What’s the real meaning of life? Or better put, what gives life real meaning? What’s our true reason for being? Recently, I’ve been wrestling with the many different forms of this question. And while there’s no conclusive answer, I’ve found some concepts which have helped to redefine the meaning of my life.
What’s Your Purpose?
We all have a purpose for being here. Stoic philosophy submits our purpose is work, as outlined by Thomas Oppong. Not in the narrow sense of a job, but in the broad sense of duty. Our duty is to create, to build, to contribute to the growth of mankind. In that sense, taking action creates meaning, as we fulfill our true purpose.
Marcus Aurelius explores this concept in his book, Meditations:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to explain that in order to contribute to the growth of mankind, one must strive to be a better person — for only then, can one give their true gift to the world.
Why Do You Do What You Do?
Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle theory provides another angle of approach. By pealing back the layers of what we do and how we do it, we find the “why” behind it all. While Simon applies this to business, it applies equally as well on a personal level.
In doing this exercise, I realized (somewhat embarrassingly) I didn’t have a strong “why”. I found I thought I should being doing certain things, but didn’t really know the reason, the purpose, the “why” behind my actions.
This, inevitably, lead to my quarter-life crisis. I began to question everything. Honestly, I began to wonder whose life I’d been living for all those years. It’s a terrifying, yet liberating feeling. For only then, with no preconceptions or assumptions, could I see true meaning.
I started to notice how seemingly random events were actually deeply connected, to each other and to my “why”. Events I had previously discounted held new meaning as I began to rebuild my mental models. As I conditioned myself to see things differently, my purpose for being became clear.
Find Your Flow
The byproduct of this exploration is happiness. With a clear purpose in mind, I find myself more satisfied in my actions. I’m no longer just going through the motions, my actions have meaning, which ultimately leads to better results.
In finding my purpose, I have aligned my head and my heart to take inspired action. There are many names for this — flow, peak state, the zone — but they’re all getting at the same thing. It’s known as head and heart coherence.
It’s A Two-Way Street
Even when we do everything right, things still seem to go wrong, but I would argue that’s a perception issue. We have been conditioned to react to certain stimuli in certain ways. To put it another way, we have adopted the meaning of events from cultural influences. Our parents, classmates, coworkers and friends have taught us that certain things are good and certain things are bad.
Zat Rana submits this is a vicious (or virtuous) cycle due to synchronicity — a concept which explains how our memory creates meaning, and vice versa. Our experiences shape our memories and mental models, which in turn, shape the meaning of our new experiences.
Ride The Wave
Zen Buddhism takes it a step further, and argues that good has no meaning without the existence of bad. They are inseparable. Just as peaks and troughs form a wave, so too, do good events and bad events form the wave of life.
Contrast creates meaning. If every experience were the same, life would be boring and meaningless. We cannot have the good without the bad. We can, however, give new meaning to the bad.
We can understand it’s yet another opportunity for growth. In fact, we can even see the downhill as an opportunity to create momentum to carry us through the trough and up to the next peak.
The Choice Is Yours
Ultimately, I’ve found the meaning of life is deeply personal. You are the only one who can determine the true meaning of your life. It’s not always the most comfortable path to take (which is why many choose not to), but the benefits of doing so are endless. So only one question remains — Which path will you choose?