Use the five factors that affect our search for meaning to craft a captivating story about yourself.
Ted had hit rock bottom after spending endless hours working to get his newest start-up off the ground. And what exactly was he doing with it? Can we attribute any meaning to it? Does the future hold any promise for him? He was beginning to feel really alone. His firm was expanding fast, but he felt more distant from his coworkers.
Ted had been too preoccupied with his career to give any thought to existential questions until recently. Unfortunately, he was now completely disoriented. Because his kids had grown up and moved out, he no longer saw the value in all the activity. From his perspective, life was becoming increasingly meaningless and dull. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been truly joyful. The passion and excitement in his marriage had faded. He and his wife had been living together for far too long as though they were just old roommates. Ted’s physical condition was equally poor because he had gained weight during the previous year.
By taking stock, Ted saw that his basic existence was being challenged. Previously, he had experienced depression, but this was different. What exactly a “existential catastrophe” entailed, he thought. After realizing he couldn’t confront his own mortality, he began to dwell on the subject of death more frequently.
Despite his lack of faith, Ted found himself envious of the pious. At least they found solace in their faith. In his misery, he felt helpless and had nothing to rely on. Once upon a time, everything appeared to be lot less complicated. He kept asking himself, “What difference would my death now make in the world?” Have I spent my entire life pursuing the wrong goals?
Concern for one’s own mortality and the quest for significance
To what end am I living? This is an age-old conundrum. What makes us all human is our shared pursuit of purpose in life. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that the topic of the purpose of life has interested theologians, philosophers, psychologists, evolutionists, and cosmologists throughout human history.
Naturally, Ted is not alone in his existential dread. Many of us are able to effectively relegate our worries to the background. Whenever feasible, we avoid contemplating death, or at least give it little, deliberate thought. Our species is unique in having to deal with the knowledge and awareness of its own mortality, and this is the sad aspect of our life.
At our core, we’re just looking for life to make sense. Naturally, life is only important to the extent that we give it significance, thus it’s up to us to leave a mark that will be remembered.
Determining goals and meaning
Intent or importance are other ways of looking at meaning. How much we feel our lives are guided and energized by meaningful ambitions; how much we believe that what we do actually makes a difference. In fact, we might consider meaning to be a result of living our lives as we believe they should be led. At the same time, we could learn that there are further levels of meaning to explore in order to uncover our own personal significance.
When discussing the value or importance of anything, common use typically equates “meaning” with “purpose.” One possible interpretation of the term “meaning of life” or “purpose of life” is that it refers to the value or importance of one’s existence. This interchangeability, however, is not guaranteed. If one says, “there is no meaning in my life,” it is not the same as saying, “there is no purpose in my life.” As opposed to serving a practical function, meaning refers to a thing’s symbolic worth.
Hence, the concept of “meaning” refers to the worth and significance of an object. The opposite of being useless is being purposeful, which involves adding worth to anything. Having a reason for living may help you make better choices, motivate you to take action, direct your efforts, motivate you to achieve your objectives, give you a sense of direction, and give meaning to your life. It suggests something that lies ahead. On the other hand, meaning is the point of existence. This phrase encompasses all of time, from the present to the future. It is obvious that meaning is elusive if one lacks a sense of direction. It’s also possible that our goals and aspirations have no significance at all. It is possible that our efforts are futile and meaningless.
The five foundations of meaning
The five pillars that shape our understanding of meaning are as follows: belonging, purpose, competence, control and transcendence.
Belonging: As humans are designed for connection, we need to feel that our presence and/or absence matter to others.
Purpose: A future-oriented concept in the form of a desired aim, target, or objective.
Competence: A sense that we are advancing, improving, and perfecting our talents, and that we may be proud of what we can do.
Control: A feeling that one’s life, decisions, and actions are mostly decided by oneself.
Transcendence: A sense of oneness and communion with something far larger than ourselves.
Sharing our experience
These five pillars need to be integrated into an engaging personal story in order to create a meaningful existence. This is a staple in my decades-long INSEAD executive seminar, where I often include an exercise of this type. It helps us articulate the narrative that characterizes our part in the unfolding of our lives.
It is via the stories we tell and the manner in which we tell them that others gain insight into who we are. After all, tales provide us with motivation and direction. It is up to us to make our lives into stories that are interesting enough to be told.
Never forget that the tales we tell are not completely original. As we narrate our own stories, we give those who have aided or hindered us roles as heroes and antagonists. We choose the pivotal moments that drive the story forward. We cherry-pick struggles we overcame and emphasize anguish we faced.
The most memorable (both good and negative) moments in our lives are the ones we highlight when we recount our narrative. These are the moments we must interpret in order to learn what matters most in life. As individuals, we can only make sense of our lives when we put the many events and experiences we’ve had into some kind of narrative.
Explaining why writing in a notebook or having honest conversations with close friends and family can have such a great influence on our mental and physical health is the power of narrative. Rather of merely responding to life’s challenges, journaling helps us process these feelings and gain insight into our mental processes.
The act of writing down the minutiae of our everyday lives can give us a sense of stability and belonging. Writing down our worries and concerns helps us to organize and prioritize them. Moreover, development and trends over time may be monitored.
At the end of the day, we’re all connected by the tales we tell. Inspiring shared experiences via narrative is what makes a society cohesive. Narratives provide a window into the mind and soul. In this way, they facilitate the disclosure of previously unrevealed recollections. We give our life significance by the answers we offer to the questions that are raised by the tales we tell. And we’ll need those tales to keep us alive.