‘‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Friedrich Nietzsche
What do a clinical psychologist, a palliative care nurse, a 2000-year-old Roman philosopher, a social psychologist, and a Holocaust survivor all have in common? Through their work, they’ve all uncovered unique insights about how to build a meaningful life, and written books on their findings.
In this post, we cover some of their key ideas.
1.) On the Shortness of Life
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.“
‘On the Shortness of Life’, written over 2000 years ago by Roman Philosopher – Lucius Annaeus Seneca, focuses on the futility of our constant busyness.
Seneca argues that time is our most valuable resource, yet we squander it as if it were in unlimited supply.
‘People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.’
Reading this book serves as an excellent reminder that time is really your only non-renewable resource, and how you invest yours will ultimately determine the quality of your meaningful life.
2.) Man’s Search for Meaning
– Victor Frankl
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Victor Frankl was a Holocaust Survivor, neurologist, and psychiatrist, who lost his whole family during the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jews.
While a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Kaufering concentration camps, he developed ‘logotherapy‘ – his theory of ‘healing through meaning.’
During his time at the camps, Frankl noticed that it was the prisoners who had a purpose, a sense of meaning, and something to look forward to on the outside, that were most likely to survive. He argued that striving for meaning, not pleasure or power, is ultimately what keeps human beings going.
Reading Frankl’s book can help you see that the meaning you experience in life, or indeed the meaning you give to any situation, is ultimately your responsibility. You often can’t control what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond.
3.) The Happiness Hypothesis
– Jonathan Haidt
“Happiness is not something you can find, acquire or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right, and then wait. Some of these conditions are within you; such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you. Just as plants need sun, water and good soil to thrive, people need love, work and a connection to something larger.”
In the ‘Happiness Hypothesis‘, one of the world’s leading social psychologists – Jonathan Haidt, takes the best ancient wisdom from all the major religions and philosophies, and puts it to the test of modern science and psychological research.
One of Haidt’s key insights is that a meaningful life comes from ‘between.’
‘‘It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work and between yourself and something larger than yourself.”
In other words, the amount of meaning you experience in life is directly related to the quality of your relationships in these three areas:
- Your relationship to your work
- Your relationships to the people in your life
- Your relationship to something larger than yourself (e.g. nature, the universe, a higher purpose, etc).
A meaningful life, therefore, is not something you can strive for directly, but emerges as a by-product of having these three key elements in place.
4.) The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
– Bronnie Ware
Bronnie Ware was an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives.
In 2012, she wrote an article documenting the epiphanies of her patients just before they died, and their most common regrets.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
- I wish I didn’t work so hard
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
- I wish that I had let myself be happier
It can be difficult to think far into the future and know what you will regret most at the end.
But by reading Ware’s book, and understanding the most common regrets of the dying, you can get an insight into what your deepest regrets are most likely to be.
Armed with this knowledge, you can adjust your life and actions now in the present, so you can avoid the horrible pain of regret in the future.
5.) 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
– Dr Jordan Peterson
Dr Jordan Peterson is a Canadian Clinical Psychologist who has spent most of his working life investigating the architecture of human belief systems.
After being tormented by the cold war, disillusioned with the Christianity of his youth, and the socialist ideals he later took on, Peterson was plagued with doubt, and searching for something he could build a belief system around. Something solid. Something he couldn’t doubt.
His first conclusion? Suffering.
‘‘What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality.”
That led Peterson to his second conclusion:
‘‘I once read of a particularly insidious practice at Auschwitz. A guard would force an inmate to carry a hundred-pound sack of wet salt from one side of the large compound to the other – and then to carry it back. Carrying the salt was an act of pointless torment. It allowed me to realise with certainty that some actions are wrong.‘‘
When you realise, with certainty, that there is something that is fundamentally not good, and that everything in our world has its opposite, then that means there is something that is good.
So, if causing unnecessary suffering in the lives others for its own sake is fundamentally wrong, then its opposite must be also be true.
That is, the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering – both in your own life, and the lives of others, is what is fundamentally right, and therefore something worthwhile to aim at, and a solid foundation to build a meaningful life around.
The principles in outlined in 12 Rules for Life are an excellent guide to help you do just that.
If we take Frankl’s view, the amount of meaning you will experience in life is ultimately your choice.
It will depend upon:
- Your choice to avoid the ‘busy trap’ and use your time wisely
- The relationships you choose to develop with the people in your life, your work, and something bigger than you
- The amount of responsibility you choose to accept
- Your ability to anticipate potential regrets and your choice to minimise them
- Your choice to focus on removing unnecessary suffering; both from your own life, and the lives of others.
There’s no simple path or ‘5 step method’ you can follow for a meaningful life.
It’s a long, winding and often tricky road, and each human being comes with their own unique set of circumstances and challenges. I wish you the best of luck navigating it. If you are successful, perhaps you will want to write your own book. In which case I recommend one of these Freelance Book Editors to help you.
However, in the meantime, these 5 books can serve as excellent guides to help you find your way.