Discover more from Super Sunday
Finding Meaning, Our North Star Values, and Living Fully
How to avoid wasting time we’re never going to get back
Hello friends! 👋
A warm welcome to our new subscribers; it's good to have you here! 😊
In last week's edition of this weekly newsletter, we talked about how you can use your strengths (wisely and avoid overuse) to change your job into a calling.
Today, I would like to unpack why we would even want to do that. If my "job" is paying the bills, or if I am lucky and can make a career out of it, then why put effort into changing that? What value will I get from approaching my work beyond the money and status it generates?
These are valid questions, and in this letter, I want to dive deeper to explore the possibilities of a fuller life. The answers, which will differ for different people, lie deep inside how you define your meaning in life.
Sections covered today:
🖼 Meaning In Life
Meaning is a very complex phenomenon. While we can find a general definition in the dictionary, it usually doesn't suffice. Meaning is very personal to each one of us, and in this regard, I will share my definition based on my personal point of view and after having read what the literature says about it.
Meaning is our internal compass to make sense of the world around us. With meaning, we can explain our motives, desires, and stories. Through meaning, we can experience life more fully. It helps us understand ourselves, our environment, and our relation to that environment - what scientists call "sense-making"1. Meaning in life is defined as the extent to which one's life makes sense, is directed by valued goals, and as mattering in the world.2
Humans have been studying the meaning of life for a long while, from Aristotle to modern day scientists. In fact, in his book "Man's Search For Meaning", written in 1946, Viktor Frankl, who established a division of psychotherapy focused on the intrinsic human motivation to find meaning (called logotherapy), tells us the search for meaning is the primary motivational power for us humans - it is what helped him survive the concentration camps during World War 2. His research on the "Will to Meaning" says a lot about the motivations behind our actions.
As humans, we do not like uncertainty; we require meaning to ensure we have a certain level of understanding of the world around us and how it operates. Without that, we feel lost, leaving us anxious or frustrated.
Further research on meaning suggests that meaning is divided into three components:
The first one is straightforward; it is in line with what most of us think of when we think of the word "meaning". As I just suggested, having an understanding of the world and how it operates is fundamental to our well-being. It allows us to understand our place in the world, what's right from what is wrong, what our identity is, and how our past and future experiences tie together in a coherent manner. It is critical that the story of our life makes sense to us. If this story is not coherent with who we are, then this becomes a major source of dissatisfaction.
Take the example of why certain celebrities commit suicide - even though they have a well of significance to draw from (filled by a global audience), and they feel pretty purposeful doing what they love to do. However, if the storyline isn't coherent, when it doesn't make sense to that person, it makes life feel meaningless. This lack of coherence can be very depressing and, unfortunately, drives that person not to see any meaning in living, despite the number of resources they're surrounded with (money, fame, power, love, etc.)
The second pillar is to have a purpose. As we talked last week, figuring out our purpose in life may be a daunting task for some. However, I first suggested that you "let purpose find you" by showing up at your best and setting the stage for it.
How do we do that?
By focusing on our fundamentals (check-in; how was your sleep the past week? What about your movement? Eating? Focusing?).
Secondly, to take another active role in shaping/discovering your purpose, you can start by using your strengths to create something unique, allowing you to express your best self. These character strengths stem from your deepest values.
It is critical to cultivate a sense of purpose because our vision of our future self creates a pull that provides us with energy and motivation. At the same time, we use our purpose to make sense of our present, adding to the first point of having a coherent understanding of ourselves and our story.
The third pillar is one that is much deeper than it looks, and I would love to unpack that further for us. On the surface, we know that a sense of significance gives us much meaning and satisfaction. It helps us know we are important and that we matter. This weaves itself into every relationship we have and dictates the quality of every interaction we engage in. When we feel significant, we feel loved, cared for, and worthy. We are social beings who thrive on communities, and crave positive relationships - this is evident in the research on happiness, whereby all well-being theories have "relationships" as one of the main pillars driving happiness.
However, generally speaking, most people think of significance mainly through popularity or fame - this is why social media has grown so fast, because a following can make us feel significant. However, when done only for that cause it can result in a toxic imbalance of valuing “taking” rather than “giving back”. The reality is we feel a lot more significant by giving back, by serving, than by taking.
When we think of what we want to achieve, the work we are doing, or the work we want to create, do we think of it with a lens of serving others or for personal benefit alone?
We draw on significance from others. This is evident in the research on happiness and why having a calling is better than a career - when you have a calling, you do something for the sake of it (intrinsically motivated), and you do it for something bigger than you (serving others).
In my view, this is the glue that keeps the first two pillars together. It is for this reason I invest time and energy to bring this writing to life, this is my service to the world in hopes of helping everyone live more fully. 🙏
In the next section, I will dive deeper into an aspect that is fundamental to cultivating comprehension, purpose, and significance. Which is our values.
Over to you now.
How do you rate yourself in each of the above three pillars?
Can you tell a coherent story about yourself and what truly matters to you?
Do you have a clear line of sight on your purpose in the future that pulls you forward?
Are you actively participating in your relationships (personal, community, etc.) to cultivate significance and serve others?
🔭 Our North Star Values
Values are personal references that drive our actions and emotions. They are not permanent (i.e., they can change with time) and are authentic guides for our behavior in every moment. As we covered in the character strengths section, values put into action help us live life with more happiness and satisfaction.
👀 Note: the institute that established character strengths is called VIA, which stands for Values In Action. In case you were wondering about that when doing your strengths survey.
On that note, the quickest way to finding your true values is to know your character strengths. Which by design put your true values into action. Refer to previous post to do your assessment.
It is important for us to recognize two significant facts about the definition above.
First, values are personal. While this may sound obvious to all of us, few of us recognize the true meaning of this notion. Let me explain this further; in a world of hyperconnectivity and social media craze, it is very easy for us to get lost in valuing what seems popular and mistake it for something we, ourselves, truly value. We take someone else’s definition for a good life, as they see it, and we chase after that. This applies to everything, from little things like wanting certain brands, to more critical concepts of evaluating life and its priorities.
Don't get me wrong; I'm all-in for spending even significant amounts of money on something branded because I find it valuable. However, this value should stem from my honest appreciation of the brand's message and quality rather than its mere popularity. Not everything that’s popular is good, and not because it is popular it means it will generate happiness for me.
It takes hard work to evaluate whether the thing I value is intrinsic (coming from deep levels of myself) or extrinsic (coming from external factors like popularity or social norms).
You may be wondering; why would I have to put in this work in the first place? What is wrong with valuing something just because it is popular or socially desired?
Well, because you may end up working hard to acquire this "thing" while you don't even truly care about it. After acquiring it, you realize the effect wears off quickly, leaving you with no permanent increase in happiness. Or, in some cases, do not find yourself happy at all, even after having it. You can apply this to material things (that car, watch, bag, etc.) or non-material things (that promotion, that approval, that like, etc.)
Science calls this the "Hedonic Treadmill". In her book "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want", Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the iconic professors in the field of happiness study, tells us that we have a baseline level of happiness that we always return to after hedonic/extrinsic pursuits. When the goal is extrinsically motivated, it creates no permanent change in the level of happiness, and in time we get used to whatever we acquired (new car, new house, new promotion), move back baseline, and start the cycle again of wanting more (nicer car, bigger house, quicker promotion) to experience the same level of happiness, momentarily.
While it is important for us to have extrinsic pursuits, Sonia tells us they contribute to only one part of happiness. They are not the full story. For us to create permanent shifts in happiness, we have to look deep inside at that which we value and engage in that intrinsic pursuit.
This brings me to what I touched on last week; money is a tool, not a goal - we use the money to acquire things or experiences. Research shows that purchasing experiences generates higher and longer-lasting levels of happiness than those generated by purchasing things.3
In his book "This Book Will Make You Dangerous", Tripp Lanier suggests, and I agree, that as human beings, we ultimately want to experience freedom, love, aliveness, and peace. However, we tend to neglect one in the pursuit of another - mostly end up neglecting love (relationships), aliveness (health), peace, or all of them in pursuit of freedom (mistakenly thought to be exclusively attained via money alone).
We tend to set certain future finish lines for our freedom to be attained and only then start working on our relationships, health, or peace. We say: "once I have X amount of money, I will be free, and have all the time for the others".
But that's a trap. A trap that can cost us valuable time and create irreversible damage. Time that we will never get back, and damage that goes beyond repair.
🕳️ Why do I call it a trap?
Let me quickly unpack that further. As I shared earlier, we all experience the hedonic treadmill and the desire to get more, better, and bigger. Inevitably this "imaginary finish line" we set for ourselves now will expand as we acquire and experience more. Therefore, while it was X amount today, it becomes X+Y amount sometime later, pushing this imaginary finish line even farther down the road.
In the meantime, how much damage have we caused to our health? How many relationships did we damage by neglecting people we love (spouse, friends, parents, siblings, children)? How much of this damage is irreversible (whether it is a chronic illness or missing out on our children growing up)? How much peace are we living with?
Instead, we can manage our priorities such that we allow ourselves to experience freedom, love, aliveness, and peace today and move forward to expand our experience more without sacrificing or holding one hostage over another.
While money can help us achieve a certain level of freedom, it is only one of the tools to accomplish that. Our time, relationships, and talents are all other examples of tools to achieve freedom. Moreover, money fails to be of use beyond a certain level (I compared it to oxygen last week, we need it but have no use for it once saturated), where other tools may be needed.
In fact, I’m going to remind you that while we need oxygen to survive, for us to stay alive we would also need to breathe out - to let go. I’m going to suggest that we follow our natural rhythms; at certain stages of our lives, it is justifiable to secure financial freedom, however, once we are saturated we have to let go of that pursuit and focus on creating the life we truly desire. It is through creating this unique life, in service to others, do we create financial abundance beyond what is achieved through the financial pursuit alone.
I can talk about this for hours, and I have to try very hard to keep this concise. The message is simple, and I am sure it is clear to all of us. However, the hard truth is we usually settle for chasing the extrinsic because it is easier to pursue. It is much easier to fit in a certain common definition of a "good life" (think the American dream, or the standard story regarding employment-retirement) than to carve out our own way.
As I shared earlier, it takes hard work to figure out what you truly value in the midst of all the flashy things fighting for your time and attention, to let go of conforming to the standard story, and decide on your own journey. Only when you do what you truly value do you experience lasting happiness.
Back to you now.
What are your goals in life?
Can you spend time with yourself to evaluate whether these goals are rooted in deep personal values or are driven by external factors?
Are you spending enough time with yourself to know who you are and what you truly desire?
How can you cultivate the courage to go after what you truly want versus what everyone chases or expects from you?
It takes a certain level of maturity and hard work to know yourself and to understand your values - ones that are beyond what "would look good to others", "my society/parents expect of me", or "what others like and is trendy"
🌈 Cultivating Meaning In Life
In the first two sections of the letter, I wanted to cover the foundations of developing meaning in life. In this section, I wanted to share a few ideas on how to bring those to life.
For us to live a life of meaning, we have to know our true values, our north stars, to help us understand ourselves and set the right goals that will truly make us and our loved ones happy. This is precisely what scientists refer to as comprehension, purpose, and significance.
If we are clear on our values, then we have a coherent understanding of who we are and what matters to us (Comprehension), can live with intent knowing that whatever we are striving for directly connects to who we are and who we want to be (Purpose), and in doing so serve others around us to experience life more fully and bring out their best (Significance).
One of the ways to bring this to life was covered last week - using our character strengths to create our calling. When we utilize our strengths, we put our values into action; through this action, we can create unique work that truly inspires us and others around us. When we do this work in service to others, we connect with a bigger purpose and drive more meaning by allowing us to feel significant.
Anything short of such aspiration is a waste of our human potential, our unique experiences, views, aspirations, and creativity. Moreover, when we use these in service to others, we transcend and create a better world for ourselves and those around us.
Below is a my representation of how Meaning, Goals, and Achievement work together to contribute to a fuller life. It follows a three-step process focused on Establishing, Exploring, and Executing. I will unpack this further in future discussions, for now I will leave you with a draft sketch:
The other way that helps us cultivate meaning is, quite simply, by spending time doing meaningful things. 😊 As I shared in the opening statements, meaning is very complex - each one of us has our own definition and articulation of that which we find meaningful. Therefore, deliberately planning and engaging in activities you find meaningful is the fastest way to cultivate more meaning - this is the reason why I shared in the Welcome post that I start every.single.morning reflecting for a few minutes on how to create my ideal day. I carve out time in the busyness of my schedule to plan things that I know will generate meaning in my life (for example, sending a message to an old friend, reading a few pages of my favorite book, planning a specific event, etc.)
Lastly, I want to suggest an evidence-based approach that you can try this coming week. This has been scientifically researched, so you can be sure it works. 😉
For the coming week, take 9-12 pictures of things that give your life meaning (this can be physical things but also specific moments that happened that week or specific people in your life)
Make sure you do not exceed 12 photos.
Next Sunday, pull out those photos (you can favorite them as you take them, so they are easy to retrieve), recall why you chose them, and explain why they give you meaning.
You can explain through reflective writing or by telling someone you feel comfortable sharing this information with.
Research shows that this simple activity can generate significant levels of meaning and life satisfaction.
I suggest you write at least a few sentences or speak for at least few minutes on each photo so you can unpack deeper emotions that connect you.
To the extent you feel inspired to do so, leave a comment below to let me know of some of your sources of meaning in life, you can be helping all of us recognize sources we may have taken for granted. 😊
With that, I want to thank you for reading this longer-than-anticipated letter and hope you live life according to what you truly value. Life of meaning, creativity, and serving those you love.
Have a Super Sunday! 💪
Markman, Proulx, & Lindberg, 2013
Login & Crystal, 2016
Amit Kumar, 2020