The Daily Fight For Meaning and Purpose

It seems like every single day, the world is trying to pull us away from living a more meaningful and purposeful life. We are subjected to a daily barrage of ads, news, and listicles that seem designed to make us doubt our path, question our decisions, and make us feel incomplete.

Sadly, it works a lot of the time.

Yet, while our generation is subjected to the most intense array of distractions the world has ever known, this phenomenon is not new. Ever since the dawn of man, our egos have driven us to feel craving and envy and to compare ourselves to others. The first caveman looked down at his meal of moss and worms and then over at his friend’s meal of fresh rabbit, and thought, “My meal sucks. I’d do anything to get me some of that!”

Of course, it’s true that the subtle nagging feeling of dissatisfaction is what drives us to be creative problem solvers and innovative thinkers. We’d never have beer or pop-tarts if we were all perfectly satisfied with moss and worms, but if we’re really honest, most of us don’t even put that anxiety of wanting more into creativity and innovation.

No, most of us put that energy into doing anything we can to amass more wealth and achieving high status relative to our peers. Or we just sit around and daydream about amassing more wealth and status. But either way, THAT selfish craving is what takes us away from our meaning and purpose.

Now remember, you’re not a BAD PERSON for feeling that way or for wanting those things. It’s actually a very natural response to our daily diet of social media, news stories about 25 year old billionaires, and ads for clothes that will make supermodels want to date us.

But that doesn’t make giving into it Ok.

Because as long as you feel that something is lacking, that you’re stupid for not starting that meaningless photo-sharing app when you had the chance, that your friends who sold out and went into “money is the only outcome” jobs may have made the right decision, that you should have gone to an Ivy League school, that you’d give anything to HAVE that one car, boat, house, girl, guy, watch, ring, painting… and THEN you would feel complete…

As long as you are stuck in THAT place, you are losing the fight for meaning and purpose. And you are most certainly on a path to misery.

The problem is that money and achievement have diminishing marginal returns over time, meaning that the more money and status you have the less you actually enjoy money and status. The fourth bottle of Dom Pérignon always tastes like cat piss, trust me.

This is due to two reasons:

  1. After a certain point you literally can’t spend money fast enough to enjoy it. So every extra dollar you earn still “costs” you a certain amount of effort, but it doesn’t “pay” you in enjoyment or fulfillment.
  2. For most of us, the things we need to do to amass incredible wealth and status (or at least the obvious things we think we need to do) go against our core values. This is how people who were environmentalists in college end up working for oil companies as adults. And when behave in ways that aren’t aligned with our values, we begin to hate ourselves.

In my experience the ONLY way to win the daily fight for meaning and purpose is to ask yourself one simple question:

What do I have to give, and am I giving it?

Please note that this is fundamentally different from the question most of us ask on a daily basis:

What do I want, and am I getting it?

In his latest piece in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama touches upon this theme by proposing that the current state of dissatisfaction and mistrust we are experiencing in Western nations — the richest nations in the history of the planet — stems directly from our endless focus on what we want and not enough on what we have to give.

According to scientific research the Dalai Lama cites, “Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives.”

There’s another dynamic at play that underlies these two simple, but diametrically opposed questions:

  • What do I have to give? implies completeness and abundance. It makes us look inside ourselves for gifts, skills, something of value. And there is always something of value hidden inside us.
  • What do I want? implies an inherent lacking. It makes us look around at all the pretty things we don’t have, and half the time we fixate on something we didn’t even know we wanted until some Ad-man or Instagram celebrity put it in front of us.

So, what’s it gonna be then, eh? Are we going to continue down a path of craving and comparing, or are we going to turn the “Net Worth = Self Worth” dogma on its head and focus every single day on what we have to give? I hope for all our sakes it’s the latter.

Here are two resources to get you started:

  1. 50 Ways to Feel Like a Million Bucks: How Being of Service to Others Improves Our Self Esteem.
  2. Yes, We All Feel Like We’re Not Enough Sometimes: And Here are 7 Ways to Snap Out of It.