This is a big topic for a short post. That is because there are so many perspectives in the world regarding the meaning of life. However this question, “What is the meaning of life?” seems to be more and more relevant in our times. A time marked by a ‘new normal’ way of life. From climate disasters to the pandemic and historic job losses globally.
For those suffering famine, receiving food aid would give meaning to their lives for another day. For some, their jobs and hard-earned savings are what matters, to be able to pay rent and put food on the table. And for others, it is to have a happy family, and the ability to travel without restrictions.
Is Having Meaning A Concept for the Privileged?
For a person to ponder such a question, this individual must have certain conditions met. This is reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only when the basic physical needs are met and stabilized, can one have the privilege to ponder the purpose of life, or to protest for individual freedoms – seen lately in Western cultures against mask-wearing in the pandemic, where individual rights are more prized than group happiness or the validity of science.
But beyond fighting for individual freedoms and having social justice, we still need to put food on the table and live with others in the family. There could be some in the family we struggle to live happily with. There could also be co-workers we have difficulties with. Beyond these bigger struggles for equality, is there any meaning in the smaller things in life? Or are the larger struggles and protests a letting out of pent up frustrations we face in daily life?
I am not saying changes to systemic racism or unfair low wages are unnecessary. It is necessary and heartening to see people seeking change for a more harmonious society. We do need to take a deeper look at corporations and society at large, where people over 40 are deemed out of touch or too old to be hired. Then there is the minimum wage versus inflation. Not to mention foreign competition where foreign investors treat local employees unfairly versus their own to racial inequality. It seems the divide is getting bigger between the haves and have-nots. But beyond these, can there be meaning in the little things in life, which is not a privilege for only certain groups?
The Search for Meaning
The most well-known research on the meaning of life is by Dr. Viktor Frankl who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Frankl was interned in a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz) during World War 2. He observed that prisoners who survived the detrimental conditions, found the freedom to choose their reactions to their circumstances. Those who had the resilience and survived was because they had something to live for. For Frankl, meaning was purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulties. Some prisoners saw extreme difficulties as a challenge to overcome so that they could see live to see their loved ones. Others saw treating dying prisoners as a purpose that helped them endure. Although we need not be in such dire situations to find meaning, it is interesting to note that the average human being is seldom grateful and rarely look deeply into their lives unless there is a challenge to mortality.
We Create Our Own Meaning
When I was a teenager, I could not find much meaning in life. It seems we are put into education, get married to satisfy hormonal urges to reproduce, and then fall ill and die. There is nowhere in the educational curriculum that explains why we do these things. Even if there is a reason for this human cycle, how do we do these things with happiness? Most marriages go south, or couples end up enduring each other because they had signed the contract to fill this empty void or a sense of insecurity. Would I die happier to have a number of children and money to show for? No adult or any education system could answer this question.
In my opinion, I think such questions should be explored in schools, so we aren’t so easily led by opinions or populist talk that ignores facts on social media or the internet. Otherwise, parents have to seld-educate in order they can explore these questions with their children. It is important to teach children the power to choose their reactions no matter what happens to them. Our reactions produce ripples to our surroundings.
From a wide perspective, life has no meaning. As Frankl puts it, we create our own meaning in our lives. The meaning or “M”, in the well-being construct of PERMA in positive psychology, says the same, that we are the creators of our own meaning in life.
Meaning Can Be Found in Little Things
We have been taught to set goals so that only upon arriving at one’s goal is there meaning or happiness – such as attaining a certain amount of wealth or power. Quantity seems to measure having lived a good life. However, we have also seen how the rich and powerful are often unhappy people. They seemed to have lost their meaning after attaining their status.
However, I would like to propose that meaning is not exclusive to producing material things. We tend to confuse meaning in life with emotional pleasures that are not lasting and leaves one feeling empty after its attainment. Such as eating exquisite dishes, to meeting friends for a night of revelry. These pleasures aren’t lasting.
Meaning could be found in learning to adjust ourselves to meeting our family members’ needs. It includes informing them of our needs. Our parents are the hardest people we can live with for most of us.
Challenges in our lives could become opportunities to increase our patience, kindness, and forgiveness or love. Memories of our ability to turn acrimonious relationships into neutral and sometimes friendly relationships become a memory for us. We also have to look after our own well-being, such as not giving others the power to control our feelings or decision-making. These memories are what we can bring to our last moments in this life. Close your eyes and think of happy moments you have created with others, versus the thought of all the money you have saved sitting in the bank. If this is your last moment on earth, which thought would make you happier?
To be able to engage in work and build good relations with others without the interference of impulsive and critical thoughts allows us to live effortlessly with effort. Making meaning with the little things in our lives is not exclusive to only a certain group of people but for all of us.
There are techniques to learn to prevent obstructive reactions such as conceit, criticism, and selfishness from creating a meaningful and positive life. These techniques can be found in attending an 8-week mindfulness course.