Have you ever asked yourself, “What is the meaning of life?” It’s not just philosophers, it’s everyone who should wonder about the purpose of life. Let’s stop for a moment and reflect about what makes us “unique”, instead of just living a “normal” life.
Those who follow their own life’s principles report a greater sense of well-being, and experience fewer depressive symptoms than those who don’t. When you believe you know the meaning of your life, you’re not wandering aimlessly through life. You are driven and have a reason to wake up, energized, each day.
Happiness is wanting what you get; success is getting what you want. Ingrid Bergman
Finding Meaning through Happiness
To be truly happy, we need to stop and smell the roses. In other words, we need to be able to enjoy the present moment without being weighed down by thoughts about the past, or anxieties about the future. We must accept that life and life’s circumstances are uncertain – and we need to be okay with that.
Like little kids, we need to find joy in the present moment instead of constantly looking to the future for our happiness. When we cling to future desires and/or expectations, we can’t truly enjoy our life. Likewise, when we think about the possibility of bad things happening in the future, we can’t enjoy life either. By being in the moment, practicing mindfulness or mindful framing to be in the here and now, we will find true joy.
Another way we dampen our happiness is by looking at the past and allowing our past to define us and our present life. Now we can’t change the past, but one thing we can do is change our perception of it. That’s because neurobiology demonstrates that our memories have more to do with reconstruction as opposed to retrieval. Every time we think about the past, the angular gyrus in our brain, which is part of the parietal lobe, puts together pieces of stored information to assemble a memory, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. And depending on our state of mind, those pieces of the jigsaw puzzle change. That’s because we edit our memories to make past pieces of information fit our current circumstances.
So if you’re feeling fearful, you will reconstruct memories that focus on threats. On the other hand, if you’re feeling happy, you will reconstruct memories that will be less negative. We have the power to change our understanding of the past. Some ways you can tip the scales in your favor are:
- Keeping a record of positive memories: When you think back on bad memories, you start feeling bad, and this leads to a feedback loop where you then reconstruct bad memories.
- Finding meaning and learning from bad memories. Not only will you feel better, but studies show that you’ll be more likely to give good advice, troubleshoot and make better decisions.
- Focusing on being grateful: When you focus on things and people for which you’re grateful, you’ll feel happier and experience fewer symptoms of depression.
The Japanese practice “Ikigai”, which according to psychologist Michiko Kumano is the state of well-being that results from devotion to activities that one enjoys, which also bring happiness. Ikigai is best captured in a Venn diagram as the region where there is overlap between these 4 spheres: what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for. Everyone has an ikigai; however, it may take some self-reflection, time, and effort to find it.
The Danes practice “Lykke”, which means “happiness” in Danish. At 5:00 p.m. everyone leaves the office, cycles home, and plays for two hours with their children. Then they perform a random act of kindness to a stranger, and finally light five candles in the evening and watch a TV thriller.
The Swedes practice “Lagom”, which means “Not too little or too much. Just right.” With this philosophy, moderation i.e. not having too much money for instance is practiced. So instead of working a 60-hour week, and then risking burnout, with “Lagom”, you strive for balance in life and work.
With this balance of work and life, it’s no wonder that Scandinavians have been ranked as the happiest people on the planet!
Finding Meaning through Success
A recent study has shown that having more money can equate to fulfillment and success. It showed that there was no upper threshold at which having more money stopped making one more successful. Another study found that in communities where money was less valued, people could be just as content and successful. They were able to achieve similar levels of fulfillment by focusing on other values such as family and nature. By finding joy in the “small” things in life and learning to be content with what we already have, only then can we be truly fulfilled – regardless of our circumstances.
On average, you’ll spend 90,000 hours of your life working. It makes sense that you’re striving to be successful at work. And there is an alternative by embracing the concept of “slow productivity.” Slow productivity, a term coined by Cal Newport, is all about working a bit slower on fewer things at a time to enjoy work and succeed at it. This results in feeling less rushed and stressed and replacing “hustle culture,” with mindfulness culture. By being more mindful, you’ll be more relaxed and less prone to burnout, a bane of modern society.
Another key to feeling successful is to find purpose in any activity or task at hand. Having purpose helps you focus on what matters at work, and eliminate distractions, thereby achieving flow. In his best-selling book, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as the state of mind in which one is so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Likewise, he said the secret to happiness is being in a state of flow, which encompasses the feeling of personal meaning and fulfillment; otherwise known as eudaimonic happiness.
Finding Meaning through Compassion
It’s projected that children born today in developed countries have more than a 50% chance of living to be a centenarian. But what use is it in living to be a hundred, if we don’t contribute to our societies and help others? According to Kasley Killam, we should embrace compassion to achieve fulfillment in life. Compassion can be defined as the element of well-being that comes from connection and community. When it comes to connection and community as pertains to the developed world, Scandinavian life philosophies capture this best. In fact, each of the Scandinavian countries (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland) have their own separate but community-driven lifestyles.
When we recognize other people’s suffering and then take action to relieve their suffering, we reap so many rewards. As Bill Gates said, “It’s only by giving that we’re able to receive more than we already have.” And you don’t have to only focus on giving of your money; you can give of your time as well. For instance, you can mentor a child or youth by being a Big Brother or sister. You can lobby for your favorite causes, and even just pay it forward at the coffee shop by buying a coffee for the person behind you.
Since we are the person with whom we spend most of the time, we need to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and like what we see, and be compassionate with our selves. One way we can learn to like what we see is by practicing self-reflection regularly. By reflecting on our lives, we can see where we’ve gone wrong, and where we’ve gone right, and make changes so that our lives are in alignment with our values. Also by taking time for self-reflection, we’re less swayed by the negative opinions of others and are happy just being our authentic selves.
We only have one shot at life, so we may as well make it count and leave an impact on earth. We can do this by living a life of meaning encompassing happiness, success, and compassion.