Everyone has plenty of meaning and purpose (M&P) in life. Some, however, are more aware of what gives their lives M&P. How about you? Where do you fit on a continuum from being unaware to well aware of what gives your life meaning? How conscious are you of the purposes that animate your passions, causes and lifestyle choices?
Let me condense both questions into one: What would you say if asked “How do you find M&P?”
A friend asked this question the other day. It took me about five minutes to come up with a response. I’ll share my answer-shortly.
But first, I’d like you to experience the process. This could be a form of self-discovery. Go ahead-put the reading aside for a moment so you can list a few ways you find M&P.
Interpretation and Explanation
There is no “correct” or incorrect answer.
One objective of this exercise is more awareness of approaches you’ve followed. Most M&P evolves over the course of many years.
Another objective is to discover how these choices became part of your life. Did you consciously decide? Or, did most or all derive from traditions, customs or teachings of your parents and the cultures of which you were a part?
Either way, the third objective is to decide if there might be other possibilities.
Before continuing, let me do what I promised-share my response to this question.
I find M&P In varied ways:
• Through connections with friends, associates and others.
• With my wife and children.
• By having many things to think about and do.
• From books, music, exercise, food, wine, nature, etc.
• Opportunities to do what 19th century orator Robert Green Ingersoll noted in his creed: “To cultivate the mind, to become more familiar with the mighty thoughts that genius has expressed, the noble deeds of all the world.”
• Via happiness, laughter.
• Sex (in an earlier time in life, this might have been mentioned much sooner).
Psychologists who study human motivation generally agree that self-determination is largely affected by three psychological needs: relatedness to others, autonomy and competence. We all seek some degree of control, the freedom to make choices, the liberty to become good at something and opportunities to influence the direction of our lives. All efforts or actions that serve these needs give M&P. Success in doing so boosts mental health and increases our degree of happiness. Work, that is the organizations with which we practice our professions and build our careers, along with the education we obtain and the romances we experience, also play a big part of our M&P.
A Sampling of Visions
Some forms of M&P seem ambitious and out of reach. Sure, we all want to support our families, become familiar with the demonstrated facts of science, work for more responsible government and so on. However, get even more ambitious. For example, I read the other day that Bertrand Piccard, one of two pilots of Solar Impulse 2, the sun-powered airplane on a globe circling voyage, has an amazing mission. He wants to promote “a world free from reliance on fossil fuels.”
Pretty impressive. I can see how that might infuse a person with a solid sense of M&P. Nice work, if you can get it.
But M&P is not a competition. Helping one’s organization play a valuable role in the community could be satisfying, as well. Not everyone can circle the earth, climb the highest mountain, set a world record or take advantage of remarkable opportunities.
A Remarkable Depression-Era Book
On July 15, 1931 during the Great Depression, Will Durant wrote over 100 letters to “bright luminaries in contemporary life” here and abroad. He wrote to famous people for whom he had high regard. He asked, “Will you interrupt your work for a moment and play the game of philosophy with me?”
In a lengthy composition, he asked his correspondents how they manage to derive worth and meaning in life. He said “this question dwarfs all other problems of philosophy and religion, economics and statesmanship.” All else, he added, “becomes a transitory trifle unworthy of serious concern.” (Source: Will Durant, On the Meaning of Life, Ray Long and Richard R. Smith Inc., 1932, p. 3.)
The lengthy letter reviewed scientific breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution. Durant believed there was great disillusionment. He called his own a “philosophy of despair.” It contained sections on problems that were “nearly breaking the spirit of the race.” The letter provided an overview on the status of religion, science, history and what he termed “the suicide of the intellect.”
I thought you might enjoy excerpts of advice on M&P from a few Depression-era celebrities. The following are responses to Durant’s question: “Tell us where you find your consolation and your happiness, where in the last resort your treasure lies.”
These are excerpts; I recommend you order a copy of this truly great book from your local library.
• Next to agreeable work as a means of attaining happiness (M&P) I put what Huxley called ‘the domestic affections’ – the day to day intercourse with family and friends. H.L. Mencken
•... get a few laughs, do the best you can, take nothing serious… and don’t start ‘seeking knowledge,’ for the more you seek the nearer the ‘Booby Hatch’ you get. And don’t have an ideal to work for. That’s like riding toward a mirage of a lake. When you get there it ain’t there. Believe in something for another world,but don’t be too set on what it is, and then you won’t start out that life with a disappointment. Live your life so that whenever you lose, you are ahead. Will Rogers
• To have a great purpose to work for, a purpose larger than ourselves, is one of the secrets of making life significant, for then the meaning and worth of the individual overflow his personal borders, and survive his death. Jawaharlal Nehru
• I want to be restless, I want always to be in action, and to be trying for some kind of beauty and perfection. Even if I may be lacking in talent, I shall have the pleasure of action – and there is always hope – at least in a young, restless heart. Helen Wills Moody
• How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning? George Bernard Shaw
We all seek forms of consolation and happiness, and the “locations” where our treasures might lie. Like G.B. Shaw, however, we don’t usually think in these terms.
Some truths seem evident, among them that we should think in these terms now and then, we have to find our own forms of M&P, that some outlets are better than others in giving positive, life-enriching results and that the organizations we serve can, under the best of circumstances, enrich the M&P we experience.
Another truth might be this: By pondering these issues, you increase your prospects for more satisfying M&P at work and elsewhere.
Be well, look after yourself and stay open to possibilities.