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What gives your life meaning? Is there an inherent purpose to life?
One of the biggest questions in philosophy concerns the meaning of life. Your life’s purpose is the thing that you strive for—the reason you have goals and make decisions every day.
If you’re wondering what gives your life meaning, keep reading.
What Is the Meaning of Life?
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl says we can’t ask “What gives your life meaning?” as though there’s one universal answer that should be satisfying to all of us. We can’t generalize what life is. The tasks of life, and consequently the meaning of life, differ for every individual—no two people experience the same life.
- Trying to ask it generally would be like trying to ask a chessmaster what the best chess move in the world is. Any chessmaster would tell you that it depends on the particular game and the situation in that particular game—there’s no one way to win a chess game, and it depends on your choices and how your opponent reacts to them.
The meaning of life differs from person to person. Moreover, every situation in your own life is unique and different from the last situation you encountered, and may require different decisions on your part to shape your fate. So, we have to ask this question specifically to ourselves at this specific moment: “what is the meaning of my life right now?”
If you’re having trouble finding out what gives your life meaning, we can help you find the answer. But, before getting into what the true meaning of life is, we’ll first look at why finding your purpose is beneficial.
The Benefits of Finding Your Purpose
Finding what gives your life meaning opens up many doors for you. In Find Your Why, Simon Sinek discusses three benefits of knowing your purpose. He discusses purpose as it relates to work, but his messages can be applied on a broader scale.
1. When you know your purpose, you can identify what fulfills you—that is, it makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger and that your work matters. Sinek believes that everyone, no matter their role or status, deserves to find fulfillment.
2. Knowing your purpose makes you more persuasive. Your energy and commitment to your purpose are contagious, so whether you want people to hire you, buy from you, or work with you, having a clear purpose helps you pitch your ideas in ways that sound more meaningful and attractive to others. For example, nonprofits that effectively communicate their purpose inspire people who believe in it to volunteer their time and skills.
In a context outside of work, communicating your purpose to others may persuade them to believe that you’re worth helping if you ever ask for assistance on something important or time-consuming.
3. Knowing your purpose helps you make better decisions. Your purpose works as a compass directing you to the right opportunities—those that further your purpose—and keeps you from time and resource drains.
For instance, instead of taking on a client who’s difficult to work with and tarnishes your reputation, you’ll realize ahead of time that their values don’t align with yours, and you’ll therefore avoid them.
Aristotle Says Happiness Is the Goal of Human Life
What if you’re not sure what gives your life meaning? Well, Aristotle, in his work Nicomachean Ethics, says that happiness is what gives life meaning.
He arrives at this conclusion by examining the nature of human action. Aristotle claims that the purpose of all human actions is achieving some kind of good—that is, we do things because we think they are the “right” or “best” thing to do in a given circumstance. However, these “goods” exist in a hierarchy: If the reason we do action A is so that we can then do action B, it follows that action B is better than action A—action A is just a means to an end.
Aristotle concludes that the top of the hierarchy of “goods” is a means that is also an end—something that we want for its own sake. This ultimate good, he argues, is happiness. Since happiness is the highest good, the reason for all action inevitably leads back to it. If you ask someone why they want to be happy, they can’t and won’t provide another, greater reason. Because happiness is the ultimate good, it follows that a good life is a happy life and vice versa.
Aristotle concedes that many people agree that happiness is the goal of human life—the real challenge is defining happiness. He defines happiness as rational activity aligned with virtue. To explain this definition, we’ll look at each of its parts: reason, virtue, and activity.
Aristotle claims that to judge how good something is, you need to know its “defining activity”: what it (and only it) does. For example: Saying someone is a “good” violin player is a judgment of their ability to play the violin—the activity that a violin player (and only a violin player) does.
Reason (the ability to think logically and make choices based on that logic) is the defining activity of humans. All of our other actions aren’t unique to us. To list a few: Our ability to move, reproduce, fulfill basic needs, or perceive the world around us are also things that other animals (and in some cases, plants) can do.
However, no other animal or plant can think logically or make logical decisions. Humans (and only humans) can do that. This makes reasoning our defining activity, and, therefore, the standard we can use to judge how good a human is. A good human is good at reasoning. A good human, by definition, lives a good life—and a good life is a happy life. Therefore, reason is necessary for happiness.
Aristotle cautions that reasoning alone isn’t enough to be happy—it also must be correct reasoning. Someone who always makes the worst possible decisions won’t live a happy life even though they are using reason (albeit poorly).
What Aristotle means by correct reasoning is reasoning aligned with “virtue.”
Since “reasoning” means making choices, “reason aligned with virtue” means making the right choices. If we make the right choices in life, it means we’re good at reasoning—and are therefore happy.
Aristotle separates virtue into two main categories:
- Moral virtues: The virtues that define what decision is “right” in social interactions and, by extension, determine what it means to do the right thing or be a good person. Examples of moral virtues include justice, courage, and temperance.
- Intellectual virtues: These virtues are different types of knowledge that allow us to make the right decisions and excel at certain skills. For example, an excellent carpenter has the intellectual virtue of technical knowledge—knowledge that allows him to make the right decisions in his work and create good furniture.
Reasoning aligned with virtue still isn’t enough for happiness—a person also must consistently act on this reasoning. Goodness, explains Aristotle, can’t exist separate from objects or actions—it makes no sense to call a carpenter good if he’s never built anything, for example. Therefore, action is necessary for a good life.
However, one or a few actions isn’t enough. Aristotle claims happiness requires consistently good actions over an entire lifetime.
Robin Sharma on Finding Your Happiness
According to The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma, concentration is the core of mental mastery. You must be able to take all of your mind’s power and focus it on a single task.
Once you understand concentration, you are one step closer to finding your purpose in life, which is happiness. The secret to happiness is to find what you love doing, then concentrate all of your energy on doing it. When you find what you really want to do, your work will seem like play, and it will energize you instead of draining you.
Sharma maintains that that doesn’t mean you have to quit your job, sell everything you own, and go searching for your passion—but try shaking things up. Leave your comfort zone and do something out of the ordinary. Stop being so practical and logical, and try some of the things you’ve always wanted to do.
Next, we’ll look at three exercises Sharma gives for maintaining your focus to find what gives your life meaning. These exercises use the example of Julian, a hotshot-lawyer-turned-monk, and his former colleague John, the former of which is teaching the latter the secrets to enlightenment.
Exercise #1: The Heart of the Rose
John asks for practical techniques that he can use, so Julian teaches him a meditation technique called the Heart of the Rose. You can do this exercise yourself, with nothing but a rose and a quiet space.
Take your rose and stare at the center of the flower. Think of nothing but the rose. Notice its color, shape, scent, and even its texture.
Other thoughts will intrude at first. Accept them, and return your attention to the rose. With practice, those intrusive thoughts will come less frequently and eventually stop completely as you strengthen your mind and your focus.
Exercise #2: Opposition Thinking
A second powerful technique Julian teaches John is Opposition Thinking: Whenever a negative thought occupies your mind, dismiss that thought and replace it with a positive one. It’s a simple exercise, but it requires persistence and vigilance to be effective. Try not to let even a single negative thought take root in your mind.
Exercise #3: Visualizing Your Ideal Self
Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and simply breathe until you feel calm and your mind is clear. Then visualize, as clearly as you can, the person you want to be. For example, if you want to be happy, see yourself laughing and smiling. If you want to be brave, see yourself acting boldly at a decisive moment.
This exercise is grounded in the idea that your mind attracts what you think about. Therefore, if there is a lack in your life, it’s because there is a lack in your thoughts. This exercise is designed to make sure that you’re attracting the right things.
While teaching Julian, Yogi Raman called this phenomenon of attracting what you think about joriki, which means “concentrated mind.”
Finding Meaning With Passionate Work
Everyone wants to make a living doing meaningful work that aligns with their values and makes them happy. However, many people feel stuck doing unfulfilling work. They hope that once they find their “passion,” everything will magically fall into place. Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans explains how you can find work you’re passionate about so you can find happiness and meaning in your life.
1. Assess Your Life
The first step to planning your life more purposefully is evaluating your life as it is now, pinpointing what you’re happy with and what you want to improve. This helps you focus on what changes you want to make before moving through the rest of the steps. Burnett and Evans suggest reflecting on and rating (from one to 10) your satisfaction in four areas: health (mind, body, and spirit), work (paid and unpaid), joy (relaxation and happiness), and relationships (your ties with other people).
Ideally, your ratings for all four areas are high and in proportion to each other. If they’re not, make a note of areas where you need to create more balance and satisfaction. For example, you might have a high rating for work and low ratings for relationships, joy, and health. This indicates that you’re prioritizing work over all else, and improving your life will require focusing on these other three areas.
2. Identify Actionable Problems
Once you’ve identified which areas of your life need improvement, the next step is rationally determining what improvements you can make by separating uncontrollable factors from actionable problems. Burnett and Evans explain there are some things in life you simply can’t change—attempts to do so waste energy and lead to frustration. Accepting these unchangeable factors allows you to focus your energy on actionable problems you can change and improve.
3. Define Your Priorities
After identifying problems you want to (and can) solve, the next step in purposefully planning your life is developing an awareness of your priorities. Burnett and Evans explain that this is an important part of the process because there are so many paths you can pursue in life—your priorities act like a GPS that guides you toward paths that align with what you care about and feel right. Let’s explore the reasoning behind this step in more detail.
4. Pay Attention to What Feels Good
Once you’ve defined your priorities and understand how to assess the coherency of potential paths as you move forward, start investigating activities that make you feel good.
As you begin this step, keep your options open and look for many activities that feel good. Burnett and Evans explain that there are many paths available to you at this point, and your eagerness to move forward may influence you to pick a single path without fully considering if it has the potential to satisfy you or if it’s the only thing that will bring you joy. Taking time to clarify the many things that satisfy you will help to prevent this rash focus on one path. Further, restricting yourself to a single source of joy and thus a single destination at this early stage of the purposeful planning process will prevent you from engaging in the wide-ranging exploration throughout the following steps.
5. Set Clear Goals
In The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, Sharma teaches that the first step toward finding happiness and meaning in your life is setting clear and specific goals.
Do this right now: Take a piece of paper and write down some specific long-term goals. Write whatever comes to mind at the moment—you can always reevaluate your list later.
Having a list of goals will help sort through the clutter of your daily thoughts so that you can focus your attention and energy on what’s important to you.
Reaching Your Goals
The Sages of Sivana, a near-mythological group of monks in India who knows the secrets to enlightenment, had a six-step process for achieving their goals:
1. Visualize the goal. Take a moment each day, perhaps right after you wake up, to imagine yourself as you’ll be once you reach your goal.
- For example, if your goal is to improve your physical fitness, picture yourself with the body you want to have.
2. Create positive pressure for yourself. This does not mean to badger or berate yourself—that would be negative pressure—but to somehow add some stakes to your goal that encourage you to pursue it.
- One way to create positive pressure is to publicly announce your goal. Doing so instantly puts pressure on you to fulfill it because people are now watching you.
3. Create a clear and specific timeline for your goal. Deadlines will help keep you on track throughout the process.
- Commit the goal and the deadline to paper—a deadline that’s only in your mind is no deadline at all.
4. Choose a specific action or behavior that will help reach your goal, and do it every day for 21 days. This is how long it takes for new habits to be formed, and bad habits to be replaced.
5. Enjoy the process. Have fun while pursuing your goals; if your new ritual feels like a chore then you won’t stick to it.
6. Sharma suggests that one way to find your Dharma is to keep a Dream Book. Buy a cheap notebook, and fill it with goals and dreams from all areas of your life. Divide your Dream Book into sections based on what type of goal you’re adding: fitness, financial, relationship, spiritual, and so on.
- Also include pictures that represent your goals and people who have achieved those goals already. For example, if your goal is to get in better shape, perhaps include a picture of a superstar athlete.
For many of us, happiness is more than just one of many emotions—it’s the desired state of mind that gives us the purpose to pursue our goals. If all we want at the end of the day is to be happy, then happiness is the true meaning of life.
Does happiness give your life meaning? Tell us in the comments below!
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