If you’re having one of those days (or weeks) of drudgery — maybe you’re immersed in paperwork or taxes — and you’re considering the Purpose of it All, I wouldn’t suggest digging around on the internet.
A cursory Google search for “the meaning of life” will surface a range of quick, pithy advice. Most of that advice is freely available in all the predictable packages: TED Talks, clickbaity listicles, and hackneyed stock photos with contemplative quotes.
But I want to be positive. We’re talking about the purpose of life, after all, and that is a topic worthy of deep inquiry and investigation.
The search for meaning is something we should all explore. A sense of purpose gives us a reason to live, while a focus on transitory, immediate pleasures and successes will only lead to emptiness.
Unfortunately, meaning isn’t easily searchable. It can’t be found in a Buzzfeed listicle. There’s a lot of noise around the meaning of life that has nothing to do with finding your own, unique sense of purpose.
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to hack into a generalized notion of purpose, especially in the tech world, where meaning and purpose have become buzzwords akin to disrupt and synergy.
As reporter Michael Coren notes in Quartz, Silicon Valley executives are “obsessed with happiness,” also known as meaning.
“The pursuit of a mythical good life, achievement blending perfectly with fulfillment,” writes Coren, “has given rise to the quantified self movement, polyphasic sleeping, and stashes of off-label pharmaceuticals in developers’ desks.”
Polyphasic sleeping — well, it sure sounds cool.
Here’s my point: a sense of purpose can’t be hacked, optimized, or downloaded. Instead, it’s something complex and personal, meaning that meaning is something you have to figure out on your own.
That’s easier said than done, of course.
When I started JotForm, I often got bogged down in the details. I was focused on what I had to do each day to grow my company — the small, progressive tasks that build a business.
Back then, it was easy to lose sight of what I wanted for my life and my career. But eventually, I realized the importance of stepping away from my desk and assessing the greater picture. While there would always be minutiae, I discovered that I was working on something that truly gave me a greater sense of purpose.
Your journey may not look like mine — and that’s good. Finding a sense of meaning takes a lot of digging. And obviously, I can’t uncover these truths for you, but I can provide some advice on how to navigate your own search for purpose.
1. Focus on fulfillment, not happiness
Statements like “happiness is what it’s all about” are utterly misleading. For one, happiness is a fleeting emotion. It doesn’t have staying power. Happiness arises from achieving short-term, attainable rewards. You get a raise. You eat at your favorite restaurant. You feel good; you’re “happy.”
But happiness, or at least happiness defined as “hedonic pleasure,” or the attainment of immediate gratification, has little to do with long term satisfaction or fulfillment.
On the flip side, “eudaimonic happiness,” which is named for Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, emphasizes meaning-seeking. It’s about taking a pay cut to pursue an important project. It’s about having a child, which studies show tend to lower reported happiness but increase a sense of fulfillment. It’s about doing things that give you a sense of purpose.
In many ways, the desire for happiness is pretty unnatural. We didn’t evolve to be happy creatures. Happiness is against our nature as human beings.
“While happiness is best defined as a state of being content, we didn’t actually evolve to be content,” writes essayist Zat Rana. “We evolved to strive and to struggle and to compete, so by nature, we don’t get rewarded for being consistently happy.”
In other words, real meaning stems from struggle. According to various studies, those who experience higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety have a higher sense of meaning (but lower happiness).
So, even if you don’t define yourself as a “happy” person, you might be on the right track after all.
2. Eliminate your life clutter
Just as we’re all Kondo-ing the extra stuff from our lives, we should also aim to eliminate anything that distracts from our purpose.
In Harvard Business Review, Greg McKeown writes about our “undisciplined pursuit of more” — an idea he borrows from Jim Collins’ book How the Mighty Fall. In the book, Collins describes how successful people and organizations often fail, because success leads to more opportunities, and when we take on those new opportunities, our focus becomes splintered and diffused.
To combat this pursuit of more, McKeown suggests that we ask what is essential? — and then eliminate everything else.
“All human systems tilt towards messiness,” McKeown writes. “In the same way that our desks get cluttered without us ever trying to make them cluttered, so our lives get cluttered as well-intended ideas from the past pile up. Most of these efforts didn’t come with an expiration date. Once adopted, they live on in perpetuity. Figure out which ideas from the past are important and pursue those. Throw out the rest.”
McKeown suggests that we perform this audit on a regular basis. We should be “constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well.”
We only have so much space in our lives — literally and metaphorically — and our focus can easily get lost if we don’t diligently de-clutter.
3. Quiet your ego
It’s easy to see ourselves as the center of the universe. After all, our brains and bodies are the only ones we live in, and as a result, we sometimes neglect to consider the billions of other entities around us. Yet, as Rana points out, we as individuals are anything but important.
“Our universe contains one septillion stars (a one followed by 24 zeroes) and a lot of these stars contain many, many more modes of dust that we call planets. If any of us ceased to exist tomorrow, little would change beyond the subjective emotional states of the people in our immediate circles… We’re nothing more than a fraction of a ripple in an infinite sea of entropy.”
It’s not an easy idea to swallow, but his point has merit. If we can minimize our egocentric perceptions, then we can also eliminate much of the clutter that obscures our sense of purpose. We can get eliminate, as Rana says, the “self-centered voice in our head that’s chiefly responsible for many of life’s difficulties.”
The solution might be pursuing something called the “quiet ego.” Researchers Jack Bauer, Heidi Wayment, and Kateryna Sylaska explain that the quiet ego is an alternative to the loud, aggressively narcissistic ego:
“The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”
And as Scott Barry Kaufman writes, the quiet ego isn’t about eliminating the self entirely; it’s about bringing others into the self.
The benefits of this approach are vast. In studies, those with quiet egos were reportedly more devoted to personal growth and balance. They tended to seek growth through competence, autonomy, and positive social relationships and had higher self-esteem. A quiet ego was associated with “various indicators of self-transcendence, including prosocial attitudes and behaviors.”
Getting outside our own head, as difficult as it can be sometimes, is essential for identifying what really matters.
4. Cultivate awe
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, “Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world.” It’s that moment when you’re hiking in the Tetons or Adirondacks, and you approach a breathtaking vista. It’s listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations or watching your daughter take her first step.
While scientists believe that awe developed as a human survival tool — more specifically, as a way of encouraging our ancestors to band together in the face of uncertain environments — today, researchers believe that awe helps us to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It also gives us a sense of greater purpose in our lives. Awe offers perspective on the world and how best you can fit into it.
But for awe to provide a foundation of meaning, we also need to cultivate gratitude. Psychologist Kendall Bronk, a leading expert on purpose, says, “It may seem counterintuitive to foster purpose by cultivating a grateful mindset, but it works.”
Research by William Damon and Robert Emmons, among others, have found that those who can appreciate what they have are much more likely to “contribute to the world beyond themselves.”
In other words, if you want to imbue your life with significance, put yourself in awe-inspiring situations. Doing so will not only benefit you, but it may also encourage altruistic behaviors that will enhance the people, spaces, and things around you, too.
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I can’t explain the meaning of life — and that’s my point. Your sense of purpose is unique to you. It’s not something you can find on Buzzfeed or by watching a TED Talk. It takes time, experimentation, and self-awareness, but luckily, the process is also the best part.