Our time is limited
Although there are some species that have an awareness of self, we humans are the only species that ponders over the meaning of life and death. We are able to put our lives into perspective, because we know that at some point it is going to end. Realizing our own mortality is a strong motivator to question the meaning of life.
We can visualize ourselves at our own funeral and reflect on what we want to be remembered for. What have we created? What is our legacy that remains after our death? How do we want to appear in the image that our closest family and friends have about us? What values do we want to be remembered for? How will they talk about us and what will they say how we treated them?
Decrease of religious guidance
In the past religion has provided us with an orientation on how we came into existence, how we ought to live and what happens after we die. All major religions have their individual way, but all provide these three core orientations. But the decrease of religious impact in our daily lives, especially in Western Europe, has led to a loss of orientation. We are searching for other, maybe more scientifically proved, guidance in how to find meaning in our lives. It is important for us humans to have a narrative to make sense of life’s most basic questions.
“You are the average of the five people you spent the most time with” – Jim Rohn
In order to develop and validate the beliefs we have it is useful to surround ourselves with like-minded people. That is why people went to church on Sunday or are praying together in a mosque. Even though we could pursue our religion when we are alone, saying silent prayers for example, it is the connection and community that brings people together.
“Other people are a source of comfort when our most basic ore beliefs are challenged” – Timothy Wilson
But we need to keep in mind that surrounding ourselves with only a certain type of people might limit our input and options. The concentration of one belief leads to a polarization of viewpoints.
Why are we here? What is our place?
We have to answer these questions individually for ourselves. Might it be in politics, economics or sports, we can find meaning basically everywhere. Some find meaning in cats or travelling. Others find meaning in the need for social change. When we search for meaning we tend to look for answers outside of ourselves, because that is where life happens. It simply does not take place in our heads and is not created only through thoughts.
“[…] happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself” – Viktor Frankl
What all these beliefs have in common is that they are involving other people. The greatest meaning in life comes from caring about other people. I believe that the greatest human value we possess is compassion; compassion for other people, for animals, for our planet. It is the core value that we all share; that unites humanity. By giving we get more than we can ever imagine.
Embrace life fully in all aspects
“Sunshine all the time makes a desert”– Arab proverb
Our life is full of up and downs; full of experiences of any kind. And I believe that is what it makes life. Getting out of our comfort zone and experiencing the feeling of being alive. Wouldn’t it be boring if every day was the same? We would not experience the joy of love, meeting a totally stranger that could possibly become our friend or enjoying the beauty of nature in all is possible aspects.
Who wouldn’t mind having ups all the time? Unfortunately, we can only really value our good times, when we experience bad times. This brings them back into perspective. As with everything in life, we need to have a balance of ups and downs in our lives. Fortunately, we are able to find meaning even in the worst experiences, so that our future outlook can be more optimistic.
Circle of influence
Give me the serenity to accept the thing I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference. – Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer beautifully points out what we should focus on in life. There are things that are in our circle of influence and there are things that are simply beyond our control. We need to accept that we can change a lot and achieve unimaginable things with our actions, but some things are unchangeable. People who attribute negative events to themselves or focus on circumstances they cannot change are more likely affected by depression.
If we focus on the changeable things in our circle of influence, we will recognize we are able to change. We realize what could be possible if we put our energy in these activities. By seeing the possible change we will hopefully develop a more optimistic outlook into the future.
An optimistic perspective on life is not only necessary, but it will put us back in the driver seat of our own lives. With an optimistic outlook and the belief that we are in charge, we can overcome all the obstacles on our path. The belief that the future will be better than our present can motivate us to act. Although we cannot forecast all possible outcomes of our actions, we generally need to have faith that what we do now will have an impact and improve our situation in the future. Setting achievable goals will help us with that, which is the third aspect of how to life a happy life.
Life orientation test
But first let us test what our level of optimism is. We can do that with a test which is called the life orientation test (LOT). It was developed by Michael Scheier and Charles Carver in 1985 and was revised in 1994. It measures our expected outcomes, positive or negative, from a certain situation.
Best possible selves
An exercise to help us develop a more optimistic outlook for the future is to write about the best possible selves we could become. Hereby, we write about our future and how everything has worked out in a reasonable way. The clue is to focus on what we need to do and develop for ourselves to reach this vision. Questions which we could ask ourselves are:
- How are we imagining our future?
- What is necessary to reach this situation?
The answers will let us focus on our goals and their achievement, thus the process. This will provide us with a strategy on how to reach our goals. It will also improve our mood, since a study from the Department of Social Neuroscience from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany has shown that self- focused and future orientated thoughts can lead to a happier mood, even if the content is negative.
Identifying our purpose
Having a purpose in life can help us bring orientation on what matters and what is irrelevant for pursuing our mission. In other words, it helps us to achieve our goals since we are focused. Persons with a clear purpose set their own goals and make progress towards them. We can find a sense of purpose in activities we enjoy while we are helping others. Activities we are good at and which we tend to do when we have time and freedom to choose can be seen as our natural purpose.
To discover our individual purpose, I have compiled the process I went through and the questions I have asked my self into an purpose identification eBook. For me it let to starting HumanBusiness and becoming self-employed.
HumanBusiness believes that we are best when we follow our purpose and make it our profession. This could for example take place in the form of starting an own company, but also as freelance activity on the side. However, we also realize that (for now) this might not be possible for everyone or every job profession. This might be because of previously made commitments which hinder us from change. For example our family is dependent on one single income. It can help to see things from a different perspective. Instead of subtracting all your costs from your monthly salary we could evaluate how much money we really need to live, so basically a reversed salary calculation. Thereby, we add up everything you need for a living and see how much that costs us each month. We will be surprised how less money we actually need to have a fulfilling life.
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” – Fred Wilson
Doing what you love?
How often have we heard the well-intended advice of ‘do what you love’ or ‘do more of what makes you happy’? As from the view of Frankl and his above quote it can be seen that happiness is not a goal which we can simply reach. It is a state we will achieve when we focus on a task to achieve a goal that is greater than ourselves or focuses on helping others. So these mentioned small advices carry a larger message then we might think. If we want to be happy we need to reflect on when we are happy, what activities we are engaged in or what people we are surrounded with. In order to become happy we need to take a small detour and focus on doing things that will make us happy.
Creating a career based on purpose
HumanBusiness is working on making work environments more purposeful. However, I also believe that the responsibility to create a purposeful life lies within every individual. If we cannot create a meaningful job or are not able to apply our purpose in a work related environment, then we can at least fulfill our purpose outside of work. It could mean that we have a hobby that we identify ourselves with and that we are passionate about. I for example collect figures from the Kinder surprise eggs. You will not believe it, but there is a whole industry built around this ‘hobby’. People trade and buy these figures and make a living out of it. Businesses or professions are created from the most unimaginable ideas. Or, have you ever heard of a position like BusinessHumanizer?
Getting lost in activities we enjoy can give us purpose. It could lead to socializing with like-minded people and exchanging information and thereby constantly learning, so that over time we become experts on our field of interest. And who knows, maybe in the future we might start a business based on our expertise.
“The purpose of life is to discover your gift.
The work of life is to develop it.
The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” – David Viscott
How do you find meaning in your life?
This post is inspired from the ideas presented by Timothy Wilson in his book ‘Redirect’. Wilson shows that we can change the narratives we tell ourselves through story editing. He argues that our perspective on life is essential for our behavior. ‘Redirect’ challenges common practices and provides inspirational stories to change our perceptions. You can get the book at:
The referred to articles in this post are:
Ruby, F. J. M., Smallwood, J., Engen, H., and Singer, T. (2013) How Self-Generated Thought Shapes Mood—The Relation between Mind-Wandering and Mood Depends on the Socio-Temporal Content of Thoughts. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77554. Read the study here.
Scheier, Michael F.; Carver, Charles S. (1985). Optimism, coping, and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology. 4 (3): 219–247.
Scheier, Michael F.; Carver, Charles S.; Bridges, Michael W. (1994). Distinguishing optimism from neuroticism (and trait anxiety, self-mastery, and self-esteem): A reevaluation of the Life Orientation Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 67 (6): 1063–1078.