What To Do When Your Life Feels Meaningless

by Alexander Heyne · 156 comments

I was a really annoying kid to talk to when I was younger.

I was always asking “God questions,” almost always revolving around the word “why.”

Why am I here.. what am I supposed to do.. where should I go next.. why do I have to do this..

And it pissed people off, I mean, for chrissakes sometimes you just do stuff and don’t question it, right?

Just go to work and eat bitter and suck it up.

Just use 2 cups flour and 3 eggs in the cake and stop thinking about it “why” they are in the proportions that they are in.

Just learn this material and stop asking why you’ll need to know all of this to be a doctor.

After I got out of the juvenile phase of life (where every “why” you ask gets a “because I said so” in return), I entered a new phase of life.

More people asking why.  Why am I here.. what do I need to do for the rest of my life..

And I thought: hmm that’s funny. First as a kid, now as an “adult.”  Everyone is still asking why. And most people are still giving themselves “because I said so” answers.

So once again I started asking myself WTF should I do with my life? What can I do with my life? What am I supposed to do with my life? And, most importantly, WTF do I want to do during my life? What makes it feel worthwhile?

Finding a Reason to Live

Survivors of all types of accidents or horrendous living conditions often share eerily similar stories.  Despite the harshness of the current reality, against all odds, they maintain some special sort of reason for going on (See the Stockdale Paradox)

They maintain a “why” beyond just “staying alive” that keeps them going.  They found some greater purpose.

Viktor Frankl was one such person.  He was a victim of the Nazi regime and spent several years in the Auschwitz concentration camp while his entire family and both parents passed away.  As his body was slowly whittling away and as thousands of people died around him he was deeply pondering the state of his life.

His mémoire, Man’s Search for Meaning, is interesting to me for one main reason: because one can watch his mind deliberate as it searches for a meaning in all the death, suffering, and apparent meaninglessness that was going on around him.

Frankl’s conclusion?

Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her own life.”

The words hit an eerie nerve in me, after all — I know plenty of people my age making a lot of money, who outwardly appear happy, but inwardly they feel like what they are doing is pretty pointless.

So they just go ahead and do what other people are doing, to have some semblance of a sane, ordinary, normal and supposedly *happy* existence.

I ended up thinking about this more: the deepest human value, one that you can selectively pursue and cultivate to enrich your life, is it really happiness?

Or is happiness a consequence of doing things right?

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Searching for the wrong thing


I think there’s one particular reason why many of us feel completely lost. It’s because we’re searching for the wrong thing.

Many early philosophers believed that our primary motivation in life was personal pleasure or happiness — that’s just what we strive for and that’s just what our purpose is.  I mean, it makes sense:

  • What’s the most important thing according to your body, your ego? You, of course. Who do you look at first in a picture? Yourself.
  • We naturally shy from, say, putting our hand on a campfire (it hurts) and enjoy doing things like eating cookies and having sex. They make us feel good.
  • We help people: it either makes them feel good (which makes us feel good) or it directly makes us feel good.

There’s a good argument for straight up pleasure / happiness / joy being the sole purpose of life.

But what if pleasure / enjoyment/ happiness were just unintended byproducts. What if they were just positive consequences of doing the right thing and instead there was something you could deliberately cultivate?

There’s a better explanation for why we’re lost and why all of us constantly strive to find happiness at some point or another.

Happiness and Success as Un-Intended Side Effects

Ready for this?

The cure for being lost and feeling like your life is meaningless is not to re-find happiness.

The way to become unlost, happy, and successful is found all in one thing: purpose.

Through purpose you find passion, you find happiness, you find drive, you find meaning in an apparently meaningless existence. These all blossom as perfect byproducts.

And by purpose I don’t necessarily mean “your one ultimate purpose.”  Purpose, like happiness, isn’t static.  It’s not just “Oh I’ve always wanted to be an Astronaut since I was young!”

For some parents, raising their kids and being a good parent is their only purpose — but once their kids move out and grow up they suddenly find their lives feeling more meaningless.

College kids that graduate university are accustomed to having a purpose: pass this class, semester after semester after semester, and finally: graduate.  Once they graduate? Many lose their sense of purpose.

Normal every day people sometimes find purpose in others — a loved one for example — and once that person leaves their life they are crushed and fall into an existence that feels meaningless again.

Purpose, therefore, can be fleeting too.

But purpose – no matter how temporary – is so important because it makes you feel like what you are doing in your life actually matters.

And purpose is the ultimate fix for no longer feeling lost, no longer feeling like you’re in a dream or an observer of your own life.

It makes you feel in control.

Purpose in the Modern World

“… that feeling of which so many [people] complain today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives.  They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experienced of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss…No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”

The feeling of meaningless is one of those scary nagging feelings we all get at some points in our lives.  We wonder if there is some grand scheme out there for our suffering, or why after working for a couple years in a job that’s “alright”  it doesn’t feel like it has a point anymore.

It’s because both happiness and success are closely tied to purpose.

It’s the reason why when you talk to so many 20 somethings that are in their first, or second, or fifth professional job, these days they’re like “It’s alright, It’s a job.”

Oh, really?

They have to convince themselves that what they are doing has meaning.

A pretty sad thought if you ask me.

Going Big or Going Home

Alright, so your life feels pointless.  Either you’re totally lost, or you have everything but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

You’re getting paid, you have a good apartment, you have a car.  Now what?

There are 4 ways to get a life that doesn’t suck and destroy the feeling of meaninglessness. 

  1. Figure out your story
  2. Figure out what the hell you want and make a plan
  3. Determine your “why”
  4. Engage in flow producing activities

#1 What’s Your Story?

” You can’t go on without a story any longer than you can read a book about nothing… “

A while back I wrote one of the single most important posts for lost people who feel their lives are meaningless.

It’s called Getting Un-Lost and Re-Writing History and the big question it asks you is this:

What kind of story are you living?  What kind of story do you want to be living?

The problem with not having a story is that even if you experience a lot – travel, learn, try new things – you aren’t providing a context for all the experiences to occur in.

The experiences just become noise, they are random, chaotic, and although enjoyable, they don’t come together and provide any coherent feeling of “purpose.”

They aren’t part of a larger storyline.

If you don’t currently have a story there are 4 qualities inherent in any epic tale:

  1. A character who wants something,
  2. Has the potential for failure failure,
  3. Struggles,
  4. But does whatever it takes to realize the story and see it through
Without a fundamental underlying story, experiences, no matter how enjoyable or epic become noise.  The story is the lifeline, the backbone, the thread that connects all experience and makes them worthwhile.

 

#2 What the hell are you aiming for?

“I find it fascinating that most people plan their vacations with better care than they plan their lives. Perhaps that is because escape is easier than change.”

-Jim Rohn

People seem to be goal averse.  Maybe it’s because setting goals sets you up for disappointment (Oh, I didn’t lose 30 pounds like I said I would in my New Year’s resolution).

Or maybe it’s because people are lazy.

Or maybe it’s because people don’t know what they want or haven’t thought about what they want.

But there is one big reason why you should set goals – even arbitrary goals like running a marathon – and that’s because they give life structure.

At the basic, most fundamental level, the easiest way to turn a meaningless life into a meaningful one is to set a random goal and go for it.

The more facets your goal has, the better.

E.g. Building a business you care about is superior to learning a language (from a purpose standpoint) because it will take longer and has so many facets you can improve upon.

Really dunno what to do?

Learn Spanish (Better? Move to Spain and learn Spanish.)

Set arbitrary fitness goals: gain 20 pounds of muscle, lose 20 pounds of fat.

Make a bucket list of awesome things you want to do. Do one every week/month/6 months/year.

Remember these goals are random, superficial, and provide a temporary sense of purpose. They are, however, better than nothing and are an easy step into feeling like life is worthwhile.

Read: The manifesto and check out the section “Why You Can Never Get What You Want Unless..” On page 28.

 #3 What’s your why?

“Those who have a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

-Nietzche

We already talked about the importance of having a story — a context for all the experiences that your life is made up of.

But there’s one other quality inherent in a meaningful life: why are you doing what you’re doing?

Why are you doing the work you do? For money? Or for some reason that provides real internal sustenance?

Why are you going to the gym? Is it to look good for your girlfriend/boyfriend/ or is it because you deep down want to do it for yourself?

Some people are more easily influenced by the “why” than others.  For example, some people can really defer their happiness and job satisfaction just working for money.

Others get severely depressed after a short time.

Similarly, some people can legitimately go to the gym and transform their bodies for another person — a guy who loses 50 pounds because his girlfriend is threatening to break up with him, for example.

Other people quit soon after because they realize what they are doing is not for themselves.

So when I ask “what is your why?”: why learn a new skill, why start a business, why run a marathon — “just because” is a fine answer in the short term, but to power you long-term the “why” will need to be something that deeply connects with a core value in your life.

Honestly think about the following two options and tell me which one you resonate with more:

  1. Starting a business so you can make much more money than you currently are.
  2. Starting a business because you’re tired of meaningless work, working for someone you dislike, working with people who dislike what they do, having your hours and schedule pre-arranged, etc.
What is the real, emotional, deep seated reason for doing what you’re doing?  

 

Read: Start with Why by Simon Sinek

#4 Engage in flow producing activities

Yes yes, by now you should know Doc. C is one of the main influencers of everything I do in my life.

This fourth way to avoid a meaningless life is a paradoxical one — it’s less easily sought out than the other 3.  In a nutshell, you are looking for an experience - flow, to be specific.

Being in flow is that magical moment when you do an unbelievably perfect shot during a soccer game — time freezes, the stars align, and you describe it as feeling “perfect.”

Being in flow is the artist’s muse – the concept of time evaporates, goals and structure don’t exist, only enjoyment and pure engagement in the current activity exists.

Flow is the state where most of us are happiest, where we feel in our element, where we feel challenged and as if our tasks and time are worthwhile.

I really could spend all day talking about flow as one of the singular most important concepts to learn about, but instead i’ll redirect to you several of the posts I’ve written on the topic.

  1. Making Greatness Part 2 (Discusses Flow in Depth)
  2. If Your Work Sucks, Learn About Flow

So in a nutshell, why seek out flow producing activities? They are inherently enjoyable, inherently feel meaningful, and are self-described as some of the most powerful transcendent moments of life.

Read: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Finding meaning in the 21st century

Distractions & diversions – that’s pretty much how I’d sum up the era we live in.

Literal, physical distractions like TV and the Internet, as well as psychological distractions like the preoccupation with money or success.

Killing distractions is but one small part of living a meaningful life — there are so many facets like meaningful work, quality relationships, and higher purpose.

But for starters, as things you can start today, the above 4 points: Your story, your goals, your why, and flow producing activities can easily take a meaningless life and turn it into a worthwhile existence, arguably the most important thing of all.

“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.  Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”

-Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Read: Man’s Search for Meaning

 *** Click Here to Read Part 2: (Is This All There is?) What to do When Your Life Feels Meaningless ***

Photo Credit Iguanasan
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