As an executive coach, I have the privilege of talking with people about their very personal hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. And, over the past little while, I’ve worked with several clients who have been struggling with finding meaning in their lives. A freelance musician told me that reading and writing fiction make her heart sing, but that she doesn’t have the time to do either. An IT executive explained that he craves intellectual stimulation, but feels deeply unchallenged in his job. An HR Vice-President desperately wants to pursue some volunteer work, but feels constrained by her professional responsibilities and a need to tend to her children and husband.
Unfortunately, I hear these types of grievances from clients all the time.
In today’s world, most of us are told to “do what we love,” or at least are constantly reminded of the importance of “work-life balance.” The mythology of the first seeks to remind us that we can make a living doing something pleasurable — even though we’re not all privileged enough to have this luxury. The second presumably instructs us to carve out enough time in our “lives” (separate from “work”) to pursue our passions. Both of these scenarios can be easier said than done.
As a result, many people see the the options as follows: either sacrifice steady income to follow your dreams, or stay in your current situation, feeling stuck because other options seem too risky.
Existential psychologists argue that a central aspect of the human condition is to imbue life with a sense of “meaning.” In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that searching for meaning is “a primary motivation” for each of our lives, and that it must be “unique and specific” depending on the person.
Finding meaning is indeed a tall order. Because of this, many resign themselves to inertia, and an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction.
Does this sound uncomfortably familiar to you? If so, consider this as a gentle nudge, and here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Remind yourself that life really is too short.
Of course, we all know that death is inevitable — but how often do we really think about it with a conscious reminder? While this seems a little morbid, reminding yourself that you won’t be here forever is a powerful motivator to shift from inertia into action.
A recent study supports this as well. When a largely female sample of undergraduates were told to live the next month like it was their last in a particular city, they were found to have twice as much of an increase in their sense of well-being at the end of the study compared to a control group. Let this reminder make you more connected to yourself, your desires, the present moment, and those around you. Merely increasing your sense of connection and presence will enrich your sense of meaning day to day. And that’s a great place to start.
2. Take small steps — and notice your satisfaction at each one.
When clients of mine believe they will have to drop everything in their current life to pursue a greater sense of meaning, I’m quick to reassure them that such rash action isn’t required.
I’ll tell them to start doing something — anything! Small as their first action step may be, it will be more fulfilling than procrastinating. If you enjoy writing, for example, then try free-writing just for fun, or create a blog. If you want to be of service, find opportunities to volunteer. Want to create a business? Take a course, investigate how you might do it, or get something started on the side. Instead of having to deal with the gnawing feeling that you’re not doing anything, you’ll find that engaging in activities that bring you joy will give you a greater sense of purpose in your life — even if they don’t become a new career for you.
3. Recognize the meaning that’s already here.
In our ongoing quest for self-improvement, we often overlook the good that is all around us, and lose sight of the present moment. When we reflect on our own mortality, we are not only better prepared to reflect on how we spend our time, but we’re also primed to adjust our perspective at large.
For example, in the aforementioned study, researchers found that participants who thought about their time as limited were more likely to savor their experiences by focusing on the positive. This is like the last day of a vacation, when you try to squeeze out every last bit of enjoyment so you can imprint it into your memory.
Try to shift from focusing on everything that you see as “not enough” in your life, and instead, savor the goodness that is already there. It might just change your overall world view.
A few years before my father died, I asked him some questions about aging — specifically, what surprised him about the aging process, and what he would do differently. He said he had been surprised by how swiftly time passes, and, that if he were to go back, he would probably spend more time slowing down, smelling the roses, and connecting with those close to him. When I asked my mother, she added that she would have tried more things, and not have sold herself short in some areas. (These observations are consistent with other research in this area, suggesting that when people look back on their lives, they regret the chances they didn’t take and not fully savoring the potentially meaningful experiences in their day-to-day lives).
Remember, it’s up to you to live your life in a way that is meaningful to you. I hope you’ll take the challenge, and get started with some step, no matter how small, today.
A mindfulness practice can also help you to experience greater meaning. To learn more, click here.
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