“Nothing is more dangerous for a new truth than an old misconception.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Misconception #1: It’s Difficult to Achieve
A meaningful life is often portrayed as something hard to achieve; something reserved for the lucky few, destined to bath in its glory. It’s easy to understand why it’s positioned this way though, because the meaningful life is at the pinnacle of human experiencing.
However, just because it’s such a good thing doesn’t automatically mean it’s a hard thing. On the contrary, meaning is available to everyone because humans have evolved to search for it. What differs is the degree of meaning in people’s life. It’s not difficult to achieve because it’s not an either or thing; meaningful living is a continuum.
To clarify, coherence and significance is quite accessible, and while purpose is a bit less so, it’s still within everyone’s reach. Remember how they build on each other. Starting with coherence, which is the easiest to achieve, it goes on to significance, and then finally to purposeful living. Although it’s the final expression, meaningful living isn’t reserved for the lucky few. Realize you can live it; and that the degree of it depends on you.
Misconception #2: You can Force It
In answer to the Nihilist claim that the universe is meaningless, many have proposed you can create your own meaning. This is only partly true. Based on my personal experience and the latest research, a meaningful life is not so much about creation, but about exploration.
Going back to what a meaningful life entails, it’s a clear (coherent) and valuable (significant) direction. But what about clarity is forced? Although we can actively reflect on ourselves and the world around us, it’s seldom the case that new understandings are forced (memorization isn’t knowing). We can think about something for days on end without progress, only to gain clarity when something clicks and an insight spontaneously occurs.
And what about value is forced? Although we can choose what activity or direction to engage in, it’s hard to decide its worth—or change it for that matter. If we don’t like something, it’s difficult to force ourselves to like it on the spot. It’s not “I decide this is valuable, therefore I will do it”, it’s “I will do this because it is valuable.”
Yes, we can consciously decide on a direction (and probably should), but it’s not obvious it’s the right thing before we try it on. Only after do we realize what it does to us; what we like or don’t like about it. And then we are free to iterate and adjust. Purpose is like a latent potential in you, and it activates as you interact with the world. You can’t force meaning; you have to explore it.
Misconception #3: It’s Objective
As observers of the world, we often assign meaning to actions, events, and even lives as a whole. But if in doing so we end up saying that someone’s life is more or less meaningful than someone else’s, we must realize it’s based on our own subjective judgements.
Although I made an outline of what the meaningful life entails, it’s not an objective phenomenon. There’s objective components, yes, but the experience itself is subjective. And like happiness, I can’t simply state what will make you find meaning; I can only propose certain mechanisms, and it’s up to you to go out an discover it. A meaningful life is not objective.
Misconception #4: It Requires Something Extraordinary
It’s easy to think that a meaningful life requires something extraordinary. Like an adventurous lifestyle, public fame, or at least some kind of professional success. And there’s actually something to that thinking.
After all, extraordinary things can be meaningful. Like winning the lottery, getting married, or visiting Spain in peak season. However, the thing about extraordinary things is they’re momentary by definition. They don’t last. In reality, it’s the mundane things in life—the things we often take for granted—that provides a continued sense of coherence, value and purpose. It’s having a place to stay in, being surrounded by friends and family, and having hobbies to engage in.
There’s a place for extraordinary things, however. Pursued for the right reasons, they often add to the meaningful life, but they’re not at all required for it. Thinking that it is might actually rob you of experiencing what’s in front of you; something meaningful might be unfolding.
#Meaning isn’t only made through extraordinary experiences, but perhaps even more so through daily living. What could be more beautiful than enjoying what you do everyday, instead of having to chase after something all the time?
Misconception #5: It’s a Happy Life
Meaning is often used interchangeably with happiness. It’s natural though, as they both try to encapsulate what is good about human experience. But while happiness only accounts for positive feelings, a meaningful life does that while including a lot of other feelings too. It can even include suffering.
Thus, the statement that a meaningful life is a happy life is only partly true. Because while happiness (not surprisingly) is a major contributor to feeling that life meaningful, the meaningful life doesn’t have to include it.
The reason is because it has a clear and valued direction. It has a purpose, that stretches beyond the momentary experience and allows us to endure. It reminds us what we live for and brings significance to the present moment—no matter what we’re going through. As Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps said:
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
A meaningful life has both ups and downs. And while it can certainly be a source of happiness (which for the most part it will be), it doesn’t purely rely on it. A meaningful life is not a happy life, but it transcends it and goes beyond.