Man walking with freedom

“Man, a being in search of meaning.”

On our travels around the world, we’ve encountered many people who have told us that they felt something was missing in their lives and that they felt overwhelmed, lonely and unfulfilled. A pessimistic air seems to have engulfed our world, with increased levels of stress due to unemployment or job insecurity, financial hardship, health and relationship issues. Today, we see that despite being in an increasingly networked and connected world via technology, too many people feel disconnected from and untrusting of others—neighbours, co-workers, leaders—and, perhaps most importantly, from themselves.

Unsure of where to turn for solutions, many seek to ‘escape’ through addictions: television, sex, food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, the Internet, etc. Left unchecked, these pursuits can turn into a vicious, downward cycle and manifest themselves as an endless and joyless undertaking—much like the one experienced by the Greek hero Sisyphus, who was ordered by the gods to push a big rock uphill, only to see it slip out of his hands at the very last moment and roll down the hill once more.

Is happiness the answer?

Some say the solution is to seek happiness. “Just find something that will make you happy” is the advice we hear often. But what does this really mean? Does it mean a person should find something to make them happy in the moment, perhaps distracting themselves from the reality of their life? Although this approach might provide temporary reprieve, we believe that life is not about the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not the ultimate goal of life. Happiness is an emotion that is linked to pleasure but it is fleeting; it doesn’t last.

We can share a happy moment when we are enjoying a good meal or a good laugh with a friend, but this emotion only lasts a short time. Believing that happiness will relieve us from our anxiety and stress is misguided. What happens when life throws us a curve, when things don’t go well, when we face suffering, illness, or death? What happens when our ability to make sense of life is challenged? The pursuit of happiness will not necessarily help us in these difficult times, nor will it bring us the deep sense of fulfillment we are all looking for in life.

Christopher Reeve after the accident
Superman in reel and real life—Christopher Reeve after the accident; here he discusses the potential benefits of stem cell research at a neuroscience conference at MIT. Pic: Mike Lin

Christopher Reeve, known all over the world for his leading role in Superman, had a bright acting career and a life filled with unlimited possibilities ahead of him. He was thrown from a horse in a tragic accident that broke his neck, and he was challenged to make new sense of his life as a quadriplegic. An inspirational role model for others, Reeve proved to be a real Superman after his accident, not because he chose to pursue happiness as his ultimate goal, but because he searched for something much deeper—the “strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Moreover, in spite of having been thrown a curve by life, Reeve not only survived but also thrived in his remaining years by fighting for himself, for his family, and for thousands of people with spinal cord injuries around the world. By engaging with a deeper purpose and extending beyond himself, this real-life Superman found happiness not by pursuing it but by allowing it to ensue as the unintended side-effect of his dedication to a cause greater than himself.

Is it power we want?

Some believe the solution is to seek power over our lives and the lives of others. Power is about being strong and dominant, having [or trying to have] control over other people, events, or things in our environment. Ultimately, though, the pursuit of power leads to emptiness because power over others, and even most of our personal circumstances, is actually an illusion. Power is an exhausting game to play and, like pleasure, it is fleeting and always subject to unforeseen forces. In this connection, the search for power also becomes an endless and joyless undertaking.

The search for power in our lives is parallel to our search for happiness and pleasure. For the most part, it too is ‘out there.’ Power over our employees, our bosses, our customers, our shareholders, our kids, the waiter in a restaurant, or a clerk in a retail store is illusory at best and terribly destructive at worst. We think we have power, but we never know for sure. Even if we do, in the power game there’s always an opponent; the ground is always shifting. Just ask the parents of teenagers who, even with the best of intentions, find that parental guidance is much easier said than done! Indeed, with parenting comes the realisation that the search for ‘power’ over children is an exhausting, ever-shifting game!

Power is an exhausting game to play and, like pleasure, it is fleeting and always subject to unforeseen forces

What about money?

The pursuit of power through monetary wealth is also an illusion, one that often leads to unintended consequences. We have all heard people express the idea that more wealth will bring them meaning and fulfillment. “If only I had more money.” “If only I had a bigger house.” “If only I had a first class ticket.” We’ve been conditioned to believe that these are authentic symbols of success—the more the better. Having money and material things has become the end goal for many people because they can count it, keep score, and use it to compare themselves to others. Living the ‘good life’ seems to be just one thing away.

Man with his head down in front of coins
We use money to keep score and compare ourselves with others

But when we don’t look the way we think we should or if we don’t have the same [or greater] amount of wealth or abundance of things as others do, we trap ourselves into thinking that it is we who are not enough. In other words, we become “prisoners of our thoughts.” Unfortunately, such feelings of inadequacy and the relentless pursuit of trying to overcome them typically lead to increased stress, and often depression.

The costs, whether intended or unintended, obvious or hidden, of the hunt for more power and money, which effectively is a primitive form of the search for power, are staggering. We postpone finding and experiencing deep meaning in our lives when we are so busy seeking and trying to get ‘more’. We ignore our relationships while we focus on accumulating more; we overlook our health in our chase for more. Interestingly, the results of many research studies have shown that once we achieve a certain level of wealth, enough to cover the basics of life, any increase in new wealth does not necessarily result in a lot more satisfaction, especially lasting satisfaction. In other words, doubling our money won’t bring about a doubling of meaning in our lives.

It’s not about happiness or power, it’s about meaning

Dr Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl. Pic:CC BY-SA 3.0 DE by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

We strongly believe that the overall goal of our lives is to live a meaningful life, which is really what the ancient Greek philosophers referred to as the ‘good life’. In this context, world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, famously espoused that the search for meaning is the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings. Importantly, Dr Frankl also advised that we don’t really create meaning—we find it. And we can’t find it if we don’t look for it.

Many people refer to Aristotle as one of the first to say that the goal of life is happiness because of his reference to the Greek word ‘evdemonia’. Unfortunately, they are making an error in the translation and interpretation of this important Greek word and concept believing that it means ‘happiness’ in English [1]. “Evdemonia demands not only complete goodness but a complete life,” professed Aristotle. He believed that evdemonia could be achieved through the proper development of our highest potential as human beings, which involves knowing ourselves, developing virtue and character, taking right action, and going beyond ourselves to help others. True evdemonia—being deeply fulfilled by living a meaningful life—is measured not at the surface of our being but deep within our soul. So you can see, meaning is much deeper, expansive, and transformative than just the pursuit of happiness, power, or money/wealth!

Applying meaning to everyday life

Only the search for meaning holds the potential to bring the kind of authentic enrichment and fulfillment that most people desire in their personal and work lives. So how do we apply the concept of meaning in our everyday lives and work?

Woman looking through the window
By reflecting upon our existence, we create the opportunity to draft our personal legacy

FIRST, we should underscore that it’s not about the big existential question, “what is the meaning of life”. Rather, it is the search for meaning in your own life that is most important. Meaning comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looms big in our life; sometimes it slips in almost unobserved. In short, meaning is different for everyone—there is no one right answer—there is only the answer that is right for you.

We cannot answer the big question unless we discover answers to the smaller ones: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What do our lives mean to us? What does our work mean? Every day our lives are rich with meaningful answers, but only if we stop long enough to appreciate meaning will it bloom in our lives. By reflecting upon our existence and seeking to detect the meaning of life’s moments, we also create the opportunity to draft our personal legacy. In other words, how do we want to be remembered?

SECOND, meaning always exists and therefore can be found in the everyday moments of our lives, so there doesn’t have to be just one answer to the question on how to find it. However, it’s up to us to detect the meaning of the experiences we have each day. Another ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, wisely advised that it’s not the event but the meaning you put to it that matters most. What’s more, meaning can be found even in situations that do not bring us happiness or power. Viktor Frankl was convinced that, in the final analysis, “there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning.” So, find the seeds of meaning in all that happens to you today.

THIRD, it is important to define the concept of meaning. Some people define meaning in terms of feeling that your life matters while others define meaning in terms of extending beyond yourself to serve something bigger than yourself. We go beyond these types of definitions to offer a simpler, more metaphysical definition:

Meaning is the connection to your true nature or, as we call it, your core essence.

Meaning comes with being ‘who’ we are in this world. When you believe something is meaningful, it is because it resonates with your true nature or core essence. When you believe something lacks meaning or is meaningless, it is because it does not resonate with your true nature or core essence.

It is the search for meaning in your own life that is most important

In a metaphysical way, your life involves the continual search for a closer connection
to your true nature or core essence, throughout each day and over the course
of your entire life.

Every living thing in the world has a natural state and qualities or attributes that make it who or what it is. Our core essence is what defines us and is at the heart of what makes us a unique human being. Although we can belong to a certain group and share characteristics of that group, we are still a unique being with our own unique essence.

The greatest challenge we face is to discover and embrace our core essence. Many people tend to focus on what type of job or career they think they should have, where they should live, or with whom they should have relationships. But, in actuality, a truly meaningful life starts from, remains engaged with, and ultimately returns to, one’s core essence—awakening our true selves by connecting to whom we really are. As Euripides, an ancient Greek playwright proposed thousands of years ago, “there is one life for each of us; our own.”

The search for, the discovery of, and the connection with our true nature or core essence are what gives our lives meaning every day.

FOURTH, it is important to understand how meaning can infiltrate and therefore affect many parts of our lives on a daily basis. Fundamentally, we believe that meaning should be at the core of all that we do, each day. In order to live a complete life, we must understand what brings us meaning in our lives and what drains meaning from our lives. When we know this, all things become clearer. We come to know and feel more confident in our decisions and direction, and we also notice more energy flowing to and through us to others. In other words, we are no longer working against the flow of who we really are.

The greatest challenge we face is to discover and embrace our core essence

Meaning leads to engagement and resilience

To be engaged means to be involved with and connected to a certain activity, to the people who surround you, or more metaphysically, to your true nature or core essence. Conversely, to be disengaged means to be disconnected from the activity, other people, and/or your true nature.

In many workplaces around the world, leaders complain about people with whom they work as being disengaged from and disinterested in the work they are doing and in other people. Metaphorically-speaking, we’ve been invited as advisers to workplaces where, like a scene from the M. Night Shyamalan supernatural film, The Sixth Sense, “we’ve seen dead people!” Although there are leaders who have attempted to implement so-called ‘engagement programmes’ in their organisations, more often than not, these programmes fail because they do not address the real underlying issue: the lack of connection to the true meaning of the work. Employees want to feel that their work matters to them and to others [co-workers, customers, citizens, and the broader society]. Employees also want to challenge themselves to discover new sides of themselves, to discover new talents, new viewpoints.

In a broader sense, we are also witnessing a lack of engagement in our neighbourhoods, villages, cities, and societies as a whole. People tell us that they want to connect meaningfully with others. Yet, we are finding that people feel lonelier than ever before and, sadly, share that they feel that they have very few people with whom to talk openly and share their ‘real lives.’ We’ve found that the more time people spend interacting with their electronic devices, the less time they spend in face-to-face contact with others and the lonelier they feel. Aristotle wisely espoused that “man is a political animal,” which means that we find meaning in interacting face-to-face with others and in knowing that we are not alone. We must remember that our relationships and our villages are built one conversation at a time, so we must remain vigilant and make the effort to counterbalance all the potentially false connections made online in the ‘virtual’ world!

 Employees want to feel that their work matters to them and to others

To be resilient means to be flexible, capable of adapting to and quickly recovering from difficulties or change. The nature of life is change but we often resist this fact of life, wanting things to remain the same, trying to design and control our lives so that change does not happen. But the status quo is yet another illusion because even if we want to stand still, everyone and everything else around us is changing. Indeed, there is a saying, “If you want things to stay the same, then something is going to have to change!” Life cannot be pre-programmed, for it flows like a river, twisting and turning, changing at different rates, sometimes appearing more stable, while at other times, tossing us around in the turbulent rapids. We can try our best to hold onto the sides of the river of life to resist the flow, dreading or fearing change but, in the end, we know that life requires us to surrender to the forward motion and “go with the flow!”

From our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, which was written at the personal urging of Viktor Frankl, we highlight a number of techniques to help you find meaning and build resilience on a daily basis:

  1. Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude: Even though you cannot determine or control all the circumstances or events that you experience in your life, in all situations, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude toward them. Searching for the meaning in the situation helps you make sense of it and helps you build the resilience for the changes you may now need to make as a result. For instance, perhaps you were faced with a difficult relationship with a family member or friend, or were facing a difficult boss or co-worker. What was your attitude at first toward the situation? How did your attitude change? What, if anything, did you actually do about changing your attitude? As you think about the situation now, what did you learn from it? What could you have done differently?
  2. Shift your focus of attention and look at yourself from a distance: To find the deeper meaning of any given problem or life challenge, deflect your attention from the situation at hand to something else, preferably to something positive, in order to build your coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and change. Moreover, since only human beings possess the capacity to look at themselves from a distance, you have the resilience building option of viewing the situation at hand with a sense of perspective, even with a sense of humour, in order to ensure that you don’t become imprisoned by your thoughts and allow the situation to effectively crush your spirit.
    As an example, Viktor Frankl frequently found himself shifting his focus of attention and looking at himself from a distance during his imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps. Often, as a means of survival, he kept himself going by imagining himself as an observer rather than as a prisoner. This kind of creative distraction or ‘mental excursion’ as a means to build resilience and find meaning in life’s inescapable predicaments and hardships was also used by the Italian film producer and actor, Roberto Benigni, in his internationally-acclaimed, Academy Award-winning movie, Life is Beautiful. In this film, Benigni shares his sentimental tale about a man trying to shield his son from the horrors of the Holocaust, which was based on his own father’s two-year ordeal in a Nazi labour camp.Invoking the power of our imagination, including seizing on various fantasies, is a meaningful way to fight off despair and hopelessness no matter what our personal circumstances. Our ability to detach from the distress and focus imaginatively on something that pleases us can return us to our freedom and to our source of authentic meaning.
  3. Don’t work against yourself: Often we are our own worst enemy. Although we may say we want something, all our actions and words often support the very opposite. Put differently, have you ever worked so hard at something that the more you tried, the harder the task became and the farther away you seemed to get from your goal? You know, one step forward, two steps backward? In this regard, especially when the stakes are high and our success essential, focusing on the results rather than on the process can prevent a successful outcome. Avoid becoming so fixated on an intent or outcome that you actually work against the desired result. Viktor Frankl called this “paradoxical intention”—our good intentions actually become the cause of our failure. So how might you use the notion of paradoxical intention in your own life?
    Recall a situation in your personal or work life in which the harder you worked to achieve an outcome, the farther away you seemed to be from your goal. Perhaps you were trying to develop a romantic relationship or a close friendship with another person. Perhaps you were seeking a promotion or were trying to get a creative idea or project approved by your boss. How did you first come to recognise that you were not making progress? How did you rationalise or justify your dilemma? To what extent, if any, did you think that you were partly to blame? What, if anything, did you actually do about it? Looking back, what did you learn from the situation and what could you have done [and would now do] differently?

Often we are our own worst enemy. Although we may say we want something, all our actions and words often support the very opposite

Meaning leads to wellbeing and health

Woman jogging
Health and wellbeing must start from the core of meaning

Many illnesses are the result of stress and anxiety which, when left untreated, start to negatively affect the body, as well as the mind and spirit. One of the challenges of modern medicine is that we often treat the symptoms of an illness but fail to address its root cause[s]. For various reasons, physicians today have little time to see each patient and even less time to ask about lifestyle or stress and the broader connection between the patient’s spirit, mind, and body. Instead, more often than not, they are forced to focus primarily on relieving symptoms and managing diseases quickly through drugs or surgery.

The vast majority of our health care budgets are spent on treatment versus prevention. If stage I is being healthy, stage II is having stress and blocked energy, and stage III is illness, most people wait until they are in stage III to react and then want quick fixes for their illnesses. If we focussed on the prevention of illness and, in particular, on stages I and II, we would not only be healthier [individually and as nations], we would save billions in health care costs. Just as we actively prevent car accidents by encouraging people to take driver’s education classes, and just as we brush our teeth to prevent cavities, we can learn to take a more proactive approach to our general health and well-being by focusing on the prevention of illness.

Plato wisely said, “the part can not be well unless the whole is well.” Health and wellbeing must start from the core of meaning. When we are engaged in meaningful activities that we enjoy, when we feel that we matter, and when we tap into our optimistic, positive spirit, energy can freely flow within us, through us, and to others. Conversely, when we are engaged in activities that are meaningless to us, when we feel that we are not living authentically, or when we are overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, we lack the connection to our true essence and, therefore, suffer from a lack or void of meaning. Energy ceases to flow smoothly and energy blockages can eventually show up in some form of illness or disease. Everything, as Plato wisely said, is interconnected. Meaning gives energy and power to our desires and intentions and, as a consequence, helps us live healthier, more holistic lives.

The vast majority of our health care budgets are spent on treatment versus prevention

Meaning leads to performance and innovation

Often leaders and managers will ask for higher levels of performance, creativity, and innovation from their team members. Often these requests are ignored or discounted by employees, already feeling that they are contributing more than their fair share and perhaps suffering from high levels of ‘burnout’. Even if some employees have good intentions, often they feel that they just can’t do any more than they are already doing.

People want opportunities at work to express their creativity and to be appreciated for their creative contributions. Importantly, they also want to express who they truly are and who they want to become. In their work lives, they don’t want to have to leave their spirit at the front door in order to ‘fit in’ and, as a result, possibly lose their identity, sense of self-worth, and humanity. In short, they want to make a living but, at the same time, they also want to make a life. If leaders understood the ‘Core of Meaning’ concept with its implications for performance and innovation, workplaces would not only be much more productive and innovative but also more engaging, enjoyable and meaningful.

FIFTH, join the meaning movement!

Woman at inner peaceFinding meaning in everyday life is an ongoing process, one that demands attention to both intrapersonal and interpersonal needs. Moreover, the human quest for meaning, even though it has been a formidable, existential challenge since the very beginning of our species, is now a megatrend whose time has come. In large part, it represents a shift in consciousness, a heightened awareness that life is calling out to us and we are responsible for answering life’s call.

It is significant to note that we are seeing people in all stages and walks of life paying increasing attention to the quest for personal meaning. This is an especially healthy and positive development when considered in the context of the dysfunctional symptoms, stress-related illnesses, and existential angst in the today’s fast-changing, complex and uncertain world.

Against this backdrop, we invite you to join us in the Meaning Movement by encouraging everyone around the world, including yourself, to live and work from the “Core of Meaning.” Meaning is the life energy or fuel that motivates us to achieve our highest potential as human beings. In fact, meaning is an integral part of our innate humanness, and it is the search for meaning, our primary intrinsic motivation, that distinguishes us from other living entities. As explained in our book, The OPA! Way, we strongly believe that our connections with others, our engagement with deeper purpose, and our ability to face all the ups and downs of life with a resilient attitude, are the key elements and determinants of living a meaningful life. Just imagine how much more joy and meaning there would be in the world if everyone lived from a closer connection to their true nature or core essence. The search for meaning begins with you!

[1] Evdemonia, which is frequently misspelled phonetically from the Greek language as “eudaimonia” or “eudemonia” in English, is much more complex and holistic a notion. Aristotle was actually referring to the deeper concept of “having good demons or spirits” in the literal sense of the word or feeling deeply fulfilled by knowing that one’s life has meaning. Some people try to define or refer to evdemonia with words like flourishing but such descriptors are still too limited and do not give the concept true justice. Plants or animals can flourish whereas the concept of evdemonia involves such personal attributes as deep reflection, reasoning, and good actions.

A version of this was first published in the November 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Alex Pattakos
Dr Alex Pattakos, PhD, is cofounder of the Global Meaning Institute with offices in the United States, Canada, and Greece. His unique background includes being a mental health administrator, professor of public and business administration, consultant with the White House, and advisor to the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. He is also the coauthor with Elaine Dundon of The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work. As a leader of the Meaning Movement, he is focused on helping others find meaning in life, work, and society.
Elaine Dundon
Elaine Dundon, MBA, is the cofounder of the Global Meaning Institute. She is passionate about helping people find meaning in their personal and work lives, as well as helping organizations create meaning-centered workplaces to deliver products and services that truly make a meaningful difference. She began her career in brand management at Procter & Gamble. A thought leader in the field of personal and organizational innovation, she authored the best-selling book The Seeds of Innovation and created the groundbreaking course on innovation management at the University of Toronto. Her work evolved to the "human side of innovation," incorporating meaning, leadership, philosophy, and metaphysics to help people and organizations reach their full potential.