“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” ~Robert Byrne
Has life lost its spark? Does it feel hallow and empty? Has the meaning of your life been lost to the daily grind of living? Has the flame gone out?
If you feel like something is missing, whether large and numbing or small and vaguely unsatisfying, it may be time to reevaluate the meaning of your life, or perhaps simply add more meaning to it.
Not too long ago, my friend Lori from Life, for instance, got me thinking about the issue of meaning and purpose again. The conversation was clarifying.
The Slow Poison of Meaninglessness
Imagine living a whole life, getting to the end of it, looking back and thinking your life was without purpose or significance, that you touched no one, accomplished nothing, that your life simply did not matter.
The thought makes me cringe. Knowing there are, in fact, countless empty souls who actually believe this sinks my heart.
Life – Meaning = Unhappiness
Meaning and purpose are to happiness what a plot is to a play or cheese is to pizza. They are the heart and soul, the content and the subject matter of a life. Omit those ingredients, and you will likely be left with a bitter taste in your mouth when all is said and done.
In other words, meaninglessness and happiness cannot coexist in the same person at the same time. They are mutually exclusive conditions.
And yet we sometimes define ourselves in such narrow ways as to limit the amount of meaning that’s available.
We make the mistake of weaving our lives with a single thread, making the fabric of our lives much more tenuous and susceptible to unraveling than needs be.
Never Put all your Meaning in One Basket
When we derive meaning from a single source of purpose, we set ourselves up for disillusion and pain, especially when that single thread of meaning becomes worn thin.
And yet some continue to solely define themselves professionally. Their sole sense of meaning becomes the work they do (“I’m a cop” “I’m a teacher” “I’m a doctor”). But what happens when they are laid off or can no longer be a cop or teacher or doctor?
Meaning, in such circumstances, turns to ash and life turns upside down and identity fades to confusion, doubt and despair.
Still others solely define themselves by their relationships (mother, wife, boyfriend, BFF). But what happens to the meaning of their lives when the relationship is strained or ends?
Life can sometimes strike us when we’re least ready for it.
Loved ones die. Economies crumble. Age cripples. Wars rage. Faith is questioned. Dreams fall flat.
It’s in such times that doubt and emptiness start to replace the certainty a bold sense of meaning previously provided.
How can we create complex webs of meaning as a protection against life’s challenges to single threads of purpose?
The key to a rich and meaningful life is the same as the advice that investment experts give investors: Diversify your portfolio!
4 Sources of Personal Meaning and Purpose
1. Meaningful Parenthood
Parenthood is both maddening and meaningful. It can be draining, monotonous and stultifying. But it can also be a rich source of profound meaning. But first, we need to reconnect to what is meaningful about it. As a parent, you are doing much more than feeding and changing and cleaning and scolding an alien spawn of, well, you fill in the blank. You are literally helping to raise the next generation.
You are raising a future spouse and parent and friend and neighbor and citizen and employee and employer. You very well may be affecting hundreds or thousands or even millions of lives by pouring your heart and soul into the work of parenting a child.
2. Meaningful Service
Those who report living the most meaningful lives are those who have dedicated themselves to a noble cause. They leave the comfort of the couch and touch lives, lift and serve and bless those who most need lifting and blessing. Significance is born out of being significant to others.
By connecting your life to something higher and bigger than your own wants, desires and whims, your life is elevated, infused with meaning and purpose. By committing to a noble cause, your life is endowed with the sublime.
3. Meaningful Faith
Those who feel connected to the Infinite, who believe life itself is innately purposeful, have access to a measure of purpose and meaning only available to people of faith. Meaning is found in working to fulfill the purpose of life.
By consistently (even though imperfectly) living up to a set of faith-based values, by fulfilling the cause of their creation, by living up to the tenants of their faith, such are blessed with a depth of purpose that can’t be matched outside of faith.
4. Meaningful Work
When you feel like the work you do benefits others, that you add value to your industry, that your profession is noble, that you make a difference, life takes on a deep shade of meaning and purpose. But you don’t have to be a doctor working on the cure for cancer to feel like your work in meaningful.
If a customer has a better experience shopping because of you, or a family is fed because you provided the service of feeding them or the streets are beautified or the industry is better able to meet its customers’ needs because of you, that itself can be deeply meaningful.
The Primary Sources of Meaning in My Life
I can talk a lot about the theories behind the science of meaning, but what about what I actually experience? Thankfully, I have a deeply meaningful life. But where does that meaning come from?
I’m a father of two amazing children. One is married and has made me a grandpa. She is kind and thoughtful and compassionate. She’s one of the best people I know. And I helped in all of that. I also have a boy who is still learning the ropes. He is extraordinary–so full of life and laughter and curiosity. There is intense meaning in guiding him and loving him and teaching him.
I’m a high school teacher. I influence developing minds and attitudes every time I step into my classroom. My profession itself is meaningful. What I do and what I teach and how I interact with my students provides additional layers of meaning to an already meaningful career.
I’m a blogger. I’ve been told by readers that I’ve affected them. Lives, it seems, are happier because of what I do here at Meant to be Happy. That deeply touches me and adds yet another layer of rich meaning and purpose to my life.
I’m a man of faith. Through my church, I am able to serve in capacities that change lives. I serve in a community of like-minded people, working to live by principles that lead us to serve others. There is so much meaning in my faith. It lifts and guides and builds me into something better than I would have been without it.
I’m a pretty decent guy. I am very aware of the power of example, that the person I am and strive to be matters, that others can look to me as a source of inspiration or as an excuse for their missteps, that it matters which one I live up or down to. By being a decent guy, others (children, wife, friends, associates, neighbors) see that. And since I’m personally inspired by friends, associates and other impressive people, I know the kinder, more thoughtful, more compassionate and courageous I am, the larger and more meaningful impact I can have on others in my circle of influence.
To wrap up this conversation, there’s a family I want to introduce you to. They were a middle class family of four, living a middle class life when the parents decided they wanted their kids to feel connected to a greater sense of meaning.
So they packed their essentials into two small carry-ons each and took off on a year-long quest around the world to test the proposition that service is the key to a meaningful life.
I became aware of them when a film producer who’s involved with the documentary contacted me. I watched the introductory trailer and checked out their website and was instantly sold. You can watch it here.
Their story is inspiring and helps put meaning and purpose and significance into perspective. I believe it will do just that for you as well. See how you can help inspire others through their story here.
Your turn …
• Did you watch the trailer? What did you think?
• What adds meaning and purpose to your life?
• We would love to read your thoughts in the comments below!