How to Build a Meaningful Life – Part 1 (Waking Up)
Waking up to Why We Live the Way We Do
Have you ever stopped and looked at your life?
When we do this a lot of times we realize that we`ve ended up in a place we never expected to be.
Growing up, we followed our parent’s directions. We did well at one or two subjects in school and maybe a teacher recommended what to study in university. Our friends and colleague’s interests influenced us a bit. But somewhere along the way we probably just took the best job available and never looked back.
We chased money, relationships, or adventures. Or if you’re like me, all 3.
We got on a path and whether we decided to or not we started living according to a “life philosophy”.
We didn’t pick our “purpose”. We kind of fell into one.
And that “purpose” or “life philosophy” may or may not be one that we wanted.
I’ve personally lived according to various life philosophies over the years.
Looking back, it’s easy to laugh and say “What the hell was I thinking?”
But herein lies the issue. I wasn’t thinking. I was just doing, unconsciously.
Talking with friends and just looking around it seems that living unconsciously is actually really common these days.
It’s just so easy to go through life half asleep…
The First Step to Waking Up: Identify Unconscious Behaviour
There are a handful of common unconscious life philosophies or purposes that a lot of us live by (I’ve counted 13).
As a first step, I thought it was important to look closely at some of them and see if we identify.
Some of these philosophies are probably healthier than others.
That being said, it’s doesn’t make sense to judge our life choices or the choices of others. We all just do the best we can, with the information we have, at the time that we do it.
I’ve lived a lot of these philosophies at different times in my life. Most strongly (2, 3, 7 and 9) but also (1, 6, 8, 10, 11 and 12).
I have friends who are living others. You might be living one or a couple of them right now.
This article is part 1 of 3.
The purpose of this first article is to help you look at your current life, and see if you identify with any of the common philosophies.
And to ask one simple question…
“If I consciously look at the way I live today VERSUS what I believe and value; do I choose to continue living this way? Does my life make sense for me?”
Later, in parts 2 and 3.
We’ll begin to think about what our life might look like if we built a new one from scratch. We’ll dive deeper into our true values and beliefs and look at practical solutions for building a meaningful life.
The 13 Life Philosophies That Keep Us from Living a Meaningful Life
The “Keeping up with the Jones” Philosophy
Otherwise known as the “You’re not quite good enough, yet. But don’t worry, you’re one upgrade away from making it philosophy.”
This is a pretty common philosophy for those of us from the western world.
The Marketing/Consumerism complex has been preaching to us since childhood with endless commercials hinting that all we need to do is use product X or be part of club membership Y and we’ll finally be happier, or better looking, or cooler, or have nicer smelling armpits.
Essentially this philosophy tells us that we should hustle to make more money, and spend that money on continually upgrading our “lifestyle” or “quality of life”. Which in this case is loosely defined by the “quality” of the things we have and do. Even though actual “quality of life” is an extraordinarily subjective experience; this philosophy tells us that the key to happiness is looking, feeling, and being better than or at least equal to those around us and doing it through consumerism.
There is urgency because other people are upgrading their lifestyles constantly so if you want to attract the mate of yours dreams, or have the life you’ve always wanted, or not have the shame of being the family with the shittiest car on the block, you better get going because what you have right now isn’t enough.
This applies to your possessions, where you vacation, the size of your home, your job title. Anything and everything should be upgraded as often as possible.
Don’t you know that your favorite celebrity drives Car X? Wouldn’t it be cool if you had the same car?
Hey, don’t you know that if you wear cologne A, clothes brand B, and shoe type C that people will like you and want to have sex with you?
A bigger apartment in a more prestigious neighborhood is really what’s missing from your life, and when you have it everything will finally be better.
A more important sounding job will help relieve that feeling of inadequacy that you have. People respect a “regional XYZ manager of important sounding company division” or an “entrepreneur”.
This philosophy has only intensified in the age of social media as you are now competing with the “best” of everyone else.
- photos of their new leased car
- awesome vacation paid for on credit card
- some made up linked in job title
and not their real lives.
The issue with this philosophy is that no matter how many things you buy or upgrade the cycle never ends. There will always be someone with more. Companies will always create more expensive products that you just can’t quite yet afford. That’s why it’s such an easy philosophy to fall into and never get out of. It’s a philosophy designed to keep you chasing something more, promising a feeling of satisfaction that can never be fulfilled.
It’s a hedonic treadmill and the only way to stop it is to get off. Really, the only way to win is to not play.
Or you can just listen to my man from back in 1999, Tyler Durden in Fight Club.
“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
The “You Only Live Once / I Want to Do It All before I Die” Philosophy
I’m not collecting “things” like all those Jones people. I’m collecting experiences. Stamps on my passport. Let’s go… what’s next? No, I can’t sit still…
It could be as simple as trying out the new sushi restaurant in town, or as elaborate as flying to Malaysia to scuba dive at Sipadan Island.
We constantly want to know and experience new stuff.
We don’t like to have FOMO (fear of missing out). It knaws at us.
We make bucket lists.
Even if we haven’t written it down, most of us have one.
Some of us (like me between 2009 and 2012) take their bucket list to the extreme.
Climb the highest mountains. Scuba dive the most beautiful coral reefs. Jump from airplanes. Visit 50 countries. Ride motorcycles. Eat at the best restaurants. Go to the biggest clubs and parties.
Whatever is new, bigger, better, more extreme, more beautiful, more anything we want to experience it.
Because why not. You only live once.
However, the reality is that we will never experience everything. It’s literally impossible to experience even 0.001% of everything. And trying to do it eventually leads to more anxiety than enjoyment.
Remember FOMO. (FEAR of missing out).
In addition, if we are constantly trying to do more or always looking to experience something new we can never be content with what we currently have or do.
“Maybe I don’t want to be content with what I have. New is exciting. And I like excitement.”
That may be true. I believe it’s important to travel, to see new things, to date many people, and to have a variety of experiences to draw upon. However, after some time if those new experiences are more surface level they eventually stop adding value to your life.
Do you really need to eat at the 5th new sushi spot that just opened up in your city?
You’ve been to Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Is going to Nicaragua really going to add that much to your knowledge of Latin American culture?
How many one night stands are enough?
When you have a girlfriend, you want to be single. When you’re single, you want a girlfriend. Now you’ve got a girlfriend again, shit, that means you can’t travel with your buddies to Budapest this summer. And you really wanted to go to Budapest this summer.
I certainly don’t have any problem with doing new things.
However, there is a diminishing return to the value of doing new things if those things are similar to previous experiences or inherently shallow.
Side note: A constant need to do newer, bigger, better things may also be seen as an extension of the “Keeping up with the Jones” philosophy. Are you doing those things to actually experience them? Or is taking a photo and posting it on Facebook the goal?
Having many shallow experiences can start you off with a nice big picture view of the world. However, what might be interesting and potentially more satisfying in the long run is that after you attain this big picture view to choose a couple of areas of interest and go deeper with them. In going deep, we might even find that we discover more new and novel things than going wide and shallow.
The “Die with as Much Money as You Can” Philosophy
Or “The Deferred Life Plan Philosophy”
This is kind of an interesting philosophy because it seems very responsible and grown up.
You always defer enjoying the present moment for the future good.
You study hard now to get a good job later.
You take a job that pays the best and has the most potential for promotion.
You work hard and build skills to help you move up in the company.
You start a business because you see good long-term profit potential.
You treat your personal expenses like your business Profit & Loss statement. Cut, cut, cut.
Your time and money are invested, not spent. You cut out all unnecessary costs from your life. You commit 16 hours per day to your job or business.
Every decision is quantified in money.
Why would I take a vacation? That’s both a direct cost of several thousand dollars and a week of missed opportunities to grow my business. I’m not retarded.
Why would I spend money on myself or my family? That money could be a down payment on a new rental property that will return 1% month on month.
You invest all profits. You analyze your options and invest in either your business, training, the stock market, real estate. You invest in whatever looks like it will give the best long-term ROI.
You minimize taxes and fees.
You may take risks if the potential reward dictates it. You may play it safe.
But either way, you keep doing this.
Everything is a means to an end. Every purchase, every partnership, every product, every person that enters your life is seen only in terms of what they can do for you, not what they are…
You minimize, you maximize, you optimize…
And then you die.
Wait, that wasn’t the plan. There was supposed to be a retirement in there somewhere.
This seems to be the issue with this philosophy. There was supposed to be a retirement. That time when you finally could enjoy the fruits of your labor. That light at the end of the tunnel…
Usually, the best-case scenario is that after you’ve been looking to the future for so long, that when it finally came time to retire it was difficult to enjoy. So, you went back to work as a contractor. You opened another business.
However, the more likely scenario is that you didn’t save enough to ever get there.
Either way, a happy ending is unlikely here.
The “I’m a Victim of Circumstance” Philosophy
According to this philosophy something I’m not responsible for happened in the past or is happening right now and it’s totally screwing up my life.
I’m pissed because my father didn’t let me study what I wanted to at University and now I work at a miserable bank.
I might have been a pro athlete if I had known back then how to train properly. I had the work ethic. Why were my coaches so shitty?
The government needs to create more jobs. Don’t they realize how tough it is out here.
No matter what happens I continually find ways to not be responsible for my life situation, or even be responsible for my demeanor at this moment.
I love to keep blaming other people, and other circumstances. It’s just so much easier than taking responsibility.
What’s even better, when two people with this philosophy get together they have a fantastic time complaining together about everything and everyone that isn’t them. The government, rich people, poor people, immigrants, locals, men, women etc. are all the reason their lives suck. Groups of these people can form some of the biggest plagues on society.
People who live by this philosophy conveniently forget that by they are committing a logical error. If they are not responsible for their lives, then the people they are blaming for their situation also cannot be responsible for what they did either, and shouldn’t be blamed. You can’t have it both ways.
This philosophy is usually accompanied by a constant low-grade anxiety, irritation, boredom or anger and a need to avoid the experience of the present moment.
Common escapes include: Burying my face in that tub of ice-cream, binge watching television series, drinking a shitload of alcohol every weekend, writing hateful shit on the internet, or working my ass off 16 hours a day without ever picking my head up.
There isn’t really any silver lining to this philosophy. It’s just a self-imposed hell.
The “Life Is a River and I’m Just Going to Float until I Hit a Waterfall” Philosophy
This is a fate based philosophy which gives up all control of our lives.
However, it is a little different than #4.
It says life is something that happens to us and I’m just going to go with the flow until the end.
It’s true that we have little control over a lot of what happens. Particularly what happens with other people, society and the world as a whole. If seen in a positive light this can actually be a pretty liberating philosophy.
We can accept everything as it is and just go with it.
The only thing I want to comment on, however, is let’s not forget that we do have a lot of control over some things. For example, our emotions, our thoughts, and our actions.
And usually we can use our emotions, thoughts and actions to point ourselves in a certain direction in life. There are many things that we don’t control, but our chosen behaviors do have a huge impact on our overall trajectory, as well as maybe avoiding a waterfall or two.
I find Stoic philosophy extremely useful here. The stoics draw a very clear line between things we control and things we don’t control. They believe that thinking about and acting on those things we do control is an important aspect of life. Completely forgetting about and being unreactive to those things we don’t control is an equally important aspect.
The “Health Nut / Live as Long as Possible” Philosophy
This philosophy is about health and life extension. The idea being that living as long as possible is the most important goal of life.
This is a little different than people who are obsessed with the gym for aesthetic reasons or who train for a sport or competition. A lot of the time those people are living an extension of philosophy #1, “Keeping up with the Jones”. Instead of showing off material wealth they show off their bodies or accomplishments.
The “live as long as possible” philosophy is more likely to include an obsession of jumping from fad to fad diet and workouts. Eating the currently scientifically accepted perfect macronutrient ratio. Daily servings of veggie powder/anti-oxidant/cancer killing drinks. Meals timed to optimize growth hormone release and minimize insulin resistance.
- Cleanses and fasting.
- A need to always be on the cutting edge of health.
- Blood tests, hormone manipulation, anti-aging drugs, steroids, cryotherapy.
- Saying no to birthday cakes. Missing a night out with friends because you won’t get your solid 8 hours.
“You know that every hour you sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight, right?”
- Packed lunches to eat in restaurants and at relative´s homes.
- Many experiences missed or delayed to avoid screwing up your perfect routine or your current progress.
- An obsessive, compulsive relationship with food.
Meanwhile, at the end of the game the king and the pawn go back to the same box.
We all know how this thing ends.
Is maximizing the number of years we have on this planet a worthwhile goal?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I mean we know that we’re going to die. Is it better to live 70 years doing all kinds of crazy shit? 100 years having a balance? 120 years missing out on all kinds of stuff?
The “Self-Development Junkie / I Will Be a God on Earth” Philosophy
As a self-development junkie, I take becoming the best version of myself to a whole new level.
I love motivational quotes and videos.
I visualize my future every morning and tell myself positive affirmations in the mirror.
I do dream projecting and vision boards.
I set goals and achieve them. I’m results oriented.
Every aspect of life is a skill to be mastered.
Maybe I’ve been to a Tony Robbins seminar.
I’ve definitely bought a Jim Rohn or Zig Ziglar audiobook.
I might work a regular job but it’s not my long-term plan to keep it. You’ve heard of pre-med. Well, I’m pre-millionaire.
I like to think about the day I will find my niche firing people up on stage.
Maybe I’ll succeed in a multi-level marketing gig, or with my own blog, YouTube channel, or book writing career.
Maybe I can be a life coach?
Although most self-development junkies are just dreamers and dabblers. Some actually go on to become real demi-god’s. Is this a good thing?
Well, as self-development junkies, we continually develop ourselves in terms of health, wealth, relationships, and intelligence.
That seems good. Let’s examine further.
Each demi-god has their own preferred skill development area. Some are more health oriented, others focus more on relationships, etc.
However, they almost all started out being motivated by a particularly massive childhood pain.
Whether I was:
- The fat kid
- The dumb kid
- The poor dirty kid, or
- The loser with girls.
There was a massive pain that needed to be fixed and I developed an “I’ll show them” mentality.
I searched for a way to make my pain stop and found some book, program, or person teaching self-development principles as a solution.
It sounded reasonable so I busted my ass and worked hard work for a few years. Now, I’m an adult and I can finally say “Look at me now.”
- The bodybuilder.
- The pickup artist.
- The corporate sales machine.
I got started off in self-development as a way to fill my childhood pain but I soon realized that the principles could be applied to all areas of my life. Now instead of just six-pack abs or a wicked sense of humor I’m working on all areas. Health, wealth, relationships, and intelligence.
To the outside world I appear wildly successful. But inside I’m constantly depressed from my lack of progress. I’m constantly unsatisfied. I want to be more. I want to reach my potential. And I never will.
The problem is that the constant need for development stems from a deep-rooted feeling of inadequacy. I was born incomplete and I’m trying to complete myself through development to finally be enough.
We chase that perfect body, that perfect relationship.
We think that reading one more book, taking one more training seminar, adding one more workout session to our already packed week will finally be the thing that puts us over the top.
It will never be enough. We’re chasing the horizon. It’s the same problem as the Jones.
When you come from a place of lack there’s no filling it. The hole just gets deeper.
Eventually the problem changes because we accomplish the thing we thought that we always wanted and are still not satisfied.
I remember sitting on a beach in 2013 with everything I could possibly want. 27 years old, money, health, relationships, freedom. And thinking, “what the fuck is next?”
We can no longer say I’ll be happy when I get X because we got X and still found a way to be empty. So, then we think, “What the fuck is wrong with me?”
It seems like our paradigm of lack is what’s wrong.
However, what if we turn the script?
Rather than looking at ourselves as incomplete, we see ourselves as complete but with a bunch of crap caked on the outside that could be chiseled away. Things may get more interesting. Rather than trying to make up for your childhood pain, we can try stripping it away.
I go back to a memorable Fight Club quote. “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction…”
Self-destruction as a life philosophy is very interesting.
Buddhists believe that desire is the source of all suffering. Remove all desires, all the crap, and finally be enlightened.
Only when you’ve lost everything are you free to do anything.
It also makes sense from a physiological perspective. Most anxiety and low-grade irritation is simply ongoing chronic tension we hold in our bodies. We hold that tension from physical, and emotional traumas we’ve experienced through life.
If we go back and chip away at those traumas and remove the tensions, then we can remove the feeling of inadequacy rather than trying to cover it up with accomplishment…
The “Outsider” Philosophy
Giving society the middle finger sounds cool. Maybe it is.
If riding a motorcycle all over the world doing odd jobs here and there to feed yourself is the experience you want, that’s cool.
Moving to Bali, living for $5 a day in a hostel, and surfing for 10 years, also maybe cool.
Being a starving artist could be cool.
Getting out of “The Matrix” and doing your own thing could be the most liberating experience of your life.
But a “fuck the man”, “fuck corporations”, and all that talk just doesn’t seem healthy.
The people who work in “the system” are people just like you. We are all doing the best we can based on our life experiences so far.
If doing your own thing adds value to the rest of the world that would probably be ideal.
But if you say fuck it and do your own thing just because that’s what makes you happy, then that’s probably okay too.
The “Self-Made Man” Philosophy
Everything I have I’ve gotten for myself.
It’s me (or us) against the world.
And I’m going to win.
This is a highly individualistic and usually highly competitive philosophy that tends to view the world as a cold, hard place where you have to cut the throats of everyone around you and get your piece of the pie.
Some of us actually succeed to get pretty far in life with this mindset. However, getting far socially or monetarily isn’t necessarily the same as living a good life.
What’s important to remember here is that no matter how independent you are, no matter how much of a lone-wolf, or how self-made you are. There was a time when you were too small to survive on your own, and somebody fed you and loved you.
Every book you’ve read, all the knowledge you have, and the technologies you use are all based on the work of previous generations of people.
No matter how much you accomplish it will always pale in comparison to what the rest of human history has done. A history you are a part of.
Self-made is an illusion. The separation we feel may drive us to achieve sometimes. However, if you’ve developed the skills to “make it” as a self-made person you’d probably be doing even better by looking for win-win opportunities to cooperate and work with others.
Make the pie bigger for everyone rather than trying to cut a bigger piece for yourself.
The “Savior” Philosophy
This one is fucked up.
Hitler was a savior. He was a really bad one.
Savior’s feel like they’re making some sacrifice now, so that the world can be a better place in the long run.
If any of us are acting as saviors it’s probably on a smaller scale but still very dangerous.
Maybe you´re creating suffering for yourself, or maybe for someone else.
But at its core, the “savior” mentality is just another way for your ego to try and feel important.
Bigger scale savior fuckups:
- Human sacrifice
Smaller scale savior fuckups:
- Staying in a miserable relationship because your partner wouldn’t know what to do without you.
- Worrying about and trying to influence your children’s lives even though they’re already adults and can better direct their lives than you can.
- Working a job that drains every ounce of passion from your body so that you or your family have a brighter future.
The “Be Happy” Philosophy
The purpose of life is:
- To be happy.
- To be positive.
- To go with the flow.
Overall, I think positivity is really important.
Life is more fun when the cup is half full, rather than half empty.
The only caution would be to make sure the positivity/happiness comes from a genuine place. A place that simply values optimism and smiles. A place that doesn’t need anything in return.
A lot of times a constant desire to please others is rooted in a deep seeded feeling of inferiority to others, not genuine positivity.
Also, although low-grade irritation, boredom and anxiety cause diseases. It’s important to remember that negative emotions like acute anger can be highly useful. Acute stress is actually necessary for life and leads to growth.
Negative emotions can be natural responses that tell us “Hey, something isn’t right. Something’s got to change.” Which often motivate us to get something that needs to be done, done.
The “Overflowing Cup” Philosophy
This philosophy views the individual as a part of something bigger, but without the need to sacrifice himself for the whole.
“I produce, I take care of my needs, and then I contribute to others.”
This person takes care of their own personal needs first.
They don’t empty the cup, they fill it and let it overflow.
They focus on continual growth and contributing to humanity as a whole.
Humanity is viewed as one big organism and each person is a contributing cell.
Karma tends to be important.
“Whoever said money doesn’t buy happiness isn’t giving enough of it away.”
Personal growth is important as you too are one part of the whole, and any growth you make automatically contributes to all of humanity.
However, the contribution you can have when focusing on other people scales much greater and therefore your ultimate goal is in helping others to thrive and grow.
I idealized this philosophy for a long time.
It’s easier said than done.
But it sounds good in theory.
You produce, take care of and grow yourself, and you take care of and help others to grow.
Maybe contribution is the purpose of life. I’m not sure yet.
The “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing but I’ll Try and Figure It Out” Philosophy
I tried to be pretty extreme when describing some of the above life philosophies.
It’s unlikely that any of us are living one philosophy 100% of the time. A lot of us likely live some combination of these philosophies and it changes over the years.
It’s easy for example to live a combination of philosophies 1 & 3 or 2 & 8.
I’ve personally lived combinations of almost all of them at various times in my life. Mostly unconsciously. For that reason, I feel so strongly about them.
The idea here isn’t to judge ourselves for living any philosophy in particular. It’s simply to become conscious of what the hell we’re doing.
And to ask…
“If I consciously look at the way I live today VERSUS what I believe and value; do I choose to continue living this way? Does my life make sense for me?”
After asking this question we might conclude that all is well, and go about our day…
Or we might realize that something doesn’t feel right. Maybe we wake up a little bit.
If that’s the case we’ll ask…
What should I do now?
In Parts 2 and 3 we’ll explore that question. We’ll try to understand how to consciously build a meaningful life. A life based on our beliefs and values and at the same time being realistic about our current situation.
Is a meaningful life some combination of the above philosophies?
Will the life we build be “Perfect”?
However, we should be able to build “a really good life”. A life we choose. A life that seems to make sense based on our past experience, and the beliefs and values we’ve acquired so far.
Until part 2…
We’re all trying to figure out this “life” thing together. We all have our own experiences so I’d love to hear what you think.
What is a meaningful life to you?
If you want to share your thoughts on any of the philosophies above or any related ideas comment below, contact me here, or feel free to send me an email anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you haven’t signed up to the email list to receive the most up to date content from the site do that below.
Thanks for reading.