What makes life meaningful?
News about a school child who just called it quits or a financially troubled couple who decided to give it all up or then a 70-year old who reached the dismal decision to end her life seems to be commonplace these days. It doesn’t surprise us anymore to know that yet another person has resorted to suicide. The ever-increasing number of deaths due to suicide is not just alarming and confounding but also calls for immediate action from individuals, families, organisations and societies at large because it is starting to look like we as a society has lost our moorings.
So what drives people to the brink of such hopelessness? Why do people conclude that only death can save them from their misery? The reasons expressed by the people, before they take this step, are hugely varied; from not scoring high enough marks to feeling like a misfit, to being overcome by a general sense of meaninglessness, the reasons are many. But is there something more fundamental we may be missing? Let’s delve a little deeper…
We know for sure that anyone who decides to end their lives has to be deeply unhappy. Instead of looking at all the reasons why a person may be unhappy, let’s start by looking at what makes people happy. Here, by using the term “happiness” I am not referring to momentary feelings of pleasure but to a sustained sense of well-being despite the challenges that life throws at you.
There are 3 significant contributors to our overall sense of wellbeing and to our feeling of engagement in life. In his book “Drive”, the well-known author Daniel Pink talks about three factors which have a significant impact on an individual’s intrinsic motivation. They are:
- Purpose and
- Autonomy – This refers to the freedom to live life on one’s own terms. It is having the ability to make choices as per one’s will (Whether this choice is real or imagined is irrelevant). To understand “Autonomy” better, let’s look at some examples. Autonomy is about the freedom to make significant life choices like what job to take up, whom to marry, where to reside, where to invest one’s money, but it is not limited to these choices. Enjoying the liberty to take day to day and moment to moment decisions like what to wear, what to have for breakfast, whether to exercise or not, how to spend our leisure time etc., goes a long way in establishing our sense of autonomy. The need for autonomy is hardwired in humans and whenever we feel forced to do something against our will, we feel oppressed. This sense of coercion that makes us unhappy may be external or even internal. For instance, when we do things out of a sense of guilt, that feels like a lack of autonomy too and lack of autonomy is one of the most important factors leading to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Life, of course, doesn’t allow us to live a completely autonomous life because each of us is part of a larger community and compromises are an integral part of community living. However, when we feel that we are largely in charge of our lives, it gives us a sense of satisfaction and happiness, while the lack of it leaves us feeling deeply dissatisfied.
- Purpose – When we have a purpose in life we have something to believe in and work towards, which is larger and more important than ourselves. Purpose drives us to persist even in the face of what may seem like an insurmountable challenge and keeps us grounded. When our sense of purpose is strong we often willingly surrender our autonomy and do things we do not enjoy, to progress towards that purpose. Parents may be willing to keep their preferences aside to help move towards their own purpose of helping their child have a better life or an actor may sacrifice opportunities to make money, so as to work towards her purpose of doing great work.
- Mastery – Mastery is the desire to improve. When we work towards improving a skill through learning and practising, we are working towards mastery. Mastery again requires us to be committed, to overcome obstacles, to practice perseverance and consciously correct our course and practice a skill. For an athlete who is working towards becoming a better runner, her daily improvement gives her a higher sense of fulfilment that does the appreciation and recognition from others. Mastery in itself motivates people to do well and as the mastery in any area of one’s life goes up, it has a knock-on effect on the other parts of their lives and raises their self-esteem. It goes without saying that self-esteem is at the heart of a meaningful and well-lived life.
There’s a fourth aspect which is critical to our happiness, especially when we live as part of a community and that is the connection we have with others.
- Relationship with others – A 75 year-long Harvard study on Human happiness, that involved studying the lives of 724 men from the time they were in their early teens up until the time that they reached the ripe old age of 80s and 90s, threw up a very interesting statistic, with regards to happiness. The study established that the single most important factor when it comes to happiness and health is the relationships in our lives. The study found that people who were more socially connected to friends, family and community were happier, physically healthier and lived longer. So, it is not about how many friends you have or whether you are in a committed relationship but about the quality of the close relationships in your life.
As you can see, all these four factors namely Autonomy, Purpose, Mastery and Relationships are interconnected and each has a significant role in contributing to our overall sense of balance and well-being. The absence of any of these factors may foster feelings of oppression, aimlessness, disconnection or a sense of inadequacy or then a combination of all/some of these. These missing pieces leave people feeling like rudderless boats and drive one to take extreme steps to end the feeling of desolation.
(But there is hope and we talk about the steps we can take to live more meaningful lives in Part II of this blog.)