Everyone wants a nice life. A happy life! What is happiness? When are you happy? Is feeling happy the same as being happy? It is different for everyone, but for everyone it is actually equally fleeting. Even the moment you realize your happiness, the feeling of happiness is already gone. Chased away by the fear that it will disappear again. And it always does. Happiness is by definition a snapshot. Being happy can never be a goal in itself. At most it is a nice bonus. But what is a life purpose? How do you give meaning to your life if it is not to be happy? This has been thought about!
What makes happy?
Happiness is not a goal in itself, because the pursuit of happiness can only make you unhappy. After all, you want more and more and as soon as you have achieved this, the feeling of happiness fades away. This way you keep searching. Not everything you do in life is always fun. Like going grocery shopping, putting the kids to bed, taking out the trash, walking the dog. If you focus on that, you might think that doing many of those types of activities could make you unhappy. But research at the University of Plymouth from 2009 already showed that this is not the case. It’s not about how nice an activity is, but how meaningful. By giving meaning to your life you will automatically become happier. The satisfaction that your life has meaning makes you happy. And that life does not have to be grand and compelling to have meaning.
Meaning or meaning
Meaning and meaning are synonyms. A life has meaning if it has value. For some, there is a religious component to what they do here on earth. For others, they feel personally responsible for the value and therefore the meaning they give to their lives. Because these people cannot fall back on a religion that gives meaning to their lives, these people must or may learn to value their lives themselves. By thinking about the meaning of your life, you reflect on yourself, who you are and what your needs and desires are.
The four pillars of meaning
In her book ‘The Power of Meaning’ (2017), Emily Esfahani Smith gives four pillars for a meaningful life. Actually, these are also pillars on which many religions are based, but now you are responsible for the answers yourself:
- connect with others
- have a purpose
- tell your story
- rise above yourself and the everyday
- Belonging gives meaning to your life. It doesn’t matter whether you feel involved with your family, a club, your (volunteer) work, your study (group) or a specific project or theme. Connecting with others makes you happy. Even a shared smile on the street can make you feel connected to the people around you. Or a conversation on the train or a shared experience at the supermarket checkout, where you both try not to be annoyed by a long line, creates a connection and can therefore give you a sense of meaning for the other.
2. A goal you can connect with also helps to increase your sense of happiness. You feel useful when you contribute, in whatever way, to a cause that is important to you. So go to the barricades together for what you believe in! Join a political party, a (neighborhood) association or a charity. Give your money or your time, however you want, and contribute in your own way.
3. Being able to tell a coherent story about your life ensures that your experiences gain meaning . This is not necessarily about pursuing a certain goal, but understanding your life backwards allows you to see how things turned out, what consequences certain choices had and what you did in your life to get to that point. where you are now. What is the common thread that runs through your life? By telling your (life) story your life becomes coherent. You see where you come from and perhaps also where you are going.
4. Experience the grandeur of everything around you. This is called transcendence and refers to experiences in which you rise above yourself or the everyday. For example, when you look at a clear starry sky or listen to a beautiful song or look at a beautiful painting. This is actually about mindfulness: reflecting on everything in and around you and experiencing the greatness of life in even the smallest detail. You can do this by meditating and consciously letting go of everything. A gratitude journal can also be helpful. For example, by writing down three experiences every day that make you feel grateful. It doesn’t have to be big(s). If you look inside yourself and around you, there is much to be grateful for. As Stephen Hawking said, ,Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.,
Attention for each other
If you take the four pillars together, everything stands and falls with attention. The attention you have for others and for yourself. The conscious attention to the connection with yourself and others. Meditation can help to feel and maintain this attention. By learning to focus without judgment, you make it easier for yourself to see yourself as you are, without having to change or strive for anything. And that also makes it easier to appreciate yourself for who you are and to see meaning in your life as it is now. It is important that you appreciate this attention positively. Reflect with gratitude on what someone does for you or what you can do for someone else. Consider the intense feeling of connection this can evoke in you. It can just make you happy.
Compassion for yourself and others
In the pursuit of meaning in your life, it is very important to have compassion for yourself. Be kind to yourself. Especially when things don’t go well, when you make a mistake or when things don’t go as you had hoped. Then you can be kind to yourself and sympathize with yourself. Instead of listening to the critical voice in your head, you may respond that you are doing the best you can under the circumstances. This is how you comfort yourself. For example, by taking a long bath, by cooking extensively for yourself, by exercising, by calling that friend who always supports you. This is how you take care of yourself. You’re only human. Just like other people. And there you can immediately find a connection with others. You are never alone. The feeling you have, the thoughts in your head, the experiences you go through: it can happen to anyone. Mindfulness or meditation can also help with (learning to) feel compassion for yourself. You are not your feeling, you have a feeling. You are not your thoughts, you have thoughts. By looking at yourself from a distance without judgment and with compassion, you can put things into perspective. Everything could be different again tomorrow.
How do you find meaning?
Suppose you live according to the four pillars mentioned, but you notice that there is a difference between where you are now and where you would like to be. Maybe the common thread is no longer correct. Maybe you are looking for a different purpose or want to give a different meaning to your life. Then ask yourself the following questions: Do you still feel connected to what you do, who you do it with and why you do it? Or do you want something different? What do you find important in life? What relationships do you have that you value? What do you miss?
Do you work to make money or is your work your life? Have you reached a point in your life where you say, for example, that earning money is no longer the most important thing, but that you want to work for your fellow man, regardless of the salary? Then it’s time to explore the possibilities of a career change. Or adjust your job in such a way that you feel that you can do more for others in it. Perhaps you can become a mentor to a novice colleague? It may also be that you don’t have to change your work, but that you look at the possibilities in your spare time to make a difference for others. You may be able to act as a language coach for an asylum seeker, as a volunteer to chat with the elderly, as a buddy for someone with autism or as a youth coach. Or will you take up another study, whether or not in addition to your job. But it could also be that you want to earn even more money and that that gives your life meaning.
But not only (volunteer) work can give meaning to a life. Far from it. As long as you pursue your own goals and continue to feel connected to others, you will also feel the value of your life. Especially if you don’t set the bar too high and have compassion for yourself and others. Only imperfection gives the opportunity for and is even a condition for growth. On all fronts.
As long as you consciously choose and live by it, so that you feel good about what you do, then it is also good. It all depends on your own wishes and preferences. It’s like they say: time flies, but you are the pilot.