In his popular blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker recently wrote about the four things that are proven to unlock a meaningful life.
(That’s meaningful – not happy. No-one said happy.)
His article is based on the research from a book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.
I’ve yet to read the book, but from Eric’s article, these seem pretty spot on.
So what are the four things?
- Belonging – having friends.
- Seeing yourself as your own hero – framing setbacks and adversity positively.
- Transcendence. In other words, awe.
Eric’s article contains some advice about how we go about getting each element in place.
Here is another take on the subject.
First element of a meaningful life: Belonging
Most of us have realized that we feel better when have a community around us. Friends and family; partners and colleagues.
Belonging is also a prominent aspect of spiritual communities, sporting teams, and the cliques that emerge at the office.
So: we get some friends, and we make sure we see them. Simples.
Or is it?
Challenge #1: we care too much about belonging
Our need for belonging, hard-wired into us, can also cause us some problems.
One of these is we might put aside our own values.
Think of this way: at your birth, a seed is planted. It wants to flower to its full potential. You could interpret your life as being for the purpose of bringing that seed to fruition. It is a powerful internal force within you.Social conformity can weaken our core desires and preferences Click To Tweet
Social conformity is a counter-force. If the counter-force is strong, we wind up choosing careers that don’t suit us, assuming the preferences of others, and seeing pleasure and fulfillment as coming from outside of work.
To counter that tendency, we need to work on knowing ourselves and developing our own set of standards.
(Read more about how setting your own standards is a good thing here.
Read more about developing a personal code of contentment here.)
Okay, so we need to check that we aren’t too reliant on our mates.
Wait though, there’s more.
Challenge #2: we stop people from knowing us
To get a true sense of belonging, we need to allow ourselves to be seen. We want to foster the kind of deep connection with people which means they can be a true source of support and solidarity (and us to them).
That means learning to be authentic, vulnerable, honest and open. And also, being compassionate and accepting – and keeping our egos in check!
(Read about how to become more authentic here. Read about recognizing your ego here. To help you to know whether you are a bit intimacy avoident, read this. If you want to know whether you do this in romantic relationships too, read this.)
There is one further thing to having friends (who knew it was this complex?).
Challenge #3: we make poor choices of friends
The friendships we choose can either help us to grow or keep us stuck.
Hanging out with a bunch of drunks, for instance, might not be so ideal as aligning yourselves with individuals that are occasionally sober. (Unless you aspire to be a drunk.)Belonging is good. Having friends that you feel genuine kinship with is even better Click To Tweet
Remember what Jim Rohn says: we are the sum of the five people we hang out with.
- Get some friends; see them often. Or, be close with your family.
- Be careful that your need for belonging isn’t out of proportion to everything else in your life. If it is, commit to learning more about your true desires and preferences.
- Be aware of intimacy-blocking behaviour.
- Look at your friends. Check that you still like them.
Second element of a meaningful life: Purpose
But a larger purpose to our lives is what many of us in modern life lack. In the past, it was organised religion that supplied this. But now loads of us don’t ascribe to any one religion.Having purpose makes life meaningful. We have to stop kidding ourselves that this isn't true Click To Tweet
I’ve got encouraging news for you from author, Robert Greene:
The process of following your Life’s Task can essentially begin at any point in life. The hidden force within you is always there and ready to be engaged.
In his book Mastery, Greene suggests the following for discovering this ‘hidden force’:
- Reconnect with your inclinations. Go inwards. Search the past for signs. You are looking for an underlying pattern, a core to your character that you can understand as deeply as possible.
- Look at the career path you are on or are about to begin. The choice of this path – or redirection – is critical. Enlarge your concept of work itself (stop compartmentalizing your life).
- See your career or vocational path as more as a journey with twists and turns, than a straight line.
If you struggle to find purpose in your work, Eric suggests asking yourself how you could redefine your role at work to find more meaning. What’s a bigger goal it contributes to? How does it better the lives of others?
We should probably stop kidding ourselves that this isn’t important.
This emphasis on your uniqueness and a Life’s Task might seem a poetic concept without any bearing on practical realities, but in fact it is extremely relevant to the times we live in. We are entering a world in which we can rely less and less upon the state, the corporation, or family or friends to help and protect us. We must learn to develop ourselves.
For some other (famous) perspectives on purpose, read this.
- Admit to yourself that unless you can find meaning in your work, the days are going to be long.
- Find out what you really enjoy doing.
- Don’t separate your work from other areas of your life – see it as connected to who you are, and develop a sense of your vocation.
- Choose or stay in something that is roughly along the lines of your preferences, and stay open to twists and turns.
Third element of a meaningful life: Making yourself the hero of your own story
Some of us are really good at re-framing the events of our lives so that we position ourselves as heros.
This is one of my own special skills. If you ever ask me about my life, my tendency is towards telling you stories of how disturbing events came to good in the end. Yep; the joys of being an Epicure.
How do you interpret the things that have happened?
The good news is, if you are prone to a depressive take on things, a simple writing exercise can change your pattern.We think in narratives. You might as well tell yourself a good one Click To Tweet
- Make yourself the hero in your life. Your heart wrenching divorce was the precursor to self discovery and an epic trip to Bali. That career setback meant you diverted onto something more suited. Etc., etc.
- If you know you are ‘glass half empty’ about life, do the writing exercise.
Fourth element of a meaningful life: Awe/losing yourself
The fourth element for a meaningful life is feeling awe. Experiences that provide that feeling of just how big and amazing life is; the visceral feeling of meaning itself.
Ultimately, we want awe at our fingertips. Just like when we were kiddies.Awe makes life meaningful Click To Tweet
Eric suggests that getting out in nature will work for many of us.
I recommend learning to stop thinking occasionally. It’s our thinking that keeps us self-involved and out of the present moment. Ain’t nobody feeling awe like that.
We become more present with practice. The major relevant practice is mindfulness (thinking about thinking).
- Ask yourself what causes you to feel awe.
- Notice when you have the feeling of ‘losing yourself”. (When you’re having sex? Up the slopes on a mountain? On your yoga mat?)
- Practice mindfulness to increase your ability to vacation from the endless chatter of your thoughts, emotions and feelings.
I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic again (and again).
It seems like there might be strong evidence for the four elements above being a part of a meaningful life. And there are more to these elements than meets the eye.
Start with assessing where you are with all four – whether you:
- have people you like in your life, and you see them often;
- understand your purpose (even in loose terms);
- are your own hero in your life story; and
- feel connected to something larger than yourself.
Then start a little digging deeper.
Or shortcut the whole process, and have some kids. (I’m not recommending this.)
You might not be happy – but it’ll definitely be meaningful.