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Clues on the Path towards a meaningful life

Clues on the path towards a meaningful life

By Brook McCarthy

I’ve never been much good at small talk. I’m dying. We all are. Every minute is another minute closer to death. So when I’m getting to know someone, feeling a little uncomfortable or self-conscious, I often drop an intimacy bombshell about myself.

I’m not that I want to make others feel uncomfortable. I guess my brain is tying to short-circuit the discomfort and jump straight to the intimacy by sharing something personal about myself. That’s how women tend to do it.

Of course, this puts some people right off. And that’s fine. We can’t win them all. But for others, I see relief in their eyes. I can hear them thinking “oh thank God. She’s only human.”

The privilege and snobbery of making meaning

Let’s just get something out of the way up front, so we can move more easily into the guts of this conversation. To ponder the question “what makes a life meaningful?” or “how can I live a more meaningful life?” is to be privileged. This age-old conundrum and source of much angst, self-loathing and sleepless nights is the privilege of those who have the time, inclination and security to ponder such things.

The idea that some people live meaningful lives steeped in purpose and spirituality while others indulge in junk food, junk entertainment, junk company and wasted lives, is a snobbery that should be called out wherever we see it. Calling yourself spiritual doesn’t make you so.

This isn’t to discount the value or importance of making meaning from life; only to note that we are already privileged to even ponder this. So, having named two elephants in the room, how do we go about living a meaningful life?

Legacy or meaning?

Leaving a legacy is different from living a meaningful life. Typically, we think of legacies as public lives that have produced public services – from books to scientific discoveries, to research breakthroughs or new laws or institutions. These marks of legacy endure far longer and with far greater reach than the life of the individual who created them.

A meaningful life is different and doesn’t necessarily correlate. If we could agree that a meaningful life includes a loving, generous life, then it’s easy to point to public figures who’ve left impressive legacies but whose personal lives have been a mess. They may be one-dimensional, autocratic or workaholics – understandable considering the extent of their work.

A meaningful life is a meaningful life that has value to you, but also extends beyond this. Hermits may well find meaning in their lives, but the value of their existence doesn’t extend far. The value of a family person who’s looking after a spouse, children, ageing parents, friendships and work colleagues, is far more admirable than the hermit, who may well have a rigorous personal spiritual practice but doesn’t translate this beyond themselves.

“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth,” says author Khalil Gibran, “for to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.”

Yet the question “what do you do?” often causes uneasiness or even provokes massive angst – we may believe we’re wasting our potential at our jobs, we may not identify with our jobs, we may have a rich and active social life apart from work, we may be taking a career break to parent full-time. Surely we are far more than the sum of our job title?

Yet we live in a society that seems to value the breadwinner bringing home the bacon above the artist or parent, carer or muse. This constant tension is well-known to parents in particular, juggling caring for children with thwarted ambitions, changes in career, or an upward career trajectory frustratingly interrupted.

The trap of expectations

 High expectations from life can be a real happiness killer. Take it from me – I enrolled in a religious studies degree fresh out of high school because I wanted to find the meaning of life (of course). Nothing less than enlightenment was coming to me, I believed. Although my ambitions were vague, they were also sky-high – a dangerous combination. I wanted to do good and be good. But not only that, I wanted to be seen, acknowledged, validated, valued and remembered. High expectations? And then some.

Our society is in the grips of unreasonably high expectations which makes me pine for the grungy 1990s, when songs such as ‘Loser’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ were hits. Yes, it was a bit depressing, but there was a sense that we were all in this wild ride of life together.

Nowadays, we expect the challenging, high-status, well-paid career and the family. We expect to own our homes as well as significant time, before and after home ownership, gallivanting around the world. We expect to create meaningful, profitable, socially conscious, and trendy businesses single-handedly, while also enjoying a popping social life.

We want it all. We don’t expect to have to compromise. Any small set-back is seen as a major failure, or worse, a character flaw.

Australia has multiple social problems that help to bring our lives into some perspective. With more than two million Australians experiencing anxiety over a 12-month period and one in three women and one in five men experiencing anxiety at some stage in their life, with high rates of depression, suicide and domestic violence, surely the first step towards creating a meaningful life is regaining a sense of perspective?

Attitude, beliefs and perspective

Don’t get your knickers in a knot – I’m not suggesting that clinical depression is caused by a lack of perspective. I’m simply saying that many smaller issues snowball and become far bigger issues when we allow things to run away from us.

Attitude and perspective is massively important in life. Not only in our ability to skilfully and gracefully handle stress but in our health, happiness and mortality.

Surely the first step towards a meaningful life is examining this – our deeper beliefs that are often subconscious but that are hugely influential in the day-to-day decisions we make, how we act and how we feel.

I don’t like the term ‘mindset’ because it implies that the mind is fixed when our attitudes, beliefs and perspective are quite malleable – but only if we cultivate this. A major impediment to influencing our attitude, beliefs and perspective is thinking that confidence, clarity, certainty, and all that other good stuff is fixed. That something isn’t valuable or real if it’s changeable.

We need to see this as the myth that it is. Nothing stays the same. Life is change. Perhaps learning how to thrive within change and chaos is the first necessary step towards a meaningful life.


About Brook McCarthy

Brook McCarthy is a trainer, business coach and writer who specialises in helping health and creative professionals to magnify their impact. She’s fascinated by the intersection of the meanings we bring to work and life stage. Join her mailing list here to help your business thrive, or sign-up to her Non-Planner’s Business Plan.