The Elements of a Meaningful Life
In his dissertation, podcast guest Simon Goland cites the question of how to live a meaningful life as “The Holy Grail of Questions.”
Don’t we all want to know the answer to this?
And yet, the question often seems unapproachable. Or even if we did try to find answers they would be incomprehensible, or somehow incomplete, or not actionable.
My goal through this podcast and website is to change that. To make this question approachable, comprehensible, and actionable. And I love that my research has led me to not only interviewing Simon, but reading his dissertation as well. Though the two, let me outline a couple of starting places and conceptual frameworks that help get things started.
The first simple suggestion that Simon outlines is asking the question in a different way. He re-frames the somewhat vague and mysterious question of what is the meaning of life as “what has my life been preparing me for?”
This reframe does a few things:
First of all, it makes it personalized. When most people ask that question, they’re asking it about themselves. While we could philosophize on the question of the meaning of the existence of life, I think that most people want and need an answer to the meaning and purpose of their unique life, and this re-framing does that.
The second thing that asking “what has my life been preparing me for” does is that it helps us take our cumulative experiences and skills and project them forward into a meaningful and compelling path we might take that would resonate with what we’re called to do. This is a much more grounded approach and adds enough specificity that we can more readily come up with some answers about a path forward.
And there’s a word for that path forward – it’s called purpose. So in a simple sense, we could answer the question of what is the meaning of our life with the answer that it’s having clarity of purpose. But what does clarity of purpose entail? In his dissertation, Simon breaks it down into six parts, citing, and referencing various authors that contribute to these definitions:
#1: Purpose is repeatedly described as a consistent part of one’s true and unique self, stemming from an individual’s unique gifts, strengths, values, passions, interests, and abilities.
This gets at something that many of us feel – we are unique and different in some way, but that uniqueness can be difficult to pinpoint or express. However, the ability to uncover and be able to articulate that part of us that represents our strengths, values, and passions greatly increases the chance that we will find a way to set purposeful goals that aim to express that, which leads to finding number two.
#2: Purpose is almost always described as something that provides direction and creates goals for the future.
Warning. Understanding what your purpose is and not setting goals to achieve it might be worse than not knowing your purpose. Every day that you have a life purpose and you’re sitting on it not doing anything is like fingernails on a chalkboard. I’m constantly asking myself, “what am I going to do today that moves me towards closer alignment with my life purpose.” That fire within me is a blessing and a curse, as it brings the opportunity for incredible fulfillment and productivity and also incredible internal dissonance when you end a day, a week, or a month without having taken a step towards that purpose.
#3: Purpose is repeatedly seen as something that one must continually strive or live for, rather than some “end” that can be accomplished.
That fire within is potentially limitless. Something that could last you until you take your last breathe. And that’s a beautiful thing to think that you might have something to live for as long as your body will carry you.
#4: Purpose is consistently viewed as something that makes life meaningful.
And here we get to this interesting insight about meaning and purpose. The ideas of purpose and meaning and intertwined. The title of my podcast could just have easily been ignited with purpose as it is ignited with meaning. The two work together. Purpose is the forward-reaching and goal-seeking striving to make manifest one’s true self and the act of doing that leads to the fulfillment of leading a meaningful life. The awareness of leading a meaningful life through carrying out purposeful living is a self reinforcing cycle. If at the end of the day, we told ourselves that “all this right living was good and everything but man it’s hard and who really cares?” then it would be hard to get up and do it again. But because we can say that this self expression leads to deep meaning and fulfillment then we’re going to keep going.
#5: Purpose is often defined as something that provides a benefit or connection to someone or something other than the self.
This is key. For me, this is the difference between pursuing a happy life and choosing a meaningful life. It’s when we find a way to let go of serving ourselves and instead see our mission as one for serving others that we find meaning. And therein lies a paradox, by doing this work we often find that leading a meaningful life bring us more happiness than pursuing a happier life because we are deeply fulfilled by doing this work. And there’s even science to back up that last statement. There are studies on college campuses (which all psychology professors seem to use as their research laboratories), that show that when students are asked to do something to make themselves happy vs. find a way to serve others, the students who found a way to serve others were happier than their counterparts three months later.
#6: Purpose is repeatedly held to be something that an individual must deliberately choose to follow or fulfill.
This concept reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey. He describes the story arc of heroes throughout mythology and finds that a common theme is that heroes are faced with a challenge, and there comes a time when they must choose to face that challenge which leads to great adventure, uncertainty, and risk but potential great fulfillment and accomplishment, or back down a face a life of wonder as to what life could have been like.
To live a meaningful life requires taking that same deliberate action: to know what it is that you want and take deliberate steps to realize it.
Going back to the idea of making the meaning of life approachable, comprehensible, and actionable, we can take these six principles and use them to help us move forward. Uncover your unique strengths & passions and find a way to consistently apply them in service of a greater good.