What does it mean to live a meaningful life is a question I have asked myself many times before and is something I’ve struggled with over the years. At the start of 2021, I told myself I had to commit myself to living the meaningful life I always wanted.
Living a meaningful life is about living with purpose, fulfillment, satisfaction and significance. While those words will mean different things to different people, they translate into how we feel about our lives. Living a meaningful life often has more to do with your values and beliefs than anything else.
I have struggled for years with the need to find meaning and purpose in my life, and while there have been ups and downs, I finally feel like I am on the right track.
Keep reading, and I will share with you what I have learnt.
The Quest to Live a Meaningful Life
We all go through our lives feeling like we are supposed to do something important; for some of us, we find that passion quickly and aim at it. For others, it is a challenge to figure out where to start; for me, I’d say I’m part of the latter group. Over the years, I’ve tried many different things with varying results, but all of them lead me to a more precise definition of what my goal was.
What woke me up to what I needed to do was the Self Authoring program by Jordan Peterson. In that program, you are asked to look at the events in your life and try to think more objectively about them. While this process can be a little troubling, it also helps you create a sort of clean slate of your past.
If you can cut away all the past negative feelings, you can think more clearly about what matters here and now.
Once you’ve cleared the slate, you can start looking at what you are good at and what might be best to avoid. Commencing with fewer fears and resentments makes it easier to think about what gives you joy and what you are good at. As I mentioned earlier, part of what makes meaningful life is fulfilment, so knowing what is worth your time helps you proceed more quickly.
After sorting out your skills, you work on planning your future; with a sense of what you are good at, you can construct a plan to give you satisfaction. While I didn’t know this before, it has become evident that what it means to live a meaningful life often comes from working towards our goals and doing the things that feel good deep inside of our cores.
As I mentioned earlier, Peterson’s program helped me sort out what I wanted to do and find direction in the seeming void of existence. If we believe in the whole theory of evolution/scientific reductionism of today, there isn’t much space for purpose and meaning.
If we are here because of chance and deterministic forces, what opportunity is there for anything that matters?
While I can’t give all the credit to Peterson’s program, it did help me gain some insights about myself that helped contributed to further developments. When you have a plan or know where you want to go, it is much easier to get there. In a previous article, I talked about having no idea what to do with my life and the benefits of ikigai and the direction that it provides.
What is essential to keep in mind is that meaning often comes from fulfilling a purpose, but if we go through life without a plan, there is no room for purpose or meaning. Put another way, meaning comes from understanding where you are, what needs to be changed or improved, and how to go about doing that practically.
When we get caught up in the mundane repetition of life, it might be easy to miss out on what is happening or what matters. Recognizing that we are following a plan, even if we haven’t set it in stone or thought much about it, helps us understand where we are and where we are heading.
Realizing this lack of plan also gives us a pushing-off point to build something better.
At the end of 2020, I felt down and unhealthy, so I committed to exercising every day for some unknown reason. That habit made me feel better and gave me a structure to add more habits to my life. From there, I took a course that claimed to provide direction for my objectives, and so I knew how to get where I wanted to go.
Putting it all together, I had previously known what I wanted but didn’t have a plan. Then once I learnt how to do what I wanted to do, the plan made more sense. Now that I have a destination and a process, it has all come together and is easier to proceed.
Having a goal and a plan makes finding meaning in what you are doing much more effortless.
And as was mentioned at the start, a meaningful life comes down to purpose, significance, fulfillment and satisfaction. Of course, these ideas all have their meanings, but they also make better sense if looked at through the lens of a goal and a process.
Purpose comes from completing or working towards the completion of a goal. Significance comes from the long-term outcome of sticking with a plan. For example, painting one picture might not be significant, but painting a picture every day for a year will be.
Fulfilment comes from satisfaction in what we are doing; if we have a plan and achieve it, that feels good. So, finally, putting these four ideas together gives us pleasure cause we have a goal, we are working towards it, and we are eventually accomplishing it, which becomes a significant enterprise.
Are You Living a Meaningful Life?
While living a meaningful life is subjective to the individual, there are some questions you can ask yourself to get a better sense of how you are doing. While these questions might not be perfectly representative of you and your objectives, they may help give direction or lead to better questions.
- Do you hate Sundays? Sundays are tough when you aren’t looking forward to what you are doing during the week. While you can’t quit your job, there might be a way to reframe what you are doing every day to bring more satisfaction.
- Are you working towards your goals? Often we get hung up on what we are supposed to do or what we are responsible for. While we have to do these things, that doesn’t mean ignoring what we want to do. If you have a goal, you need to be working towards it as much as possible, even if that only happens once a week.
- Do you even know what you want? For a long time, I was going with the flow. I might have chased some goals, but I never stuck to them or had a clear plan or purpose. If you don’t know what you want, it is impossible to get it.
- Are you trying to improve yourself? It is easy to stick with what we know and what feels normal, but we can never discover new opportunities if we don’t step out of the well-known. Self-improvement can seem new age at times, but if you aren’t making better decisions every day, what are you doing?
- Are you satisfied with what you are doing? We all need to do things, but how we look at those things affects how we feel about them. If you believe in what you are doing and serve some purpose, it will be much more satisfying, even if it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
- Are you afraid to fail? If we fear failure, we are scared to try, and trying different things is necessary for success. Fear keeps us on the same path and prevents us from making progress; ditch fear, and give yourselves a chance to do better.
- Do you understand yourself? I’ve always been curious about personality assessments and quizzes. While these tests aren’t always right, they provide us with some guidance on what we are good at and what we should work towards or seek out.
- Do you always blame other people? When we blame other people for our mistakes, we give away some of our power to others. To move forward, we must learn to accept our flaws and do what we can to work around them as much as possible.
Choose to Live a Meaningful Life
As I’ve said earlier, living a meaningful life is up to us; there is no simple answer aside from having goals and working towards them. But that doesn’t mean it is easy; I’ve tried many different things over the years but often gave up quickly. Discovering that continued attention was the key made it easier to keep working toward my goals.
At the same time, simply having a goal isn’t enough; you need to be committed to it, and you need to have a reason to keep at it.
For me, I can’t stop riding my bike; even if I don’t want to, it is no longer a choice but instead a requirement. In part, we can make things consistent by continually doing them, but we still need to choose to do them in the first place.
It is hard to choose something if you don’t know where you are trying to go, but things get much easier once you have direction. So while Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring might not be for everyone, it was helpful to me, and I would recommend it if you are having trouble finding direction.
That said, you need to choose something and stick with it, as that will bring the most satisfaction in the long run. So look at your world, look at what you like to do and try to figure out how you can bring them together. Of course, not everyone can be a professional YouTuber, but if making videos makes you happy, then keep doing it.
Living a meaningful life is more about doing things that matter and giving you satisfaction and less about outcomes and what other people think.
You might not “win” if you try, but you will probably be happier with your life when working towards what you want, rather than just going along with the flow.
If you are looking for more ways to live a meaningful life, you might enjoy my book called How to Be Amazing a Manifesto. It covers 42 ways to add meaning to your life and mixes real-life experiences, stories and science to make its points.