4 Steps to a Meaningful Life

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Happy Holidays! It's been a while since I first started the blog and since theres a Thanksgiving break I finally have time to sit down and write this. I typically love the holiday season, when the pumpkin pie comes out along with the Christmas decorations, Christmas music and the best holiday food you can think of. Generally it's a cheerful time but this year has been different. Because of COVID, I was unable to visit home. This is the very first Thanksgiving that I wasn't able to spend with my family. But as I felt the weight of disappointment and sadness of missing the precious time with them and being stuck at home in quarantine, a conversation I had over text with my sister reminded me of the reality that holidays can actually be one of the toughest times of the year for alot of us.

Maybe you lost a loved one recently and it's the first holiday season without them, or there's a lot of family drama and you're family feels divided right now, or maybe like me because of COVID you're not able to spend the holidays with anyone. Whatever it is for you, remember that you are not alone. I hope that this Christmas you can experience moments of healing, hope and joy with loved ones even if it has to be through virtual means. However, for alot of us maybe the difficulty of the holidays is caused by our own high expectations. With the high expectations of it being the "most wonderful time of the year" filled with friends and family, fun, laughter, etc. It can be pretty rough when our expectations are crushed by some circumstance in our life, some painful memories of the past we try to forget or even just the high stress of all that we feel we have to do to make it perfect.

I want to address this common holiday slump through the lens of "happiness" and "meaning." The fact that there is even such a common occurrence as "holiday emotions", gives a small glimpse into how we approach our life. We often approach the holidays with high expectations of happiness and ideal circumstances. Isn't this how we also tend to approach life. We have high expectations of what will make us happy and how ideal something will be. We tell ourselves, '"If I can just get that perfect job," "If I can just find that perfect guy/girl," "once we're able to buy that house"..."then I'll really be happy." Reality is we eventually get the thing we want or maybe not but either way, it's never really enough. It doesn't satisfy us as much as we thought it would and leaves us chasing after the next great thing on our list. That's the thing, we are always chasing after happiness. But the reality is that there is more to life than happiness. It sounds scandalous writing that because that's what we all know. Isn't life all about just being happy. People tell you, just do whatever makes you happy, or as long as you're happy thats all that matters. But what if chasing after happiness is actually what keeps us from being happy? Indeed there is much more to life that chasing happiness and perhaps thats why we often find ourselves disappointed or depressed over unmet expectations or hopes. So what is the "more to life" all about?

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer who draws on psychology, philosophy, and literature to write about the human experience. In her TED talk "There's more to life than being happy" she expresses her own experience with chasing after happiness"

"I used to think the whole purpose of life was pursuing happiness" I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend, that beautiful apartment but instead of ever feeling fulfilled I felt anxious and adrift. I wasn't alone, my friends struggled with this too. Chasing happiness can make people unhappy. Suicide rate has been rising around the world. There is an emptiness gnawing away at people. Sooner or later we all wonder...Is this all there is?"
This despair is a lack of something else, meaning in life. Whats the difference between being happy and having meaning in life. "Happiness" is feeling good in the moment...Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself. Our culture is obsessed with happiness. People who have meaning are more resilient and live longer. So what can we do to live more meaningfully?

The above are several quotes from Emily Smith's TED talk. I think they accurately paint the picture our culture today. We are obsessed with happiness, chasing after the feel good moments and forgoing the important things in life. And all that chasing has left us with some pretty serious consequences. That is why I urge each one of you reading this to take her TED talk to heart and ask yourself the same question "what can I do to live more meaningfully?"

She gives us 4 concrete elements of life that can help us to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Let's go through each one and explore what we can do to incorporate those in our lives if we aren't currently doing so.

1. Belonging

This is a big one because I think we all want to feel loved and accepted for who we are. We often get that sense that we have to prove ourselves in some way to be truly accepted. Perhaps some of you got that from your parents, where you felt you had to prove yourself so that they can be proud of you. Or some of you feel the pressure to be successful and prove yourself through your work. Some may feel like you need to have it all together in front of friends and acquaintances so they won't look down at you. Even FB and IG promote this feeling that our lives have to look awesome and polished before others. We often try to find our sense of belonging through some skill we have, some common experience with others, or just doing well for ourselves and trying to be accepted. There are so many different false ways of belonging that we engage in. But as Emily Smith put it, true form of belonging has to do with love. It's about forming real connections with people. Not through some false notion of ourselves that we put up but through honesty, vulnerability and inviting people into our lives to really know us for who we are. I know that's a scary thought but we were created for true human connection and without vulnerability it's almost impossible to get there. (in a later post I want to discuss this topic further through another TED talk about the importance of vulnerability but for now I'll leave it here.)

2. Purpose

Purpose does not mean finding that perfect job that makes you happy. "Purpose is less about what you want than what you give." I'm not sure if you've ever gotten a glimpse of this (I hope you have) but if you've ever decided to do something special for someone or even spend the day in some community service involving other people, I'm sure you experienced a lot more joy than simply receiving a nice gift. Now I know this is such common theme in Christmas movies but this goes far beyond the holidays. This has to do with how you will chose to live your life. Maybe you've never asked yourself this question or you didn't find a fulfilling answer, well again I encourage you to take the time to ask yourself how can I have more purpose in my life, are there any skills or resources in my life that I can use to serve others?"

3. Transcendence

Emily Smith describes transcendence as " a state when you're lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to a higher reality." Those moments are very special and can change you and lift you away from the self focused fears, worries, and insecurities to help you zoom out and see life through a lens of gratitude and hope. Because when you zoom out and look at your whole life, there are actually many interspersed low moments and high moments. I naturally tend to remember the low moments especially when I'm going through a low moment but when I pause and look at my life overall, I can actually give gratitude even as i go through the low moments. I hope that you find ways to experience this state of transcendence. One of the biggest and easiest ways can be through nature. I remember going to the grand canyon or to Yosemite, staring down at the vastness of the canyon or the heigh of the mountain. I imagined myself standing at the very bottom center of that canyon or at the very peak of the mountain and before the beauty of it all I felt so tiny. Surprisingly that brought a lot of peace and joy knowing that there is something out there much greater and goes much further than just me and my small life.

4. Storytelling

The last element of living a meaningful life has to do with storytelling. As Emily Smith describes it this has to do with the story you tell yourself about yourself, it is about creating a narrative of how you became you. Words are very powerful and the words you choose to tell yourself have a big affect on how you view your life, how you choose to live, and even how fulfilling that life is. You can choose to focus on what has gone wrong in your life, mistakes you've made and things you've lost, missed out on, etc.....or you can choose to focus on what you have gained through those mistakes and losses or what you can gain. Like Smith's example of the football player who became paralyzed. He could have remained hopeless all his life if he chose to tell himself of all that he lost, but instead he chose to see his injury as something that helped him open his eyes to the life he wanted to live, a more meaningful and purposeful life. So what story are you telling yourself? Is there a way you can retell that story to yourself that can help you experience a life of redemption, growth and love? If you want to change the story about yourself but are unsure how, please leave me a comment or a message. I have a short activity and list of questions that can help you reflect about your life thoughtfully to help uncover a new narrative.

Whether you choose to integrate all of these or maybe just one of these I hope that you can experience a more joyful Christmas but more importantly a much richer and meaningful life. Again, I encourage you if you have any questions, disagreements, anything to add or can relate in any way please feel free to reach out to me. With that I leave you with this final quote from the TED talk.

Happiness comes and goes but when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold onto.

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

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