My mom died recently after 85 fairly successful years. She was the first female bank president in New Mexico. She raised three kids, built houses and traveled the world.
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I never thought to ask her if she’d had a meaningful life. My guess is she would have said she worked hard, did well to provide for her family and lived a good life. I doubt she ever thought much about having “a meaningful life”.
Like my mom, few of us will ever be famous or long remembered by anyone but close family and friends. So given that—if we want our lives to have purpose and meaning—it’s all the more critical that we consciously create a life that we believe is meaningful and begin living it.
What Does It Mean To Lead A Meaningful Life?
Of course we all have our own perception of what’s meaningful, what’s significant, fulfilling, purposeful and satisfying. Some may find meaning in having all the right stuff. Others may find meaning in their work, a relationship, being connected to community or working to save the planet.
As my sister and I went through the tender process of wrapping up our mother’s life and belongings, we found it poignant to notice the stuff we considered just stuff, and the stuff that once had some meaning to mom and now to us. For us, the letters she’d saved and the photos of her family, friends, and her adventures were the meaningful things—all paper mementos of her connection with other people and places.
All of the other things—the stuff that she thought she might need some day, but likely never would—were things we all accumulate and think we can’t live without. These things we easily tossed out or given away. My sister and I found meaning, not in what mom possessed, but in the connections she made with other human beings as she traveled through her nine decades. I was surprised by how her life simply boiled down to what she shared with family, friends, and even strangers she met while traveling. But, this also made sense. She had an uncanny ability to listen to people, be kind, and share her grounded wisdom with others who were struggling in life. Perhaps that was her purpose.
Finding Purpose Outside Of Ourselves
The Dalai Lama says:
“We are visitors on this planet. We are here for one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true meaning of life.”
This suggests that if we stop obsessing about our own happiness and fulfillment, look outside of ourselves and take a path that contributes to other people’s happiness, we may actually experience a deeply rewarding reason for being here! Ironically, if we’re too focused on finding our purpose, we may miss out on the meaning our lives.
For me, the answer was to look for something I loved to do that also helped other people. My husband and I, working together, found our purpose by leading workshops that help people create healthy lives and meaningful relationships, teaching them to love themselves and others better.
The Meaning Of life Is About Contribution Not Consumption
For each of us our contribution will be different. For some, our contribution will come in the form of art or poetry. For others it will come in the form of love. But for all of us, our contributions will be born from the things we are passionate about, the things that feed or souls. These are the things we stay alive for.
Finding meaning is not about having all the right stuff and not necessarily about finding the right partner. When we focus, instead, on how we can benefit other people or make the world a better place, then our purpose can actually find us.
Who knows, while doing something meaningful you may bump into someone special who shares your focus and desire to contribute. And who needs all the right stuff when, no matter the size of our contribution, we can find meaning and purpose in our lives by contributing to others?