What should a meaningful life be about?
It’s an important question. Unfortunately, the answer is not likely to be found on social media.
Most of the idealized and carefully curated content on Facebook and Instagram focuses on vanity, fame, and wealth. We pursue these things energetically, convinced they will bring us a meaningful life.
Yet the reality is that most people will not become supermodels, nor particularly rich or famous. In fact, most of us will lead seemingly ordinary, unremarkable lives. Does this mean our lives won’t be meaningful?
Something Beyond the Self
Instead of relying on social media for shallow answers, let us turn to some serious literature. Consider the novel Middlemarch, by George Eliot (a pen name for Mary Ann Evans). In the novel, a character must relinquish her big dreams and find meaning in the small details of a faithful life, raising a family.
As Eliot writes in the novel:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
In a New York Times article, writer Emily Smith reflected on the above quote this way:
“It’s one of the most beautiful passages in literature, and it encapsulates what a meaningful life is about: connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, in whatever humble form that may take.”
The Meaning of Life is in Small Things
The author Tom Morris, in his article “The Meaning of Life is in Small Things,” notes:
“Most young adults won’t achieve the idealistic goals they’ve set for themselves. They won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg. They won’t have obituaries that run in newspapers like this one. But that doesn’t mean their lives will lack significance and worth. We all have a circle of people whose lives we can touch and improve—and we can find our meaning in that.”
Morris goes on to cite a growing body of psychology research showing that meaning in our lives doesn’t come from success and glamour but in the mundane. For example, some research showed that teenagers who do household chores feel a stronger sense of purpose. Also, as Morris wrote in his article:
“People who see their occupations as an opportunity to serve their immediate community find more meaning in their work, whether it’s an accountant helping his client or a factory worker supporting her family with a paycheck.”
All the Lonely People
One of my favorite songs by the Beatles is “Eleanor Rigby.” The lyrics sadly tell us of Eleanor Rigby, a seemingly forgotten soul who cleans the church after a wedding. And Father McKenzie, who seems to be writing sermons that no one will hear. As the lyrics go on to say:
“Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved.”
Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie have seemingly unremarkable lives, and are viewed in the song as “lonely people.” Perhaps they were lonely. Perhaps they wondered if their lives had any meaning. Maybe they worried that nothing really mattered.
The truth is that our lives matter a great deal.
Our efforts in life tendril out and affect others in ways often unseen to us. We are changed too, by our acts. The positive, selfless ones elevate us. The negative acts drag us down. All we really have to do is live, give, and forgive. That simple recipe can carry us to the finish line if we just get out of our own way.
Connecting and contributing to something beyond ourselves, in whatever humble endeavors we choose, will give our lives great meaning. Money, good looks, and fame are not required to create lives of significance and worth.
Thousands of Tiny Acts
A woman named Sarah Bush married a man named Daniel Johnston in 1806. They had three children but sadly, Daniel died several years later in the cholera epidemic. Despite the loss of her husband, Sarah managed to care for her three children and move forward.
In 1819 Sarah married a widower named Thomas Lincoln, who had two children of his own. The two married, and Sarah became a wonderful stepmother to Thomas’s children (a boy and girl). Sarah accepted Thomas’s children as her own.
Sarah encouraged Thomas’s son with his love of reading and helped shape him into a successful man. A man who would become the 16th president of the United States.
Unlike the headstone for Sarah Lincoln’s resting place, thousands of Americans regularly visit the memorial for President Abraham Lincoln. Yet, without the love and guidance of Sarah Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln may never have become such a monumental figure in history. The love of books she instilled in Abraham, the meals she cooked for him, the thousands of tiny acts of love and support all helped shape who Abraham became.
Sarah Lincoln connected with and contributed to something beyond herself. Namely, her children and stepchildren. Her legacy is found in the family she helped shape. Every mundane act, tiny thing, and daily chore contributed to her children’s success. All of which contributed to a profoundly meaningful life.
Connect and Contribute
If you think that you don’t matter, take a closer look at your definition of a meaningful life. Maybe you’re stacking yourself up against some Hollywood star, supermodel, technology billionaire, or even a wealthy neighbor. If so, you’re using the wrong measurements.
A meaningful life (which can also be an entirely satisfying life) does not require wealth, fame, or physical beauty. Don’t pay attention to TV, the gossip magazines, or social media glitterati.
All you have to do is connect and contribute to something beyond yourself. It could be the parenting of your children or the growth and development of your writing or artwork. Perhaps you minister to the homeless, improve the environment, or shape young minds in the classroom.
The Eleanor Rigbys and Father McKenzies of the world may feel lonely at times, but their lives are meaningful, just as your life is meaningful. The trick is to not get too caught up in yourself.
The Size of Our Universe
As the author Joshua Becker has written:
“The size of our universe shrinks considerably when we place ourselves at the center. And the people who are most focused on themselves are the least satisfied in life.”
Part of the key to living a meaningful life is to help others.
It’s also important to figure out where your passion lies and then develop it. Embracing work or a creative calling that quickens your heart can become infectious. Others will become inspired by your passion. The author James Clear, in reviewing Mark Manson’s best-selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, wrote:
“Finding something important and meaningful in your life is the most productive use of your time and energy. This is true because every life has problems associated with it and finding meaning in your life will help you sustain the effort you need to overcome the particular problems you face. Thus, we can say that the key to living a good life is not giving a f*ck about more things, but rather, giving a f*ck about the things that align with your personal values.”
In the end, every life is precious. Each one of us has the ability to contribute and enjoy a meaningful life. You can positively affect the lives of other people in ways you have not imagined.
So, stop comparing yourself to beautiful, rich, or famous people. Start tapping the unique talents and qualities that you have. Embrace your passions and gifts, and use them to help the lives of others and make the world a better place.
However big, small, spectacular, or mundane, your contributions matter.
And so do you.