Look at you! What a success! You’re an entrepreneur, doing what you love. Maybe you’ve gone to school, you’ve built a successful business, and you’re reached your goals (or at least some of them).
So now what? Maybe you’re feeling totally fulfilled, you may have a husband, wife or partner, children, a family you love, involvement in a religious community, hobbies. Or maybe, there’s a little irritating question in the back of your mind: is this all there is? What’s the meaning of life?
Years ago, when folks were engaged in more life-or-death jobs like growing their own food, or keeping their families safe from wooly mammoths, the question of meaning did not exist in the same way that it does today, with countless books and workshops covering the topic. So congratulations to all of us in the civilized world! Because we have individuals that do our taxes for us, grocery stores that stock thousands of different food items, and health care, we get spells of insomnia where we lay awake in an anxious panic contemplating who we are and what we’re meant to do.
In existential therapy, the question of meaning is closely tied to other questions like connection and freedom. Oftentimes, people draw a sense of meaning from involvement in a cultural or religious group, having a lot of friends, having family nearby, things like that. As for freedom, many people feel limited by the choices they have available, but if they could truly grasp the freedom they have to change their life, and accept that responsibility, their sense of meaning and fulfillment would probably come from very different sources.
The thing about meaning that most people don’t realize is that a person’s sense of fulfillment oftentimes isn’t solely satisfied by their chosen career. Sometimes folks go into a profession like social work or counseling because they want to contribute to society and help others, but then get burnt out by the workload, or realize that some other yearning inside of them is not being answered. Other times people choose a career for security, for money, or because of family obligations, which could mean that a job is picked for reasons other then a person’s love for their job. Sometimes a person purses a career in what they most love in life, only to realize that it doesn’t quite leave them totally fulfilled.
People are very inconsistent, flexible, changeable, wonderful creatures. What made a person stimulated and satisfied at 22 might lose it shine at 40, or maybe even 30. The metamorphosis you might go through after your parent dies, or after you go through a divorce might render that very specialized degree you worked so hard for in that specialized field completely obsolete when you realize that your life’s calling is to be a florist, say.
So next time you find yourself asking the question “what else?” remember to go easy on yourself. Just because you aren’t feeling entirely fulfilled by all the wonderful things in your life doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate what you have. Be kind to yourself when you experience that giant question mark, and practice questioning yourself and your needs early on so that you can hear that voice when it’s still a whisper and hasn’t risen to a shouting crescendo. A simple daily meditation practice can help attune your hearing to that inner voice; it doesn’t have to be fancy or difficult, just a few minutes a day.
One of the most obvious and consistent ways people have been able to add meaning to their lives throughout the years is to volunteer. There’s definitely a reason people have been doing it for as long as they have, ask any friend who volunteers in the community and you will surely get a goofy grin and a story about mentoring a child, tutoring immigrants, training dogs at the animal shelter, or some other wonderful experience. Some folks find a deep sense of meaning in pursuing meditation and religious practices.
That instrument or language you’ve always meant to learn? Do it! And write me when you do, because I’d love to hear all about what brought meaning to your life!