“He who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.”
-Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Meaning doesn’t have to come from a job. I think it’s safe to say everyone wants their dream job: good pay, free time and purposeful work. But even if you can’t get your dream job right now, you can still have an inspiring sense of purpose for life.
Meaning can come in almost any situation. Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy of needs that goes from basic survival towards self-actualization. Similarly I think there could be a hierarchy of purpose with each rung representing a different place to derive meaning:
- Service to World: Contribution – Assuming all needs are being met, meaning here would come from contributing back to the world as a whole. This could mean work, but it can also be from volunteering or personal projects.
- Service to Family: Love – Victor Frankl found meaning through the love of his wife when surviving the Nazi concentration camps. Love would mean contributing, in the best way you can, to close friends and family.
- Service to Future: Growth – If you aren’t responsible for friends or family members or can’t help out much, you can derive meaning from growth. The prospect of self-improvement and reaching a better future can motivate even when you currently can’t help the world or those around you.
- Service to Principles: Morality – I enjoy watching Star Trek. After finishing the Next Generation series, Voyager is about the only television I watch. One of the things evident in the later series is the steadfast service to principles. Many of the characters are willing to sacrifice themselves simply to sustain a set of values. Even if the future is grim and you have no means to contribute back to the world, you can find meaning in upholding your set of ethics.
These levels of meaning aren’t mutually exclusive.
It would probably be easier to argue that each exists within each other. Morality forming the basis, which can be extended to growth, love and contribution if your situation makes it possible.
Purposeful work, or contribution to the world, only comes into play at the highest point. Striving towards that point is honorable, but just because you aren’t there yet doesn’t mean your life is without purpose. At each level, you can find a unique meaning for your life.
Practical tips for finding life meaning:
This article wouldn’t be complete without a good list. Here’s ten ideas for actually doing something that will make you more have a more meaningful life – without quitting your job:
- Develop a Code of Ethics - I don’t believe there is a universal morality. But I do believe that every person needs an individual ethical code to have a meaningful life. This means establishing a set of values that you uphold, even if the consequences might mean pain for yourself. A couple sections from my code would be:
- Responsibility – Take responsibility for your actions and mistakes. Even if the mistake would be easy to cover up or ignore.
- Compassion – Seek to understand not to hate. Even the people that irritate or wrong you, seek to empathize with them.
- Non-Violence – Unless the threat is imminent and defense is unavoidable, don’t fight or kill.
I’m definitely not perfect, but I derive meaning from doing my best to uphold this code.
- Volunteer – Invest a portion of your time doing service work. Ideally work and meaning should unite. When they don’t, invest some of your time in charitable work. I’ve coached minor soccer, ran for volunteer positions in Toastmasters and I fundraised money for cancer research when I was younger. Today I try to volunteer by responding to advice requests I receive through this blog, even though there is little direct means that doing so would benefit me.
- Serve Friends – Cultivate relationships with your friends where they know you would do anything within your means to help them. I don’t uphold this standard if friends abuse my generosity, but I always try to go an extra step to help friends who do appreciate it.
- Personal Projects – This blog has been my primary source of contribution. Even though I derive an income off it, the money is small compared to the effort I’ve invest. Starting personal projects can be your own form of entrepreneurial volunteering, allowing you to help by expressing your talents.
- Strive for a Better Future – Don’t settle for the status quo. Growth is an aspect of meaning, and there is purpose in striving to reach situations where you can contribute more. Selfish and selfless goals blend here because many acts to improve your life also improve your capacity to give.
- Learn – Learning is part of growth, but finding knowledge has intrinsic purpose as well. You can share that knowledge with others later. Learning also improves your ability to see reality, knowing your contributions are actually meaningful instead of just appearing to be.
- Dignified Humility - There is meaning in being able to face tough situations and hold your head up high. Jobs were tight in my town over the summer and although personal revenue is good, it’s not enough to pay for tuition. When I realized I would be working minimum wage somewhere, I decided that the best attitude would be to embrace the situation and learn from it. My father taught me there is always dignity in honest work. I believe there is meaning in having dignity in any situation.
- Goodwill - I’m not a New Agey type to say that there is an energy force or cosmic karma. But I do believe there is meaning in focusing your thoughts to wish good things for other people, even without explicit actions. This will combat feelings of envy and anger that can come up. It will also subtly change your own behavior and perception to help others.
- Focus - In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells the warrior Arjun to always meditate and focus on the universal Atman or Brahman. Although the Atman is a difficult concept to explain, I basically understand it as the underlying substance of the universe. What is interesting about this is Krishna (and it would follow, the culture that wrote the book) believes there is great purpose simply in focusing your thoughts. Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now, uses this idea substituting “Now” and “Being” for the universal Atman of Hindu mythology.
- Finding a Meaning – This may sound like an infinite loop, but there is meaning in finding meaning. Frankl explains this concept so well in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I’ll leave you with his quote:
“After a while I proceeded to another question, this time addressing myself to the whole group. The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering.
“Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which the meaning of its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: ‘And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?’ ”