What Makes a Good Life, and What Counts as Meaningful

July 12, 2018
what makes a good life goes beyond wealth

You can’t always feel super motivated, enthusiastic, and ready to conquer the world. We’re human. We get tired. We need to rest.

But there’s also a difference between needing a break and feeling burnt out, and lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m edging up to the burnout side of the spectrum. I’m not sure why, but recently, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction when it came to work.

Although I’m not positive it’s connected, I think I discovered what could be driving that feeling: today, I realized I’ve been measuring my productivity in terms of dollars earned.

If I don’t do something that earns $X per day, I have wasted the day. That’s the story I’ve been telling myself.

This is a kind of effed up way to measure your days because those days add up to your life.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of money — and I believe anyone who can say “money isn’t important” has never done without or struggled to afford what they needed — but I do mean that I don’t want that to be the primary, leading measure on did I experience a good life.

Which begs the question: what is a good life?

Meaning Might Be What Makes a Good Life

If you search for answers, you may find a plethora of thoughts, research, and evidence that points to the fact that meaning is the ultimate factor in what makes a good life (and that meaning and happiness are not necessarily the same thing).

Here’s a sampling:

  • People who say their life is meaningful are more likable, happier at work, and healthier, and less likely to suffer psychological problems, according to scienc. (via Inc.)
  • Having a meaningful life contributes to being happy and being happy may also contribute to finding life more meaningful. (via Greater Good Magazine)
  • The research shows that if you set happiness as your goal and pursue it, value it the way our culture encourages us to do, you can actually end up feeling unhappy and lonely. But if you set meaning as your goal and devote yourself to living a meaningful life, you experience this deeper and more endearing form of well-being down the road. (via Knowledge @ Wharton)
  • If you want to be happier in ways that are more likely to endure, the most effective approach is to participate in activities that have meaning and value beyond your own self-interests. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being, life satisfaction, and, yes, happiness. (via Psychology Today)

This is pretty clear. Pursuit of meaning, not necessarily happiness, helps answer what makes a good life. And while that’s a clear answer, it’s tricky, because it also begs questions itself.

What counts as meaningful? What matters?

How to Get in on One of Life’s Big Secrets

This is where things get interesting, and reminds me of two phrases that basically tell us the same thing. I repeat these and remind myself of them often, because they let me in on one of life’s big secrets:

1. Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter (the tagline to the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway)

2. Life is empty and meaningless, and it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless (the big reveal after a personal development seminar that consisted of three, 12-hour long days)

Let’s unpack these, shall we?

Meaning Isn’t “Out There;” It’s In You

Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter is the friendlier, more accessible, and positive version of this idea. Applied to life, it simply means that we make up the meaning to everything.

The trick is that life is meaningless, but humans are designed to make meaning from everything. That’s why hearing “life is meaningless” can be so depressing, because we’re hardwired to look for and believe deeply in “meaning.”

But it also means you have full and complete power to make up or create whatever you want. Whatever you say is meaningful, is meaningful. The meaning of life is whatever you decide it is.

I like reminding myself “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter” because it reminds me that

  1. I get to decide what meaning means, and
  2. The points — the money, the stuff, the trappings of success, the looks, the outer and material things — don’t matter. What matters goes deeper than the points society uses to keep score.

“Life is empty and meaningless, and it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless,” basically means the same thing (but admittedly it sounds a whole lot harsher and less palatable than the tagline of what was my favorite TV show growing up).

Life is empty and meaningless is what we already covered — that, inherently, there is no predefined, predetermined, preset meaning to life that we need to go off on a quest to discover.

But that’s a trap humans have fallen into for as long as we’ve been human. We miss the basic fact that we are the creators of meaning. It wasn’t set out for us to find. It was in us all along.

That’s what the last part of that phrase means — that “it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless.” That’s the part that tells us it’s not a bad thing that life doesn’t come with preset meaning. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything, good or bad, that life is the blank slate on which we create whatever we want.

It again falls back to us to determine what we’ll make of that.

You get a choice. You get to say whether the meaning of life is suffering, is joy, is out of your control, is up to you, is pain, is discovery, is unknown, is knowable, is tragic, is peace.

If the Responsibility of Making Your Own Meaning Is Overwhelming, Go Back to Your Purpose

You are the only person that gets to put meaning into anything. That’s an enormous power to hold, and admittedly, I often feel overwhelmed by it. (Like, almost always feel overwhelmed by it. It’s a big ask to make of yourself or anyone.)

I deeply want to know all the things. So it’s tough for me to let go of the idea that meaning is out there. I want meaning to be a thing I need to go find. I’m good at finding things, at uncovering and discovering.

I am not good at being centered and grounded and the source of my own everything.

I constantly wonder, What am I supposed to do? Is what I’m doing right now it, or did I miss something? What should I do with my time? What is the meaning of any of this, anyway? What does it matter?

When I get too overwhelmed, I go back to Eckhart Tolle’s explanation of what my purpose is (and what anyone’s purpose is). Your outer propose is doing whatever you’re doing right now. If you’re reading this blog post, your purpose is to just be in that moment and read this  blog post, without doing anything else.

Your bigger, and inner, purpose is to just be. Being. Being present.

As Always, It Comes Back to Presence and Being

Remembering that keeps me grounded, and times like these — right now, as I write this and am genuinely present — I feel the truth of that more than ever. My purpose is to be, wherever I am, and to be with whatever I’m doing in the present moment.

You might have experienced this before, but didn’t call it presence or being. A lot of creatives and strategic thinkers refer to it as “flow,” or a flow state. It’s all the same. You can recognize it when you notice you’re so into the present moment that time ceases to affect change and you are just where you are.

During these times, it seems obvious that my greater purpose is to just be. The solution, then, as it always is, is more presence. More awareness for this moment, and no dwelling on the past or fretting about the future.

The answer is to stop counting days in terms of dollars earned. To start connecting with the meaning I want to give my life, and then live that. To just be and be present.

Keep up with the conversation as it unfolds.

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