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Is Making a Living More Meaningful Than Making a Life?

Living in an age of extremes, we need to keep ourselves in check.

Portrait of Asian Businesswoman sitting and working hard on the table with front of computer desktop in workplace at late with serious action, Work hard and too late concept
Portrait of Asian Businesswoman sitting and working hard on the table with front of computer desktop in workplace at late with serious action, Work hard and too late concept

In his recent documentary, Ghost Villages of Himalayas, filmmaker Kuldeep Sah Gangola seeks to answer a provocative question: is making a living more meaningful than making a life?

“On one end of the spectrum, in big cities like New York, we have people who choose to live in daily anxiety and pressure to achieve their dreams,” Gangola says. “On the other end of the same spectrum, the rural Himalayas of India echo with the cries of an 89 year old woman who is left alone by her sons in her delicate old age.”

Ghost Villages of Himalayas explores the life of Ammaji, an elderly woman that lives alone in a tiny, abandoned village in the wilds of India. Her children have moved to the city to seek careers, but she refuses to live in a modern world and chooses to remain in the only home she’s ever known.  

The film evokes a fascinating conversation about the happiness divide between those who choose only to fulfill their basic needs and those who idolize worldly successes. In the United States, it’s painfully obvious that many of us live in the second extreme.

Debilitating Ambition

CNBC recently reported that Generation Z values making money and having a successful career ahead of having close friendships, getting married, or traveling. This is a troubling statistic, based on what research has shown about the relationship between extreme ambition and happiness. 

For example, a study by the University of Notre Dame, which analysed 700 subjects over several decades, found that people who are ultra ambitious may attend the best universities and achieve high salaries, but sacrifice the quality of their lives. In this study, the ambitious subjects were slightly happier than those with few ambitions, as long as they achieved their desired successes. But if the ambitious subject did not meet their desired success, they were significantly more likely to die before the less ambitious subjects. 

I’ve seen these trends in action while working closely with successful executives. In my experience, an executive may have a billion dollar company, but unless they have the name recognition of a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, they believe their accomplishments are not satisfactory or worth the sacrifice they have made to achieve them. 

Ambition can be debilitating, but as Gangola pointed out, there are problems being the opposite extreme, as well. 

Refusal to Evolve

In his film, Ammaji refuses to leave her childhood home, though the area is being ravaged by leopards and the living conditions are harsh. So, she also stubbornly cuts herself off from her family for the sake of staying in a familiar place. 

Maybe it’s difficult for some of us to relate to choosing to live in the ruins of a village and at the mercy of wild animals when there’s a safer, healthier alternative, but think about how many people are scared of technology, will not evolve, and therefore, cut themselves off from more human interaction. In some of these cases, a person opts to be lonely, rather than learning how to use a smartphone. 

Then, of course, there are those who have dreams of creating something, but stay cloistered in their comfort zone and will never be fulfilled by those aspirations. Talent is such a terrible thing to waste and it’s squandered every day for this exact reason. 

Finding Balance

The age old challenge of being alive is finding balance. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, so long as you keep it in check. There’s nothing bad about not wanting person-to-person connection, so long as it doesn’t disconnect you from the world we live in now. The question becomes how can we take the best of both worlds and stay mindful about not letting one side win us over? If we can strike that balance, there’s no reason why we can’t make a living (doing what we love) and make a life.

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