Living a Meaningful Life

One of the key differences between a meaningful life and a happy life involves the difference between choice and control. When we are trying to live a happy life, it helps a lot if life is cooperating with our preferences. In order for us to be happy, the lights can’t be too bright (or dim). The food can’t be too salty (or not salty enough). We may need a sweater. Heaven forbid if we forget our lip balm! When people are nice to us, we are happy. When people snap at us, look down their nose at us, or ignore us completely, we are not happy. This would be fine except that all of these things are difficult for us to control. And while we may think that we should be happy anyway, sometimes this is just too much for us. Happiness eludes us because control eludes us.

There is a choice that is open to us at all times, in all circumstances, no matter how momentarily happy or not happy we are feeling. This is the choice to live a meaningful life. A meaningful life is not constrained by our outer circumstances. It does not require that we be in a happy mood (or even a half-decent one). It does not require us getting that promotion, or that raise, or even that job. It does not require that people treat us well. It does not require that we be on the receiving end of a loving, committed, intimate relationship. It does not require having control of any of our outer circumstances, or even our emotional response to those circumstances.  Living a meaningful life requires only having made the choice to do so.

Once we have made the choice that we want to live a meaningful life, we need to clarify to ourselves what it is that we want our lives to stand for. It is out of this that we will create meaning. While we can choose to have our lives stand for some goal that serves us personally, this has some drawbacks and limitations. A personally rewarding goal requires that we have the resources and opportunities to achieve that goal. For example, if our goal is to become artistically creative, or musical, or intellectually accomplished, or even spiritually enlightened – we need things to go our way so that we can achieve that goal. If we lack the resources, the time or opportunities, or outer recognition, or inner energy or drive – we are out of luck.

The other drawback to having our lives stand for some personal goal is that it limits us. It is well and good to try and improve ourselves and enrich the world in doing so. There is nothing wrong with this. However – is this all that we are capable of? Is this the sum total of what we want our lives to stand for? If our drawings are locked up and forgotten, our musical compositions lost and our intellectual or scientific insights already superseded by others – was this really enough? Did it make it all worthwhile? Were we capable of more? Is there some way that we can impact the world in a way that is both simpler and more profound than all of these pursuits (but is no contradiction to them)? Is there something that we can have our lives stand for that will outlast us long after we are gone?

We as human beings have the capacity to feel, to think, to create. Each of these things is an expression of our hearts, our minds our imagination and our creative talents. Our highest capacity, however, is our ability to transform. Like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, it is not so much a change of outer form as it is a revealing of an inner, greater state that was always there.  Human beings – out of all of the other creatures in this universe – have the ability to transform – both themselves, and the entire world in which they live. When we express this ability, we are not merely creating something outside of ourselves or adding to a body of knowledge. We are not just reaching for some goal. What we are doing is affecting the entire world. Through our commitments, our choices and our actions we are impacting and revealing the essential nature of humanity and of existence as a whole.

Next week: Integrity: The Foundation of a Transformational Life

Miriam E. Mendelson, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Transformative Development, Counseling, Consulting and Mediation and is available for speaking engagements and business and private consultation. Click here for a complete list of all Miriam Mendelson’s articles. Column feedback and questions are welcome: [email protected].
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