The "Meaning of Life" according to Positive Psychology.
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Struggling with finding your meaning in life? This workable definition might help.
In your quietest times, when you're most alone and thinking about how you've spent your time, have you ever caught yourself wondering "What is the Meaning of all this?".
I know I sure have, and if you're reading this, chances are you're like me too.
Just like me, you have absolutely no clue what you want to ultimately achieve with your life.
You can have the most engaging life, working in an attractive job with a promising career trajectory, and in your leisure time you schedule in an assortment of activities, sports, and hobbies. All the whilst you've also made sure to catch up with your close friends and family.
However without connecting these activities to some form of higher Purpose, when it all gets quiet, and when you're back home taking a look at ourselves in the mirror, you still see that empty shell of a human being staring back at you.
The most probable reason we can't find Meaning is because we are looking for it in all the wrong places.
Most common nowadays, us Singaporeans look for Meaning and Purpose in our careers.
Sure the older generation like our parents or that one opiniated auntie (the same one who asks you "when are you getting married ah" every damn CNY) might wave it off and say:
"Aiyah, don't be stupid lah. That's just young people thinking. You know your father mother work so hard give you education then you like this (blah blah blah)"
Well, thank you Auntie. Why don't you go back and play your Mahjong and eat your peanuts.
I mean, work seriously takes up a whole bulk of our lives, more than a third of our lifetime, or half or more of our waking hours.
Especially in Singapore where OT (overtime) is an everyday phenomenon for some of us, it's an important thing to think about. Many of us spend everyday in our current jobs, counting down the minutes to knock-off time. It feels like like such a waste of time.
A waste of life.
We think about what it is that we could be doing in our lives, instead of where we are now, and how much happier it'll make us.
How much more meaningful our lives would feel.
If that's the case, take a moment and ask yourself:
"What kind of Career would give your life Meaning?"
In all likelihood, you're going to associate this with some Dream, Aspiration or Passion.
That's not surprising, since it's something we've all heard a thousand, million times over.
The people we admire are those that have also followed their dreams, be it tech giants like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jack Ma; musical rockstars like Ed Sheeren; famous rags-to-riches authors like J. K. Rowling; as well as actors and a host of athletes.
I've asked this same question to a handful of people. Below are some of the more interesting answers I've heard:
"I really love movies, so I've always wanted to be a movie script writer"
"I want to be my own boss and start my own thing. But I have no idea yet what that is lah"
"I love travel and adventure, I want a job that let's me see the world"
"I want to open my own pet cafe"
There's absolutely nothing wrong about these answers. They are all people's dreams and aspirations in life, they have an inkling of what they've always wanted to do.
But on the topic of Meaning, what makes you (and me) so sure that following your dreams will give you Meaning in life?
We are talking about Meaning right? Not more money, or fame, or fortune, or anything that comes after that. After all, the reason we want to follow our dreams is so that we can say we've led a meaningful life, right?
Here's a little (exaggerated) story of what happens if we blindly followed our dreams without thinking about why it would give us Meaning.
My personal dream in life.
For me personally, I've always dreamed of being a fiction writer, crafting beautiful stories like my favourite author, Haruki Murakami. His stories are deeply emotional, queer, eccentric, set in surrealistic settings of Japan, yet somehow oddly familiar to real life.
One of my favourite books of his was Kafka by the shore - telling a magical, fantastical tale of a young boy (named Kafka) finding conclusion to his past through a thoroughly dark, grim situation.
My dream for a long time was to be like this guy - Haruki Murakami
Yet imagine this "Dream come true" scenario.
One imaginary day, while sitting along the steps of the Clark Quay riverside feeling sad about my day at work, a mysterious, magnanimous benefactor approaches me and offers me a job as a writer.
He says "Hey there young man, I've heard you've always wanted to be a writer. You've always idolised Haruki Murakami and I so feel you man. You know what? I'll give you twice whatever you earn on your current day job to quit and write novels for me".
This is my dream come true. I'm ecstatic and yes, of course I accept immediately.
At first, I love what I'm doing and totally get into the flow. My first story about cats taking over the human race comes to life and I finish a novella within the first three months. I send it to him and he says "Great! Keep going!".
The next three months are the same, and by the sixth, I've written a sequel - The rise of the mice. All the while, I'm enjoying the luxury of my bigger paycheck. I send it to him and again, he says "Wow. You're on fire!"
I ask him for feedback then, and he says "Well, I haven't read them yet. I'm keeping them aside for now but I love your momentum".
A few more months go by and my motivation wanes a bit. Nearing the end of a year, I'm struggling to finish my third book and starting to regret this.
I ask him again about where my stories are going, and he responds
"Is that important? Isn't this what you always wanted to do? Don't forget you're getting paid well for it too".
Well I thought I did. I had more money than I've ever had before, but something was missing. It wasn't fame, that wasn't something I need or wanted. After some thinking, I realised that it wasn't so much that I wanted to write.
I wanted to write for my stories to reach people and spark their imagination. Without that impact, I begin to wonder again, just like in my previous job, if I should just keep going for the money...
It's an absurd tale, but do you get the moral of the story?
In terms of careers, there's absolutely nothing wrong with searching for meaning there.
Where we go wrong is when we search for Meaning in our careers with only the scope of ourselves in mind. We blindly want to follow our dreams because we think it makes us happy.
"Let's just try it out", you might say, but will it really make you happier and give your life Meaning?
Just simply following your dreams in the effort to "do what you always wanted to do" isn't going to give you any meaning.
So let's take a second to define what Meaning is.
In Psychology, Meaning is the intention to achieve a long-term goal that is both personally Meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world.
By the founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman's own definition, Meaning is about belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.
It transcends the self.
This means we can only find our life really meaningful when we know that we've used it to impact the people we care about, our friends, the communities around us, our country, or even the world.
With this definition, Meaning becomes something we can work on immediately. It doesn't require any waiting, such as for more money, or having a break in your career to work on whatever it is you wanted to do.
We just have to figure out who are the people we want to impact, how we want to do so and why do we believe that's our specific vocation.
So here's the distinction:
Dreams are about what you personally want to do; Meaning is about how what you do can change and affect people and the world.
In this, I truly believe we all have our own specific vocation or mission in our lives. How little or big that is, it doesn't matter, as long as we make a positive impact on the people we care about, and the things and topics we care about.
In closing, do seek to Follow your Dreams. I'm sure you'll find yourself at your best there.
However, before you do it, ask yourself:
"Why do you want to pursue that dream? What is it about this dream that can change people lives and change yours?"
You'll find yourself with much more Meaning in life when you figure that out.
That you, a single human being on this world, can make a positive impact on people's lives. That you've made the lives of others better, and in doing so, you've made your life better and more meaningful too.
And remember, take your time to do so, it's never too late.