I don’t think that most of us are truly questing after success, at least not as typically defined by the world. Yes, we want enough money to afford some nice things. Enough that we can create margin in our lives. We don’t want every day to feel like a struggle to meet the necessities.
What we’re questing for is meaning, and it’s getting harder and harder to find. We’ve had a significant cultural change which has left the sources of meaning found in generations past bereft of meaning for many.
If religion was once the default path to meaning, today it is one path among many, a cultural transformation that has left many people adrift. For millions both with and without faith, the search for meaning here on earth has become incredibly urgent — get ever more elusive.
This changing face of meaning has each of us looking for the following three things in a wide world of options.
It’s difficult, of course, to measure a concept like meaning in the lab, but, according to psychologists, when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile – as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.
This vast pool from which to draw from is where The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani-Smith can be helpful. It attempts to help us find sources of meaning and learn to build them into a solid foundation from which we can launch into our life task.
This book will reveal what those sources of meaning are and how we can harness them to give our lives depth.
Esfahani-Smith organises her book around 4 Pillars of Meaning which she says are needed to have a foundation of meaning in your life.
- Belonging: Which deals with our relationships with others and feeling like we have a place
- Purpose: We feel like we have a mission tied to contribution
- Storytelling: Not an exhaustive list of our life, but stories that provide lessons and purpose
- Transcendence: A connection to something bigger than ourselves
Unfortunately, in the hedonistic quest for success we so often see around us we aren’t taking care of these four pillars. We purchase more. We show off fancy pictures of ourselves in exotic locations, and yet suicides increase. Seemingly successful people talk about a malaise they feel.
We continue to find that a quest for ‘more’ does not give us any purpose. It fills us for a minute, or an hour, but has no lasting effect on our life.
Knowing that many of us aren’t taking care of our pillars of meaning, let’s look at what they are.
At a time when we are more connected digitally than ever before, rates of social isolation are rising. About 20 percent of people consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives” and one third of Americans 45 and older say they are lonely.
While it may feel like you have lots of friends, how many have you shaken hands with? I have a great group of other business owner’s I chat with in Slack regularly, and I’ve only met maybe 5 out of the 15 of them, and I haven’t seen those 5 in 2 years.
While I use the word friend when I refer to them, we have little shared experience. That doesn’t diminish the enjoyment and support I get from the group, but it does bring up a caution. We too often equate people that we know online as friends when they can’t be there to watch our kids in a crisis. They simply live too far away.
That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t rally around us in other ways, like setting up a funding campaign to help us with an illness, but we can’t only be connected to people online and thus have a place that we belong.
In our age of isolation, it’s more critical than ever to actively seek out social groups and work hard to build close relationships, especially because many traditional forms of community are dissolving.
We need to connect regularly with our tribe in person to cement the relationships. Industry conferences where you meet colleagues are more than just a business opportunity. Conferences are a place where you cement the bonds of your group. Instead of sharing life together under the hood of a car, you’re heading out to dinner and sharing any antics that happen alongside the work.
The best purpose may not be the talks at the conference, but all the time spent with your colleagues from far flung sections of the globe because it’s with this time that you build bonds which will last.
Teens who help their families with tasks like cleaning, cooking, and caring for siblings, for example, also feel a greater sense of purpose.
One of the sweetest and most annoying things my 6-year-old does is want to help. I say it’s sweet because it integrates her with the family and shows her heart for the family. I say it’s annoying because at six many of the things she helps with take double the time because she’s helping.
I admit that often we say no not because of her ability, but because it’s not convenient for us to have her help at the moment.
It’s in those times that she helps, that we see her best self. The kid that feels more integrated with the family and becomes more helpful when it’s time to pick up toys or keep an eye on her baby sister while a parent uses the bathroom in peace for the first time in a while.
Having a purpose in your work is strongly associated with being great at your job. The construction flagger that sees their job as “keeping people safe” is a much better employee than one that sees the job as a pay cheque.
This need for purpose in work is why I always have my coaching clients spend lots of time on their purpose before we start to work on getting their business back on track. A train heading in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons will never get to its top speed, and it’s heading to the wrong place anyway. Only by pointing in the right direction will they be able to get the success they desire.
Stories are particularly essential when it comes to defining our identity — understanding who we are and how we got that way.
Most of the time if you observe friends together, you’ll get to hear a bunch of stories. Stories of silly things that happened. Stories of things they did in the past and they’re all often hilarious.
First off, they’re remembering our shared experience and reinforcing a sense of belonging together.
Second, those stories that have more tragedy than humour help us make sense of our life. Talking through them with a trusted friend, helps us process the things that have caused strife.
Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events of our lives, good and bad because those are the experiences that we need to make sense of, those are the experiences that shape us.
Another place that digital communication can fail us is with the forced brevity of many of the preferred mediums. We don’t get to sit and tell long stories enjoying someone’s company. In 140 character bites, we share our food or the beach we’re on.
It yields little chance to communicate from deep inside, where things matter.
Blog posts that shoot for ‘clickability’ like listicles are high on stuff that will get someone to spend 2 seconds of attention on, but light on any substance. They can only convey the barest bit of any idea due to their length.
Agan, it yields scant space for proper communication.
A transcendent, or mystical, experience is one in which we feel that we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality.
For much of history, religion was the source of transcendence for most people. Transcendence is the feeling that there is something bigger than ourselves. It lets us step outside the daily petty things that can bog us down, and look at life on a grander scale.
Particularly when struggle comes, we look for something bigger to help us make sense of life. As the old saying goes “There are no atheists in a foxhole”.
According to Esfahani-Smith, this is not the only place that people find transcendence. For some, it’s discovered in the vastness of space, or the depths of the ocean.
In addition to my faith, I find transcendence on the top of mountains. Looking around at my city, or simply off at more mountains, I’m continually reminded of how small I am and how vast the world is I haven’t explored.
Where to Look For Meaning
The final two chapters of Esfahani-Smiths book look more at groups and how they come together to form meaning for those that are involved in the group.
She introduces us to the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. Post Traumatic Growth is where we have a traumatic experience, and it alters our life in a beneficial way. Usually, people that experience this would never remove the hard times from their life if given a chance.
They use the pillars above to work through the issues. They tell stories about the loved ones they lost. They have often have a group to belong to, like Alcoholics Annonymous. They also have a purpose, like being a sponsor in AA.
When people who have suffered help others, they report less depression, anxiety, and anger, and more optimism, hope, and meaning in life.
It’s not just in those typical groups that this can be found. I’ve experienced it in the whitewater kayaking community. Paddling almost any river can result in death. It’s a transcendent experience in many ways to be at the mercy of frothing water trying to push you into rocks that will possibly kill your, or at the least make you have an awful day.
The friendships my wife and I formed in our group of paddlers are strong. They have been formed as we rescued each other in basic and life threatening situations. We have friends that have died while pursuing their love of the rivers and through it all, we continue to get tighter as a group.
It’s one we identify with when we call ourselves whitewater kayakers. In many ways, it’s replaced much of the social connections my parents had from their neighbours. I couldn’t name many of those that live in my townhouse complex.
In neighborhoods and offices, social connections are becoming less and less frequent. The fast pace of modern life, with all of its distractions, makes introspection almost impossible. And in a world where scientific knowledge is supreme, transcendent experiences are looked upon with suspicion.
When I grew up, we had a community barbeque. We’d gather at the end of the street and most of the neighbours would join up. Kids would run around and adults would talk.
I now live in a townhouse complex and it’s hard to even get a smile out of many of my neighbours. In fact, I feel this loss keenly as I see parents out with their kids and yet, head down on Facebook or headphones in ignoring those sitting directly beside them.
This loss of connection between us manifests itself in the lack of help when we see our neighbours moving. We no longer see four people crowded around a car sitting in a driveway helping revive it so someone can get to work on Monday.
You probably don’t even know the names of those that live beside you, as I said above, I don’t know most of them.
While this is hard for adults, it’s even more difficult for teenagers who are in the midst of massive changes. They want nothing more than to figure out where they fit and are cast into this world where they have every option in the world to find their meaning. Where this may sound like a great ‘problem’ to have, the options are so extensive as to render the search for meaning almost fruitless.
It’s like being dropped in the middle of a desert with no map or direction and being told to find water. It’s possible you’re walking towards the oasis and survival, it’s just not probable.
Positive cultures of meaning help us all grow, but they may be especially important for adolescents. Many teenagers are unsure of their path in life, which can make them vulnerable to the lure of gangs and other negative influences. Having something to believe in and work toward helps inoculate them against those threats.
In the midst of this, we provide much training in ‘practical’ skills, trusting that a life of meaning will magically happen to our teens.
Teenagers spend most of their waking hours at school. But most schools are designed to teach kids to solve algebra problems and write essays, not help them discover what their individual callings might be. As a result, many students graduate without a real sense of what they want to do. Others drop out because school feels pointless.
At our house, this is why we homeschool. In addition to teaching our children about math and reading, we have an opportunity to develop deeper life skills. Taking my oldest out with me to work let’s her see how I treat people around me. It lets us tailor her learning to her and bring in deeper thinking around WHY it is that she is here.
While I’m not convinced that by reading The Power of Meaning, you’ll have a direct path towards finding the purpose of your life, I am sure that by reading it you’ll have a better grasp on the types of communities to interact with on your quest.
You’ll be heading down the right path.
For those of you that want to dig deeper towards your purpose you should read:
Even with all of these books under your belt, the quest for meaning is a hard road. You’ll continue to search and refine your purpose. You’ll struggle, but it will be worth it as you continue with your work firmly focused on a purpose outside of the accumulation of ‘stuff’.