Whose life are you living?
Your life is given meaning from the time you’re born. Coming into the world you’re surrounded by the history of your family, your state, your country, and all the values that come with them. These are the values upon which you’ll be raised and expected to make your own.
You’ll question some over the course of your life, creating new meaning for yourself, and others you’ll continue to act out unquestioned. Some will bring you fulfillment and others will bring a sense of emptiness.
An important first step in building a meaningful life for yourself is answering this question:
- Are you doing things that are actually important to you, or are you doing things that others tell you are important to you?
Finding what brings your own life purpose, and not somebody else’s, is a big part of you freely building the compass that leads you in the direction you want.
Values are your compass
When we think about what adds meaning and purpose to our lives, we are thinking of personal values. They’re not like goals that are achievable, but qualities we can choose to act on over and over, like kindness, gratitude, curiosity, responsibility, honesty, etc.
Consider this list of values by Brene Brown for ideas.
We choose to live by our values because they give us a sense of direction, especially when life becomes difficult.
If I set out to go north because that’s important to me, I can keep that at the forefront of my mind even if I find myself trudging through swamps to get there. Building a meaningful life means I’d be willing to sacrifice some immediate comfort to get where I want to go.
I have the freedom to turn back if the journey gets tough, but then I’m limited to only living the life I want if it’s not too difficult.
A life of pleasure or purpose?
The Journal of Happiness Studies published a paper asking participants to perform activities related to “seeking pleasure and comfort” – such as playing video games or shopping – or to perform activities “seeking to use and develop the best in oneself” – such as considering one’s values (Huta & Ryan, 2010).
The results indicated that positive emotions rose right away following “pleasurable” activities, but that they were short-lived. Engaging in “meaningful” activities didn’t bring as much positive emotion, but did exhibit more lasting indicators of increased well-being.
People whose lives were high in both pleasurable and virtuous activities had the highest reports of overall well-being.
According to researcher Maya Tamir in her study on the secret to happiness, this means that “happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable…” (Tamir et al., 2017).
People need something to struggle against that is meaningful in order to build that sense of purpose and lasting satisfaction.
If you over-prioritize the immediate payoff of pleasure at the expense of meaningful endeavors that are difficult, your psychological health is more likely to suffer. If it was that easy to just feel happy, we’d already be choosing to feel it all the time! But it’s not that simple.
Prioritizing your values
Rather than broadly desire to be happy, consider the different domains that exist in your life for continuing meaningful action.
A life that has consistently under-prioritized important domains is often one that feels constrained and lacks meaning. Too many eggs are in one basket.
Consider the following 8 life domains and reflect on their priority in your life:
- Intimate relationships
Now ask yourself:
- Have I been under-prioritizing an important domain in my life?
- What type of person do I want to be in these domains? (e.g. “I want to be the type of person who is kind, assertive, supportive, patient, cooperative, organized, etc.”)
- What actions can I take that will demonstrate these values?
- What are barriers that will keep me from acting like this type of person? (difficult thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, people, places, etc.)
- What will I do when these barriers show up to remember my values and continue moving in a desired direction?
What to do from here...
Don’t wait to feel better before doing something that can make a difference.
- Make a list of two or three things for each value that you could do within the next 24 hours to bring them back to life.
- Challenge yourself to engage in one of these activities, even if it’s small.
Building a meaningful life can become about acting with this intention right now, even if there’s discomfort. You may find that you have more choices than what you initially imagined.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.
Huta, V., Ryan, R.M. Pursuing Pleasure or Virtue: The Differential and Overlapping Well-Being Benefits of Hedonic and Eudaimonic Motives. J Happiness Stud 11, 735–762 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-009-9171-4
Tamir, Maya, et al. “The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 146, no. 10, 2017, pp. 1448–1459., doi:10.1037/xge0000303.supp.