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5 Ways to Reconsider Your Life's Meaning

2. To whom do you matter?

Key points

  • It is easy to look back on your life and see loss, failure, and disappointment.
  • Try measuring your life by different metrics of success.
  • Learn to regard your life tenderly as the attempt of an imperfect person to make good decisions.
Amanda Dodson
Source: Amanda Dodson

It is easy to look at the state of your life and see every moment where things went wrong: the person you lost, the goal that was thwarted, the dream that never came to fruition. Each lifetime has a roster of missteps and bad decisions, which, in retrospect, we can see were terrible mistakes.

In the West, many of us are raised with one gold standard for life: Work hard enough and you will get everything you want. When we measure our real human lives against this goal, most of us come up feeling as if we have failed—or worse, as if life itself has failed us. Somehow, the golden life you were supposed to build is riddled with disruption and mediocrity, and it leaves you feeling empty.

Emptiness is a good place to start in your search for a meaningful life. Stop exhausting yourself trying to fill the emptiness with hollow metrics of success. Instead, begin to take stock of your life exactly as it is. Look for the places where it is already abundant with meaning. Begin to see that even a painful life, full of loss and disappointment, can also be a rich, fulfilling life worthy of living.

Here are five factors to consider when reconstructing your life’s purpose.

1. Do you have enough of what you need to live?

Look for the places of plenty in your life. Do you have enough food to eat every day and clean water to drink? Do you have a place to live, however imperfect it may be? Are you safe? Are your vital organs intact and functioning?

For someone who has lived with plenty, these things may seem menial rather than meaningful. But consider: Many people cannot answer yes to all or even any of those questions. When considering whether you live a good life, don’t lose sight of the fact that you have a life.

You have managed to sustain your small flame of life each day through eating, sleeping, and attempting to stay well. The ability to keep yourself safe in this world is not guaranteed. Don’t let this knowledge invalidate your particular brand of suffering. Instead, for today, let it be enough that among all your life’s difficulties, maintaining your ability to live is not one of them.

2. To whom do you matter?

We can only truly know our own lives from the inside. But sometimes, when your existence feels empty, it is helpful to try to look at yourself from the outside. Reflect on the people to whom you matter—the people that would be impacted if you suddenly disappeared from the planet.

When considering to whom you matter, let’s try not to use the standard of only those who love you greatly and know you deeply. That is a very high standard by which to measure your meaning to others. If you are lucky enough to have even one person who loves and knows you deeply, you’re already living a rich life.

Instead, consider the people that know and appreciate you in small ways. Who knows your coffee order? Who would recognize your voice on the phone? Who would smile to see you walking through the door? One of the small kindnesses of life is that even the biggest jerk you know likely has at least one person who likes her and wants to hang out with her.

Even if you don’t feel deeply connected to the people in your life, it doesn’t mean that your existence isn’t meaningful to others. Loneliness does not mean you are alone. Today, let it be enough that you are a small part of a social web, and are connected to others, in small and imperfect ways.

3. For whom are you responsible?

Many people are filled with meaninglessness when they reflect on the incredibly boring and grinding reality of daily labor as an adult. After all, it probably does not come close to your childhood fantasies of how you would spend your time. You wanted to be rich and famous and free! Instead, you’ve spent an hour on the phone listening to unbearable hold music so you can make your kid (or spouse, or parent, or friend) a doctor’s appointment.

Let’s accept this once and for all: Life can be really fun. Life can also be very menial and boring. Imbue your slogging daily labor with meaning by considering: Did that boring thing you spent your time on benefit someone else, directly or indirectly? Whose life do you tend and enrich through your hard work?

Did the time you spent at the mechanic, drinking bad coffee and wishing you were somewhere else, mean that other drivers would be safer alongside you because your car could be relied upon to drive safely? When you spent that arduous hour at the grocery store, did your friendly attitude at the checkout improve the day of the cashier?

The fact that anyone else could feasibly do the work you do doesn’t take away from the fact that you did it. Today, let it be enough that your existence, in a tiny and imperfect way, improves and eases the lives of others.

4. For whom have you made sacrifices?

Look back on all your dreams that you gave up along the way. OK, that feels bad. But I would guess, quite confidently, that you had a rather compelling reason not to follow through on your plans. Perhaps you gave up your dream due to the happiness and safety of someone you cared about.

Maybe you didn’t go to the college of your dreams because you wanted to try to make things work with your high school sweetheart. Perhaps you didn’t move across the country to that amazing job because you wanted to be around to help out your aging parents. Yes, it is disappointing that your dreams did not come to fruition. It may even be easy to look back on those decisions and think, “That was so stupid. What was I thinking?”

You were probably thinking that your actions impact others, which is absolutely true, and is a pretty good place from which to make ethical decisions. I’m not saying you should give up on your dreams for the good of others. I am saying that, perhaps, within your imperfect decision-making process, was a seed of kindness and consideration for others.

That kind part of you that made that dumb decision is good. It is a part of you that we should not shame or try to eradicate. Today, let it be enough that you have made some decisions, however imperfect, from a place of personal sacrifice and compassion.

5. What factors were completely beyond your control?

We expect ourselves to grow up, get out there, and make good lives happen. That’s a very exciting way to look at life, and if we lived in a perfect world, I would be encouraging you to do just that. But we do not live in a perfect world. So, let’s temper that go-getter attitude with a compassionate dose of realism.

Reflect on all those disappointing times that you did not, in fact, get out there and make life happen. Instead of being overwhelmed with shame, widen your lens to look at your decision. Was your choice to give up on a dream simply a personal failure? Or was it a reasonable response to a set of circumstances beyond your control?

Illnesses get in the way of life dreams. Money gets in the way of life dreams. Financial meltdowns, terrorist attacks, climate disasters, and global pandemics—these all tend to get in the way of life dreams. Instead of labeling your life as a failure, try to feel tender towards yourself. You, like all of us, are not an island, and are subject to the shifting sands of events out of your control.

Today, let it be enough that you have attempted to have the incredible wisdom to make good personal decisions in light of terrifying personal and global events. That’s a pretty big job for a regular person like you (and me). Sure, you haven’t chosen right every time. But it makes sense that your decisions would have a reasonable margin of error.

You have done your best to keep yourself alive, collect a few people who like you, and be a responsible person. A lot happened along the way. You did your best to make things work. You haven’t built a perfect life. But you have built a life. And even an imperfect life full of suffering can also be a great life full of meaning. Let that be enough.

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