The pursuit of happiness might be considered the biggest scam in modern history—an endeavour undertaken by millions of people worldwide, straining and toiling to get as much happiness as possible before their inevitable demise.
The idea was first made popular by 17th century philosopher John Locke, gained further fashion after being added to the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, and since then, has been considered a worthy quest for people all over the globe. It makes intuitive sense—what could be more desirable than living a life of happiness, and as such, why not make it our primary goal?
If there’s a halo-wearing God watching, he must surely be stifling a laugh at the farcical irony of the situation, fully aware that happiness cannot be obtained by aiming for it—a phenomenon known as the paradox of hedonism. If he had a shred of his famed benevolence, he might poke his furry face through a gap in the sky and warn us of our ignorance, followed by a simple explanation of how we can live a happy, contented life—by seeking meaning, not happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is often sought through typical avenues such as high-paying jobs—bank account stuffed to the brim with crisp, hard-won notes—careers of admirable status, fawned over by the insufferable sycophants of the world, or wiry Instagram-model girlfriends who have the “perfect” figures, but personalities akin to a group of confused, one-footed pigeons. Such ambitions are tragically misguided. If we want to live a fulfilling life, brimming with long-lasting contentment, the pursuit of meaning is the adventure that’ll get us there. In the words of concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl—“happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue”—and it proceeds from a devoted, impassioned pursuit of what we find personally meaningful.
What is it that you consider to have intrinsic value, not for its high-esteem within society, or prized for its rarity, but because it occupies a little corner of your heart—a treasure without the glitter of gold or diamonds, but priceless nonetheless? This is where your happiness lies, and its discovery might be the most important task of your life.
Once we hurl the erroneous pursuit of happiness into the trash where it belongs, we can strap on our boots and get started on the more commendable pursuit of meaning. But how do we discover what’s subjectively meaningful to us, to be commissioned in perpetual glory as our North Star—a luminous, unmistakable heading that can determine our life’s direction?
Below is an extensive list of suggestions that serves as a instructional guide, each with their own merits.
Ways to discover meaning
Table of contents
1. Figure out your core values
Our core values typically define our true character—the person who we want to be, as opposed to the person who society wants us to be. When we’re living in accordance with our values, we feel a peaceful, blissful sense of authenticity, able to navigate the world wholeheartedly, with fervent confidence and commitment. In contrast, going against our values feels inherently wrong, as though our soul is in a state of revolt, being coerced into an action that we have no desire to take. It’s how a benevolent charity-worker might feel when being forced to shut the doors of a soup kitchen, with a queue of hungry people still wanting to eat. Everything about the action feels fallacious.
When it comes to your own values, maybe making people laugh is what you love the most, basking in the glow of squinted eyes and rumbling chortles. Perhaps compassion is your forte, and you find yourself flooded with surges of motivation in the face of unnecessary suffering. Maybe it’s relentless kindness—even towards the most spiteful, cantankerous of characters—that fuels your behaviour.
Identifying the core values that motivate you are an effective way to discover personal meaning. One way to achieve this is to browse through James Clear’s list of core values, select five that have resonating appeal for you, and then consider what actions you might be able to take for each value. For example, if you have a burning aspiration for fairness, you might want to consider a career as a slick-haired, hotshot lawyer, or perhaps march for the awareness of an intolerable social injustice. If wisdom is your thing, you might nip down to the local library and borrow a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, to absorb the emperor’s extensive stockpile of smarts. If it’s friendship, make a concerted, ongoing effort to socialise with your buddies, old and new. Write all of this down, so that you can refer back to it if you’re ever feeling aimless. If you’d prefer a more guided approach to discovering your values, you might consider taking this free values assessment.
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”José Ortega y Gasset
Contemplating the traits of your personal heroes can also help to identify your values. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently been thrust into the limelight after the terrorist incident in Christchurch, and though she was already well-known for her progressive, liberal stance, her composed handling of the tragedy has won the hearts of people around the world. What we admire in others, we also admire in ourselves. The traits of our heroes provide strong clues as to our own values, whether it’s the authenticity and kindness of Jacinda Ardern, the humor and optimism of Winston Churchill, or the creativity and determination of Albert Einstein. When we live by our values, we channel the spirits of our personal heroes.
Guiding values can also make our lives easier, offering straightforward answers to the relentless and difficult decisions that befall us, endowing us with the strength we need to battle through adversity. Ambiguity vanishes with a strong sense of personal meaning—we know what’s important, and we know what do. Through meaning we find courage.
Living in accordance with your core values is one of the most effective ways to have an honest, meaningful, and happy life.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”Friedrich Nietzsche
2. Experiment as much as possible
The old adage “you don’t know what you don’t know” tells us that we need to experiment in order to find meaningful pursuits. You’ll never know that you’re a veritable speed demon capable of smashing Nürburgring lap records until you strap on your helmet, climb into the racing seat, and slam your foot on the throttle. Curious experimentation is a snow-covered sherpa that leads you to momentous places. With willingness comes discovery, and the capacity to unearth life-changing interests, altering your course in drastic and thrilling new directions.
Roman Krznaric—author of How To Find Fulfilling Work—believes that experimentation is one of the most effective ways for us to find meaningful employment. Theory only gets us so far—all of the books or conversations in the world can’t tell us what it’s actually like to work in a particular role. We need to get our hands dirty, going so far as taking a sabbatical and trying to get some unpaid work in our desired roles. This is obviously impossible for careers that require specialised training (such as nursing), for which conversation and research are the only real methods. But for many jobs and hobbies, experience is the best educator, offering tangible and extensive real-world understanding.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”Andre Gide
Fresh experiences help to broaden our view of the world, uncovering exciting new aspects for us to explore. Birthday coming up? Ask for an experience instead of a product. Not only will you get to do something strange and unfamiliar, but your personal well-being will be kept safe from the corruption of excessive materialism. An evening spent in front of a pottery wheel—softly humming Unchained Melody while your teacher observes your archaic technique—can be infinitely more valuable than the latest electronic contraption that repeatedly steals your attention.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”Thomas Jefferson
Books can also be potent primers for new interests—piquing our curiosity by offering the perspectives of fresh and compelling minds, opening up entirely new avenues for us to explore. This is something that makes Medium such a wealth of information—we’re able to experience the world through the stories of ordinary, everyday people, each with their own captivating tales to tell.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”Mark Twain
3. Look back to your childhood
Kids are the masters of existence—they know what they want, and they pursue it emphatically, not stopping to worry about whether it’s the right thing. The immeasurably wise Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “time is a game played beautifully by children”, whose unerring mindfulness and focused attention on the present could put even the mighty Buddha to shame.
“The soul is healed by being with children.”Fyodor Dostoevsky
If you enjoyed something as a kid, chances are you’ll enjoy it as an adult. Our motivations are warped by maturity—we start to ask ourselves why we’re painting a goofy-looking giraffe in luminous acrylic shades of orange and cream, as if there must be some underlying reason for it. This absurd argument can be extended to our entire lives: why do anything? Painting a necky mammal can be just as rewarding and pleasurable as a night in a 5-star luxury hotel. It doesn’t have to have to be sold for hoards of cash, or posted on Instagram for surges of feel-good chemicals. We can just paint for the sake of painting, for nothing more than the process itself. Age can introduce an unnecessary focus on the end result, with fantasies of status and glory fogging our brains, masking what’s truly valuable—doing something that you love, just because you love it.
As children, there was no need to dredge up reasons for doing something—we did it purely because it resonated with us, holding our attention for an extended period of time until we were ready to move onto another glorious mini-adventure. Our expertise was never a concern; the perplexing limbs of our physically-deranged giraffe never bothered us. We just loved painting, because it was meaningful to us.
4. Figure out what energises you
On Monday morning of every work week, a million defeated groans are released into the earth’s atmosphere, with the prospect of another day at work. Motivation can be an incredibly tough thing to muster, particularly for things that you don’t enjoy. Money has limited impetus, with the remainder of a work day spent fighting an internal battle to procrastinate, whether it’s flicking through the tripe on your Facebook feed, the vainglorious bullshit on Instagram, or the endless but often insipid entertainment on Reddit.
When you find something that naturally energises you—an activity that repeatedly draws you back into its clutches—procrastination becomes much less of a problem. Though it may be bursting with difficulty, accompanied by an uncomfortable skepticism about our own ability, we still harbour an unusual, pulling urge to keep at it, because for whatever mysterious reason, we’ve found something that is meaningful to us; something that charges our souls with driving energy. It might be a natural fascination with taking apart greasy old car engines, meticulously cleaning the parts and then putting them back together again. Perhaps you find yourself girding your proverbial loins before starting a thousand-page book on advanced economics, excited at the prospect of becoming a stock-market genius, but nervous about the bewildering mathematics. Whatever your jam, it belongs to you and you alone, and it energises your spirit through meaning.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”Vincent Van Gogh
5. Figure out your motivators
There’s two types of motivation—extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when you’re driven by an external factor, such as money or social status. Though this type of motivation can be strong for some people (money can be an intense driver), it isn’t something that we really want to do. The behaviour can be provoked with a juicy dangling carrot, but when the carrot is removed, the behaviour stops. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is doing something for its own sake, because it’s personally meaningful to you. These activities are naturally vitalising, forging an innate desire to complete them. You’re much more likely to return to intrinsically motivating tasks.
Much of what we do contains a mixture of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Writing down your honest reasons for undergoing an activity can help to determine their motivational makeup, in order to determine whether they’re genuinely meaningful to you. These are my reasons for writing:
- I want people to benefit from my ideas, so that they can live better lives (intrinsic)
- I enjoy writing in an entertaining, descriptive way (intrinsic)
- I want to improve my writing skills, in order to become a freelance writer (intrinsic)
- The positive feedback that I get from other people makes me feel good about myself (extrinsic)
If most of your reasons for doing something are extrinsic, and unless you’re happy coasting through the process without any real passion for it, or without the desire to become a true master, you might want to focus your efforts elsewhere. It’s possible for an extrinsically motivating task to turn into something intrinsic, and for this reason remains valuable for broadening your range of hobbies, but if the majority of your reasons remain extrinsic after a decent period of time, you should consider moving onto something that makes your heart sing. Extrinsically motivating tasks are somebody else’s obsession, not yours.
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
6. What are you willing to suffer for?
You may have a burning desire to be a glorified rockstar, assaulting the strings of your electric guitar while a thousand starry-eyed fans sing along to your lyrics. But are you willing to spend endless hours alone, strumming away at your instrument, until your brain is frazzled and fingers red raw? Are you willing to endure the drudgery of long-distance travel, arse squashed into the padding-shy seat of a minivan, driving towards another tiring, late-night gig? Are you willing to undergo the pain, frustration and risk required to become a master of your art?
Often, we’re more in love with the idea of something than the actual reality. Successful people may seem like fortunately gifted individuals who have sailed to the top of their profession with ease, but their path has been paved with grit, determination, and a ton of hard work. They’re successful because they find such a depth of meaning to their craft that they’re willing to suffer for it; to display the tenacity needed to struggle through the difficult times, when it’s much easier to just give up.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”Stephen King
“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.”Erica Jong
When we find something truly meaningful, the negative aspects become endurable. We’re fully aware that our chosen pursuit carries just as much tedium and pain as anything else, but it’s valuable to us nonetheless, and we’ll tolerate it over and over, because we’ve found something that puts a dazzling glint in our eye; something for which we’ll happily rise from our soft, warm beds in the morning, to spend the day toiling and cursing in order to become masters of our craft.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
7. What would you do if money were no object?
These are the immortal words of philosophical entertainer Alan Watts, who helped to popularise Eastern philosophy in the West. Money is the ultimate extrinsic motivator, and though we need it to survive, we certainly don’t need to spend our lives glued to our office desk for exhausting 12-hour shifts. Research shows that once we have enough money to do the things we want, greater quantities do little to improve our emotional well-being. So why do persist with the ludicrous and stressful rat-race—elbowing and biting our way to the front of pack—when there’s solid and extensive scientific evidence to suggest that we only need to earn just enough in order to be content? With this mindset in place, we can begin our search for an intrinsically, fulfilling career, as opposed to a career driven by the bewitching glitter of gold. A better question to ask yourself would be “what would you do if money were less important?“
Though it’s a foolish, utopian notion to assume that everyone can have their dream job, it’s perfectly realistic and achievable to aim for jobs that are good enough; for a career that motivates us intrinsically for the most part, yielding an appropriate wage for our life’s desires. There’ll always be aspects that we dislike — searching for the “perfect” job is folly, a consequence of unrealistic and unachievable expectations. But a career that motivates and challenges us, while still being a bit shit from time to time? That’s a worthy goal.
“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.”Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
8. What do you lose yourself in?
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with discovering the fascinating concept of “flow“—the sensation of losing yourself in an activity, productivity maximised, and all sense of time lost. When we’re in this state, we think of nothing else but the task at hand—it’s pure, unadulterated focus, often referred to as being “in the zone”, and considered by Csikszentmihalyi to be the optimal experience that one can have. Moments of flow have the potential to give birth to our greatest work. Some artists become so immersed in flow that they disregard basic needs such as water, food and sleep.
Have you ever found yourself in a state of pristine concentration, so immersed in the activity that all else ceased to exist; chatter of your internal monologue temporarily repressed, and equipped with a razor-sharp sense of awareness? This is the experience of flow— an intrinsically motivating, meaningful enterprise where you should probably be devoting your time.
9. What would you do if you couldn’t fail?
Fear of failure can prevent us from participating in difficult, meaningful activities, paralysing us until the opportunity passes, and we’re made comfortably safe again. Failure can be characterised by feelings of intense embarrassment, frustration, regret, powerlessness, and most importantly, a strong sense of shame, leaving us feeling bad about who we are. These are vigorous motivators against doing what we find to be personally meaningful. Using your imagination to expel the prospect of failure can help to make valuable pursuits seem more encouraging, with less reluctance to participate.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”Robert F. Kennedy
The fact of the matter is, you’re going to fail repeatedly, especially for something difficult and worthwhile. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s better to fail, than to have never tried. Those who regularly fail are the most courageous among us. Imagining failure as a non-entity can offer the heroism needed to identify and undergo meaningful endeavours.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”Michael Jordan
10. What would you do if you only had six months to live?
Death can feel like a faraway, dreamlike concept, best kept locked in the dark corners of our minds where it can be ignored, until the day that it bursts into view, fierce and unrelenting. At this point, the wasted hours of our lives come into sharp focus, and we might start questioning what we want to do for the final stretch of our life. Are you happy to keep on doing your 9-to-5—commuting to the office for another six months of depressing drudgery—or would you prefer to stay at home with a captivating novel? Perhaps you’d like to spend the time reconnecting with long-forgotten family or friends, the company of whom lit up your life in days gone by, but tragically fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s finally time to fill the spare room with an expansive train set, with multi-platformed stations, chubby conductors, and freshly-painted townspeople?
When time becomes more limited, it also becomes more precious, and we’re left wondering how we really want to spend it. If you only have six months to live, what are the most personally meaningful things that you’ve do?
“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love
11. What are your natural talents?
Intelligence is a multi-varied concept, with nine different types that we can exhibit. Some people are able to run their eyes over a page of matrix-like programming code and instantly understand what it does. Others are implausibly agile, able to leap effortlessly between buildings as though equipped with the limbs of an acrobatic spider monkey. Some can string complex but coherent sentences together with ease.
A sense of comfortable gratification washes over us when we’re exercising our natural talents. The activity can feel instinctive, almost second-nature, and we’re encouraged to push harder to advance our skill. Most of us want to achieve mastery over the world—a Nietzschean will to power—so our natural talents can be particularly enticing, boosting our treasured sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it. ”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There isn’t much point in struggling through something for which you have little natural skill, because there’s a good chance you’ll give up anyway. Only those with iron grit who are backed by a strong extrinsic motivator can muster the determination to become masters at such things. Most people get frustrated, give up, and move onto something more befitting of their abilities. There’s nothing wrong with this—why waste your time on something that doesn’t suit your particular type of intelligence? Our natural talents, and the innate desire to exercise them, can be valuable sources of personal meaning.
“Hide not your talents, they for use were made,Benjamin Franklin
What’s a sundial in the shade?”
12. Listen to what others say about you
Your friends, family and colleagues probably know a great deal about you—perhaps more than you’d like. The words that you choose and the tone used to deliver them; the body language that you adopt; your unique way of solving problems—all these things construct a unique personality that the people close to you can readily identify, making them a valuable source of information about yourself.
That comment from your overly-enthusiastic colleague about your instinctive eye for design is a hint at your natural talents, as is the constructive criticism from your boss about your poor lack of planning. The raised eyebrows of your friends as you perform a self-composed guitar solo is strong evidence of your burgeoning musical skill, to be sustained if you have the appetite for it.
Other people provide constant clues of our natural talents, which can be registered if we‘re mindfully attentive. There’ll likely be sycophants and phonies along the way who’ll distort your self-estimations, but these are usually spotted easily—insincerity exudes the most pungent of smells. Generally, listening to what others say about you can yield valuable clues to your meaningful pursuits.
13. Talk to people
The unique preferences of every person who you interact with makes them a goldmine of information. A career in air traffic control may have never been a consideration, until being regaled with tales of the tarmac tower by your wife’s spirited, distant relative. The casual kitchen chat you had with your co-worker about the revived therapeutic studies of psilocybin could ignite a passion for learning about magic mushrooms. The lives of other people can be fascinating and remarkably educational, if you ask the right questions. Most people love talking about themselves, and they’ll spill their soul if you exhibit a genuine curiosity about them. Even more so if you ply them with red wine.
Our mobile phones are destroying these lovely little moments that we have with people, by offering a temporary reprieve from the inevitable awkwardness that arises during conversation. A second or two of silence, and our phone becomes more appealing than a freshly baked, crack-like Krispy Kreme. Taking our phone out in the middle of a chat is a death knell to the conversation—an announcement that we can’t handle a little bit of discomfort, so we’re reverting to our phones instead, where there’s no chance of social awkwardness, but also little chance of discovering something meaningful through honest, open conversation.
14. Consider something civil
It doesn’t just have to be about ourselves—deeply fulfilling meaning can be found through helping other people. Altruistic behaviour bathes us in a warm and contented glow, reinforcing our psychological need to relate, and encouraging us to repeat our act. Benevolent prosocial behaviour can provide us with long-lasting, joyful satisfaction.
“For it is in the giving that we receive”Saint Francis of Assisi
A study from Florida State University found that the “giver” in a relationship had a greater sense of purpose in their life. Our subjective existence instills us with selfishness, but when we shift our focus to other people and act selflessly, without any thought of reciprocation, we often feel wonderful. It’s a win-win situation, creating positive vibes for both parties.
There’s a ton of ways to be prosocial: charity work; helping an old lady cross the street; unexpectedly cleaning the apartment for your partner; making the effort to talk to your often-ignored office cleaners, and much more. These little acts of kindness can provide you with a deep and valuable sense of meaning.
Social injustice can stir up intense, morally-driven feelings of unfairness, followed by a powerful motivation to set things straight. Are you bothered by the fact that the American justice system is skewed towards punishing young black men? Consider doing something about it—raise awareness for the injustice through social media; integrate yourself into the Black Lives Matter movement, or learn about the intricacies of filmmaking so that you make your own documentary about the corruption and greed that fuels the American prison system.
Social injustice can light a fire in our soul, and though often accompanied by feelings of anger and distress, there’s also a formidable sense of meaning. What could be more meaningful than helping to battle an immoral discrimination, in order to make the world a kinder, fairer place?
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”Martin Luther King Jr.
The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—a critically-acclaimed tale of tragedy penned by the world’s finest author, woven with threads of gloomy irony, with the pursuit itself being the saboteur of our happiness. Thankfully, there’s a laudable alternative: the pursuit of meaning. Our lives are but a tiny flicker of flame, lost in the darkness of untold millennia, until we discover the fuel that intensifies the blaze, unapologetically radiating our little corner of the world with dazzling luminosity.
Only through meaning can our light shine at its fullest, bestowing us with lasting, joyful happiness.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer”Joseph Campbell