Adolescence, Authenticity, Happiness, Meaning, Professionals, Purpose, Society, Values, Work

The Meaning of Life and Finding Oneself

Back when I spent considerable time hanging out with adolescents and young adults, I noticed how a few “big” or “deep” topics were discussed again and again.  Sex and relationships, music, god, and the meaning of life.  Other things were discussed, of course, but those four most often were the topics my friends easily got into depth on.

By and large my friends approached each of those topics in certain predictable ways.  Moreover, those were the very same predictable ways I had approached those topics when I was their age.  Some things never seem to change.  For instance: It seems the very first question everyone at that age asks about god is whether god exists.  Perhaps it’s only a bit later on in our lives that we ask first if it matters whether god exists. I was quite fond of seeing how my friends went at those four grand topics of adolescence in the same ways I once did.

On the meaning of life issue, among my friend’s standard approaches was to look for a thought or belief that could either create, or reveal, life’s meaning.

That approach can be fascinating.  It assumes if I think the right things, or believe the right things, then my life has meaning.  So, for example, if I believe in the right god or gods, my life has meaning.  Conversely, if I believe my life is meaningless, then my life is meaningless.  Perhaps there’s an odd appeal to that approach, for it seems to put the meaning of life almost effortlessly into our hands.  We have only to think the right thoughts and meaning is ours.

Now, I happen to believe that approach is an adolescent mistake.  I no more see how meaning comes from thoughts than I see how you take a wilderness hike by sliding your finger across a map of the wilderness.  After all, thoughts are symbols, just like a map is a set of symbols.  And symbols are not the things they represent.  Life is not made meaningful just by thinking it’s meaningful.  Nor is it made meaningless just by thinking it’s meaningless.

To make that point vivid, let’s first assume for the moment the Dalai Lama was onto something when he said, “What’s the purpose of life?  I believe the purpose of life is to be happy.”  If that’s so, then we might ask whether we are happy just because we happen to be thinking about happiness?  I myself can think all day about happiness without becoming more or less happy than I already am.  My thoughts about happiness are only symbols for happiness.  They are not happiness itself.

Instead of searching for meaning in thoughts, I suggest one search for it first in one’s talents and skills, and second in the needs of the world.  Where those two meet in harmony, there you will find your passion in life.

Our genuine talents and skills, of course, are firmly rooted in our nature — both our universal human nature and our unique individual nature.  It’s important to recognize that because so many of us spend a considerable amount of time trying to develop skills we have little or no talent for, while perhaps neglecting to develop the skills we do have some talent for.  But to be the best we can be, we need to look to our nature, discover our talents, and turn those talents into skills.  And it’s worth pointing out here that a good coach or mentor can help immensely with accomplishing that.

Yet, it usually isn’t enough to merely turn our talents into skills.  It seems people who do only that much still feel their lives are meaningless.  We need a mission.  And that mission comes from employing our skills to fulfill one or another of the world’s needs.

Those need not be grand needs.  It’s not how big they are, but whether they are big enough to challenge us.  By that I mean, does fulfilling those needs require us to develop our talents into increasingly well polished skills?  A call center supervisor can be just as challenged as the president of a country to develop her people skills though she is fulfilling a very different set of the world’s needs than that president.

Of course, the needs we fulfill must be genuinely the world’s needs.  I might be fulfilling a need by fetching my mail, but no matter how I slice it, fetching my mail is not a genuine need of the world, and it does not give me a sense of living a meaningful life.  Again, I might be fulfilling some sort of need by getting drunk Saturday night, but that also is not a genuine need of the world, and it does not give me a sense of living a meaningful life.  I don’t know why we humans must do something to fulfill the world’s needs for us to feel our lives have meaning — I only know that’s what we must do.

Happiness — not transient happiness, but deep, abiding happiness — seems to come in some part from finding our passion in life.  And finding our passion in life is a matter of discovering where our talents and skills are in harmony with the needs of the world.  This is a very different view, however, from the adolescent notion the meaning of our life can be found in our thoughts.

5 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life and Finding Oneself”

    1. Hi Stepslightly! That’s a beautiful username. It reminds me of the admonition to step lightly on the earth that I recall comes from a Native American nation.

      Thank you for your kind compliment. I haven’t reviewed most of my posts from a decade ago, but of the few that I have, most are at least somewhat outdated now — either in substance or in spirit (I tend to be much less critical nowadays, and more inclusive). This one, however, very substantially reflects my thinking even now. In fact, I would only add a couple things to it, were I to rewrite it.

      First, I would add my belief that whatever passion one finds in life should be both socially and environmentally responsible.

      Second, I would emphasize that happiness to me comes second to meaning in importance. In fact, I don’t even believe in pursuing happiness these days. Give me meaning and happiness will often follow, I’ve discovered.

      Do you have a blog? I’d like to visit if you do. And what do you make of the ideas in the post you read? Do they make sense?

      1. Glad you like the username. I didn’t know it had reference to a Native American nation but I’m sure that’s where I picked it up along my way. It makes me think about the Desiderata although the phrase doesn’t appear in that poem I think the spirit is there.

        Thank you for giving further thought to the post. I agree that happiness is secondary to meaning. Do you think the idea of “happiness” itself is a misdirection? The Dalai Lama said the meaning of life is to be happy, but is happiness actually a thing one can obtain, or is it a byproduct of something else? Is it a gauge, rather than a lever?

        If I’m reading you right, this is where you arrive at the end of your post.

        I must say, having read your original post again just now, it really is profound. I wish I’d read it sooner. And yes, it makes sense. Thanks again.

        PS. No, I don’t have a blog.

  1. I think you’re correct, SL, we are misdirected to pursue happiness. It’s not much more than a gauge. In addition to that, I believe you’ve understand the post perfectly.

    No blog? I’d love if you made this one a home for you. You strike me as unusually intelligent, articulate, and curious. If you wish to give voice to something — to anything — you could guest post on this blog. Up to you. The offer will always be open.

    Thank you so much for you fine compliments.

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