How to Live a Meaningful Life: What is Meaningfulness?
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What is meaningfulness?
A meaningful life with a meaningful job, meaningful relationships, and meaningful passions is often prescribed as the means to a fulfilling life. Yet the idea of meaningfulness is a vague one- what gives an experience meaning? In order to really find what is meaningful, the concept just be consciously defined in order to align intentions and actions in the right direction.
What does meaningfulness do?
Meaningfulness leads to fulfillment. A meaningless encounter is unfulfilling. Why do certain experiences fulfill us?
I think that fulfillment is the satisfaction of our deeper needs. Deeper needs differ with the individual, but common deeper needs such as trust, connection, and a sense of belonging seem to be among the more universal requirements.
For example, Person A feels unfulfilled with her relationship with Person B because their interactions do not meet her deeper needs. Their frequent outings to restaurants, conversations about a show they are mutually interested in, and random texts fulfill her more "shallow" needs of amusement, novelty, and casual chatting, but they fail to provide her with a sense of intimacy and belonging, so she feels the urge to keep looking for something better.
Yet Person B could find that same relationship to be fulfilling. He regards their frequent texting as something constant, which he sees as a sign of caring. If someone is constantly there for me to interact with, I can count on them and therefore I can trust them to continue to keep the line of communication open, albeit it being a relatively superficial one at the moment. He feels a sense of connection with her as they bond and discuss the same show, and he feels a sense of belonging with her as they try new places together. Person B can extract fulfillment from the same interactions that Person A cannot.
Person B is not more foolish than Person A. Person A is not more honest than Person B. Their fulfillment statuses are both valid. The difference is due to a conscious alignment with a set of deeper needs. I argue that Person B is more consciously aware of his deeper needs, and this allows him to become more sensitive to all opportunities to fulfill them. I argue that Person A has not consciously explored, defined, and aligned her view of the world and her intentions with her deeper needs, so she fails to see the opportunities and reverberations of her deeper needs being fulfilled.
Yet this does not mean that any encounter can fulfill deeper needs. Fulfilment exists on a spectrum. Person B feels fulfilled, but his level of fulfilment is not maximized with Person A. For maximal fulfillment to occur between two parties, both must find themselves in a similar range of satisfaction. Knowing that someone feels fulfilled with you tends to increase your sense of fulfillment. Knowing that someone appreciates you tends to make it easier for you to appreciate them.
This knowledge isn't always available, nor is it always needed. This occurs frequently with meaningful encounters that provide no sense of constancy or promise in the future, yet they still provide so much fulfillment.
For example, Person C spends a few hours volunteering at an elderly home to talk to a patient while taking her out for a stroll through a garden. Person C will never see this patient again. The patients tells Person C about her days, provides a few golden gems of wisdoms and a few bittersweet anecdotes, and Person C listens completely and allows her words to really soak in. Person C genuinely enjoyed this experience even though it was an instance of unequal sharing with no prospects of development.
Person C extracted wisdom from this experience. Person C also exercised nonresistance and total allowing within their interaction, which gave him a sense of non-attached harmonic connection with the patient. For Person C, the experience of harmony and surrendering into an interaction fulfills his deeper needs. He felt similar to what he experiences when he sits alone with the ocean to gently watch the changing tide and listen to the wind skimming past the waves. These encounters are fulfilling and meaningful to him because he can feel at one with someone and something outside of himself.
What are meaningful rituals?
I find that my morning ritual of waking up an hour before anyone else rises in the house and sitting along with my coffee is necessary for me to be satisfied with my morning. I need this ritual to feel fulfilled with my morning on an emotional and mental level, therefore I consider this ritual meaningful. I extract value and fulfillment from this experience, and this experience fulfills my deeper needs for reflection and solitude which I feel more deeply in the early morning hours.
Deeper needs wane as well throughout the day, and throughout life. Deeper needs also develop and change throughout someone's existence, regardless of the temporal scale. The difference between deep and shallow needs is the sense of fulfillment that they offer. I believe that this fulfillment is marked by a sense of tranquility. Shallow needs like amusement and novelty do not provide the steady tranquility and inner peace that deeper needs do.
An act can fulfill both shallow and deep needs. One's job is to also be able to articulate and distinguish the different levels of fulfillment of the different needs within the same act. To recognize and become aware of those patterns is to harness the power to direct further actions towards more fulfillment. A decline in one's fulfillment will lead to unhappiness, therefore one must continue to direct their awareness and actions towards fulfillment to be satisfied and happy with life.
Meaningfulness Vs. Value Vs. Meaning
"But did it mean anything to you?"
One might raise this question regarding an act, a person, or an experience. It translates into the clearer question: "But what does it signify to you?"
What does a hug mean? What does a particular hug under the specific circumstances in which one experienced it mean?
The question is a tool that allows us to gauge the value we can extract from an experience.
For example, if I am not particularly romantically interested in Person D but I give them a hug after a pleasant lunch together, but Person D is very romantically interested in me and enjoyed the lunch more than I did and is under the assumption that romance is a mutual interest, then the hug would mean 2 different things to us.
For me, the hug would signify that I am comfortable and satisfied with being platonically affectionate with a friend and that I like to extend my feels of friendship with appropriate physical contact. For Person D, this hug signifies that he felt comfortable with this mode of affection and was not confident enough to try a kiss goodbye and this failure to do so leaves him feeling regret.
I extract value through and from this hug because it fulfills my need for friendship. He extracts regret and failure through this hug, but he still finds it meaningfulness because it is a mutually pleasant physical engagement with someone he really likes.
Although interchangeable, value and meaningfulness are not the same. I could extract value from a lecture because it gives me knowledge, but that lecture can be meaningless to me because it does not fulfill my deeper needs. An experience can provide value without providing fulfillment.
This is kind of like the difference between being grateful and being appreciative. Often in the face of adversity do we claim that we are grateful for a misfortune because it gave us a new perspective or developed our strength. For example, I could say that even though I found a particular job stressful and annoying, I'm grateful for it because it helped develop my patience and humbled me. The gratefulness is a retrospective quality, but in the moment, I did not enjoy the experience and it did not fulfill nor satisfy me. I could say that I appreciate the challenge of a yoga sequence, it really helps me push my abilities and it is ultimately fun and enjoyable and I feel fulfilled by it in the moment and in retrospect.
One can often find value in retrospect, by looking at an experience through the lens of gratefulness. Meaningfulnes can also be found in retrospect, but it often means that one felt fulfilled in the moment. There are definitely exceptions, and one of the most important factors is perspective.
Perspective and Meaningfulness
Often, our insecurities, personal hang ups, and patterns of negativity form a blurry lens that prevents us from recognizing the meaningfulness within our interactions with other.
For example, a teenager may not recognize the meaningfulness in his interactions with his grandparent. The teenager thinks that going out for ice cream or walking in the park with his grandparent is meaningless- the teenager thinks ice cream is materialistic and that walks in the park are useless and there are better forms of exercise. When this teenager matures, he finally recognizes the meaningfulness behind those small, simple outings. His grandparent wanted to bond with him over something simple and peaceful to enjoy each other's presence and appreciate how much the little baby they once held has grown into a young adult. There was much connection, tranquility, and sharing to be felt in those moments.
Life is teeming with the little meaningful gestures that we often overlook due to our hurried, tense lifestyles, fear of missing out, and the desire for more that has desensitized us to the more subtle and nuanced forms of love and compassion.
Perspective is easier to obtain if we slow down and really allow the meaningfulness in our lives to reveal itself, and by taking the time to really appreciate those meaningful experiences, we can fully savor them which allows us to feel very fulfilled.
Meaningfulness is found through recognizing the outer reverberations of our internal deep needs and values. Fulfillment is found through appreciating those reverberations. So take the time to ponder what you love and take even more time to enjoy it.
Letting Go of Meaning
Balance in life is essential. One can not go forth trying to fill life with strictly meaningful experiences- this is forceful and unsustainable. The meaningless is also enjoyable, and also fulfilling.
I could spend an entire afternoon drinking tea on my gazebo. This is arguably meaningful because it fulfills my deep need for peace, isolation, and tranquility, but it is also just an instance of me wanting to relax, escape the world, and not do much. I don't need to find meaning in this, but it is indeed of value.
A pleasant, fulfilling life is made of meaningful and valuable experiences. A moment unsavored is a moment wasted. Overthinking gets in the way of truly savoring life. Do what you will with my ideas and thoughts on the matter, but do so in a relaxed and open way.
Have a pleasant week.