The Keys to a Life Well-Lived
“Living a meaningful life is all about connecting and contributing to something bigger than you are.” -- Emily Esfahani Smith
What am I here for? How can I lead a meaningful life? When do I feel fulfilled? People have been debating these existential questions forever.
Some people seek meaning through satisfying, meaningful relationships. Others view it as meeting their responsibilities to family and friends. Some look to satisfying, meaningful work experiences. In each case one’s purpose in engaging in such activities is clear: you have a direction in life.
Healthy relationships add to your well-being and enhance your ability to flourish. Douglas LaBier writes for Psychology Today and in one article he discusses a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Review by Brooke Feeney and Nancy Collins that identifies five aspects of well-being.
- Happiness and life satisfaction.
- Having purpose and meaning in life and progressing toward meaningful life goals.
- Psychological well-being (positive self-regard, absence of mental health symptoms/disorders).
- Social well-being (deep and meaningful human connections, faith in others and humanity, positive interpersonal expectancies).
- Physical well-being (healthy weight and activity levels, health status above expected baselines).
I just read a book that addresses some of these issues and does an excellent job addressing the purpose of life. The book is called The Power of Meaning and it is written by Emily Esfahani Smith.
Sometimes people equate happiness and meaning but Smith looks at it differently. She explains:
“The meaningful life is essential to the happy life. “But happiness is about feeling good in the moment, feeling a state of comfort and ease. Meaning is about belonging to, and serving, something beyond yourself. It’s about believing that your life matters and that it makes sense. There is a depth of well-being that comes with it.”
So, if you achieve meaningfulness in your life it may lead to a happy life but happiness doesn’t guarantee meaningfulness. For example, if I am given a task at work to complete and I do so efficiently and effectively, I’m likely to feel happy about it especially if my boss appreciates my efforts. That doesn’t mean I have engaged in a meaningful act.
What if the task was to find a way to dump toxic waste without being detected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? I’d be hard pressed to call that a meaningful act since it violates the law. However, what if I invented a new way to get rid of the waste so that it can be done economically and contributes to sustainable development and a better quality of life. I’m likely to feel pride in my accomplishment. I’ve contributed to the betterment of society. It raises my self-esteem. I’ve done something that adds purpose to my life. I feel good about it; happy with the results.
What type of person seeks out a meaningful life? There are many reasons and many types but the one I deal with here is someone concerned with ethical behavior; someone who is guided by values such as compassion, kindness, and empathy. Concern for the environment is a good thing and those motivated to contribute toward a sustainable solution to removing toxic waste see the value to society of doing so.
Smith writes about “Four Pillars of Meaning”:
- Belonging: Involvement in relationships where you’re valued by others for who you are intrinsically and where you in turn value others. These are relationships where you feel you matter and treat other people like they matter.
- Purpose: Doing something worthwhile with your time; making a contribution to the world.
- Storytelling: To lead a meaningful life, we have to develop a coherent narrative about who we are and how we got to be that way. We need to evaluate the good and bad of our experiences and how they shaped us.
- Transcendence: Feeling connected to something bigger than yourself. People who have had these transcendent experiences say they rank among the most meaningful of their lives.
Taking steps to realize your purpose should include reflection on your activities and relationships to learn what enhances well-being for you. Moreover, think about how you can use your abilities to give back to society. Commit to ethical behavior and doing something worthwhile: “being and doing good.” Resolve to become a better version of yourself.