman (2015)
- The Book of Joy, by Douglas Abrams (2016)
- Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown (2017)
- Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)
- HUMAN, a documentary by Yann Arthus-Bertrand
- MINIMALISM, a documentary by Matt D’Avella