You don’t have to find your “dream job” in order to be happy.
You don’t have to find your “dream mate.”
You don’t have to own a particular kind of car; you don’t have to gain anybody in particular’s approval; you don’t have to acquire a particular skill.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that the reason they are unhappy is because they don’t yet have something. They hypothesize a world in which their perceived “lack” is adequately addressed, and this leads to happiness. They assume life is a kind of competitive game— that the objective is to cross a finish line, or a number of finish lines. They imagine that once they cross these finish lines, they’ll feel better about themselves. Accomplished. Secure.
It’s an understandable assumption, given our cultural conditioning. These aren’t stupid people. In fact, these are often people who have contributed an awful lot to our world, as byproducts of their assorted quests.
Unfortunately, the idea of life-as-competition-with-finish-lines doesn’t pan out in the long run.
People often achieve what they assumed would make them happy— and find themselves still feeling empty.
Every scrap of research, and every bit of practical experience I have, points to one conclusion about a happy life: it’s about creating meaning, not about achieving stuff.
This…doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. After all, the notion of “creating meaning” feels much more complex, much more involved, and much less straightforward than the “accomplish stuff, feel good” formula we were conditioned to believe growing up.
What does “creating meaning” even mean?
This was a question asked by the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in the 1940’s. He became obsessed with the question of “how do people create meaning in their lives?” when he had the unbelievably unfortunate experience of being imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps in 1944 and 1945.
In order to endure the experience, Frankl decided he was going to approach it like a scientist. He was going to pay attention to the variables that seemed to bear on the question of whether his fellow inmates survived, or perished in the camps.
What Dr. Frankl discovered as he observed his fellow prisoners was telling. He realized that a commonality prisoners who survived seem to share was the fact that they were determined to survive, because they decided that even this horrific experience was going to have meaning for them.
Dr. Frankl tells of one prisoner who decided that the “meaning” associated with his experience was that he needed to survive, in order to make sure that this never happened again on the planet earth.
Dr. Frankl recounts another prisoner who decided the “meaning” associated with his imprisonment was going to be, he needed to survive in order to ensure his family’s safety and escape.
After his own liberation from captivity in 1945, Dr. Frankl decided that the “meaning” associated with his own experience was, he was going to take the essential role of creating meaning into his field of psychiatry, and impress upon his colleagues how important it was that we help our patients find “meaning” in their own experience. Consequently, Dr. Frankl went on to develop a technique of psychotherapy called “logotherapy,” which emphasizes the quest for meaning (in fact, the book in which Dr. Frankl recounts his experiences and the development of logotherapy, he ended up titling, “Man’s Search for Meaning”).
Your day to day experience doesn’t have to be as dramatic as surviving a concentration camp in order to take advantage of the insight that we get to choose what our experience means to us. That we can chase after shiny objects all day long, but unless we devote some serious thought to what meaning our experience has, we will still likely be unfulfilled.
What meaning could your experiences, even your painful ones, serve in your life?
What good can come out of what you’re struggling with right now?
What purpose could your suffering serve?
Understand, I’m not suggesting that our lives and experiences have inherent meaning. Some people believe that, and some religious paths teach that; as I’ve said many times in the past, issues of existential meaning are above my pay grade. I can’t speak to the “ultimate” meaning of our lives in the Grand Scheme of Things.
I’m talking about the day to day, practical level. I’m talking about shifting away from the idea of life as a race with a finish line— and toward the idea of every day as an opportunity to create meaning.
It’s actually less complicated and intimidating then it seems.
For example, part of how I, personally create meaning out of the experiences I have, is to write about things and post them on the Internet— thus my day has meaning in that I have the opportunity to connect with people who might benefit from my words.
That’s what I’m talking about. Practical meaning.
Meaning that speaks to you.
Meaning that motivates you.
Meaning that transcends stuff.
Meaning that you choose.
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