The Pursuit of Meaning

All people crave significance. We long for the assurance that our time on earth is inherently worth something. In pursuit of personal fulfillment, we live unconsciously, guided by ephemeral pleasures and sacrificing meaning for happiness. 

Ancient wisdom and modern wisdom tells us that the pursuit of meaning trumps the pursuit of happiness because it grants us deep purpose, which, in turn, grants the happiness we desire. Our vocation creates the means for how our growth unfolds, the medium where we craft a meaningful life. 

One does not arrive at an answer. Rather, life is an arduous process of peeling the layers of our hidden selves to uncover our truest nature. Only then, can we discover why we exist and build a life of significance. 

Our personal fulfillment demands the audacity to confront our own true nature. Our darkest truths may then transform us to realize the essence of our existence and our destiny. 

Happiness is transitory, but meaning is what we carry to the grave. Meaning is a more profound quest that gives us purpose beyond ephemeral pursuits of happiness and pleasure. This reality begs the question: why are we so busy chasing happiness? 

Perhaps it is the repetitive pursuit of happiness that directly contributes to the rise in depression and anxiety. Americans list happiness as their number one goal. Happiness is born out of an unquestioned obsession with proverbial pleasure and the $11 billion self-help industry. 45% of Americans set New Year’s resolutions around living happier lives.

The pursuit of happiness negatively affects well-being. It forces us to frantically chase fleeting desires – a pursuit that makes us feel inadequate. 

Its pursuit is rooted in toxic comparisons to others, a pyrrhic lust for status, and American consumerism. Americans are preoccupied by the aspirations for wealth, a desire for abundance and a quest for comfort over growth. Too many of us are stuck on the hedonistic treadmill, where desires rise with our income, resulting in no permanent gains in happiness. 

Why are we so unhappy?

Our search for the answer begins with Victor Frankel, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and a Holocaust survivor. From his experience in the concentration camps, Frankel called for a shift in our attitudes towards life. To ask what life expects from us instead of what we expect from life. To find our purpose through our response to life’s circumstances.

When we understand why we are alive, we can bear the difficulties of the arduous pursuit of significance. Its quest impels deep introspection and uncovers hidden quarters of the soul. Without growth, we atrophy into old age, chasing ephemeral pleasure and longing for the assurance of our own significance.

To borrow from John Gardner, “meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. ... You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

Rather than chasing happiness, we should aim for fulfillment. The answers rest between the lines of our distinct life experiences found through the gradual unpeeling of our deepest selves. The happiness we desire is a byproduct of our vocation and the meaning we create from it.  

Brooks, author of The Road to Character encourages us to choose a vocation that acknowledges our quest for meaning and serves community at large. Echoing Frankel, he instructs us to find what our circumstances are calling on us to do.

We construct meaning upon the marriage of our deepest gladness and the world’s profound needs.

Connect patterns from your younger years. What projects have brought you the most satisfaction? What were your childhood hobbies? What were your favorite school subjects?

New questions emerge as we mature: what would you do if you weren’t afraid? What pains are you willing to endure?

Frankel calls upon us to find work that marries the struggle of achievement with ideas inspired by our truest human nature. Where extensive joy intersects with the world’s deepest needs. Personal satisfaction is born from the seeds of service, grounded in our work dedication and community.  Meaning lies in the vocation we choose, the people we serve, and the sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Enduring personal fulfillment is not something we can buy or pursue directly. Instead, we cultivate it over time, through the journeys we choose, the pain, or the sacrifices that we surmount.

Through a progressive lifelong search and cultivation of meaning, we can attain the ethereal beauty of discovering our destiny and accomplishing the intrinsic success of a life well lived.