CREATING A MEANINGFUL LIFE

My cousin, Nauroz Arif, is an admirer of the Green Zone Philosophy. Since introducing it to his family a few years ago, they have regular Green Zone family meetings which they start with a discussion about our weekly Blog. His sons have grown older and developed a keen interest in philosophy and psychology, art and literature, so they want my opinion about Nihilism. Therefore, this Blog is dedicated to Nauroz and his wife, Nighat and their sons, Sarosh, Aazar and Rumi.

Nihilism is a philosophy that became popular in the last couple of centuries. A number of philosophers including Soren Kierkegaard, Frederick Nietzsche and Jean Paul Sartre played a significant role in the development of this philosophy. These philosophers challenged different religious traditions and declared, life is meaningless. I found it quite interesting that some existentialists believed that life is meaningless but not worthless.

            In my clinical practice, I have met many men and women who suffered from existential depression as they believed their life was meaningless. Through therapy, many were helped to discover their own unique meaning in life. I encourage them to read one of my essays titled, Creating a Meaningful Life, which is this week’s Blog. I hope Nauroz and his family find my essay thought provoking and meaningful.

CREATING A MEANINGFUL LIFE

In the last few years a number of people who struggled emotionally because of the meaninglessness of their life, came to our clinic to consult me as a psychotherapist. They did not suffer from any mental illness. They were not psychotic or clinically depressed. Their main complaint was,

 “My life is meaningless”

“I have no purpose in life”

“My life is not fulfilling”.

They wanted help in creating a meaningful life.

While I was working with these people in therapy I prepared a questionnaire and sent it to my friends and colleagues to find out how they discovered their meaning in life. I thought reading those responses might help and inspire our patients to create their own unique meaning in life. My questionnaire included the following four questions.

  1. Do you believe LIFE has meaning? If yes, what is it?
  2. Does YOUR LIFE have meaning? If yes, what makes it meaningful?
  3. Did you ever feel YOUR LIFE was meaningless? If yes, how did you make it meaningful?
  4. Do you consider yourself a religious, spiritual or a secular person? What is your philosophy of life?

I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic responses, which ranged from 5 lines to 5 paragraphs to 5 pages. Interestingly in the respondents there were more men than women and more secular than religious people. When I read all the responses, I realized that their answers could be divided in the following groups.

1.MEANINGFUL PERSONAL DREAMS

A number of respondents had personal goals, ambitions and dreams that made their life meaningful. As they followed their passions and dreams their life took a positive turn and made it more enjoyable. Some wanted to develop their fullest potential while others wanted to develop their artistic talents and create masterpieces. One respondent said, “One must live one’s life to the fullest…ensuring one is true to oneself first and foremost…” One artist responded, “Until I have created my ‘masterpiece’ there will be a void, but perhaps that is the pursuit of many artists.” A writer stated, “I read books, I write books, which makes life very meaningful.” Another respondent quoted George Eliot who said, “It is never too late to become what you might have been.”

2.MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS

There were a number of respondents who found meaning in their emotional bonds. For them their friends, sweethearts, spouses, colleagues and relatives enriched their lives. One mother said, “My children make my life meaningful…” For many, loving relationships were a source of meaning in their lives. One respondent stated, “What makes life meaningful is the fact that I have a family, have children, grandchildren, friends, relatives….

3.MEANINGFUL SERVICE TO HUMANITY

There were a large number of respondents who believed that serving other human beings made their life meaningful. Their altruistic behavior helped them rise above their selfish mindset and made them part of the whole humanity. They felt they were part of creating a happy, healthy and peaceful world. One respondent said, “My life has meaning because I care about other human beings. I have been involved in human rights issues since I was a teenager and I have been trying to educate people about that. Another task that I have taken upon myself is to encourage people to adopt scientific thinking and I have been quite successful in that. Those endeavors make my life meaningful. They make me feel that I HAVE made a difference.”

4.MEANINGFUL CONNECTION WITH GOD AND RELIGION

There was a small number of respondents who felt that their special relationship with God and religion provided a meaning to their lives. One respondent who suffered from depression felt that belief in God helped many depressed people to stay alive who otherwise would have felt so desperate they would have committed suicide. He stated, “…in the case of depression, it is religion that gives you support and a light for living, otherwise there should have been much more suicides in the world than those that occur at present. Everyone gets depressed at one time or another. Some overcome it without any help, some need psychiatric help. Religion, right or wrong provides a good psychiatric support to overcome depression and provides a meaning to life and the urge to live.” One female Muslim stated, “I have always felt the presence of ALLAH around me and that has always been meaningful to me.” While a male Muslim wrote, “I am a Muslim and believe in One God, the Creator, and the concept of life after death and accountability of my actions in this existing life. And this assumption or faith has made my life meaningful.”

DOES LIFE IN GENERAL HAVE MEANING?

In my interview, alongside asking people about their personal life, I also asked them whether life in general had a meaning. Most secular people believed life had no intrinsic meaning while spiritual and religious people believed life had an inherent meaning. Some seemed unsure. One woman said “Life has meaning but I do not know what it is”. Some believed it SHOULD have meaning otherwise life would be meaningless and the idea of a meaningless life made them uncomfortable. One respondent stated, “Every life must have had a meaning, for if not, then the whole act of creation becomes meaningless…”

It was interesting for me to see, how for some religious people, their faith in God and religion and, for spiritual people, their spiritual ideals made their lives meaningful. One Muslim stated, “My life has a meaning to serve ALLAH and be able to connect people with ALLAH”. On the other hand, secular people did not need God, religion or spiritual values to make their lives meaningful. For them their art, music, loving relationships and serving humanity were enough for them to lead an enjoyable, exciting and meaningful life. For some secular people their spirituality was more connected with humanity than divinity. One secular respondent said, “I am a very spiritual and secular humanist. The source of spirituality is love, knowledge and above all music.”  Some secular people had a unique perspective to meaninglessness of life. One stated, “I find meaningfulness of life in its meaninglessness.” Another non-religious person felt meaning was not important to enjoy life. He said, “…overall I find my life most satisfying—whether with or without meaning.”

Some secular people believed that as human beings evolve, grow and develop rational and logical thinking, their need for God and organized religions will become less and less. One respondent stated, “God was created by humans for psychological and emotional reasons. As human courage and wisdom grows further, God will be buried in the caves he came from.”

It was fascinating to see how secular people searched for meaning in life without religious and spiritual traditions. One quoted Bertrand Russell for defining good life, “The good life is one, inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Another responded that he tried to make his life meaningful by, “Enjoying the various thrills of life that nature has gifted us with, and the least amount of guilt and repentance.” He added, “I am extraordinarily conscious of my cosmic ignorance and I strive to be compassionately ego-less, carefully fearless and ethically guilt-free.”.

SERVING HUMANITY

Of all the religious, spiritual and secular respondents, alongside their differences, they had a reasonable consensus on one aspect. Most of them agreed that serving humanity was a major source of meaningfulness in their lives as such activities connected them with other human beings in a meaningful way.  One respondent said, “…One of the major pleasures is to be of some help to other human beings…”. Such behaviors decrease human suffering and increase quality of life. Serving humanity creates genuine bonds and friendships between people where they rise above the religious, cultural, gender and ethnic differences and connect with common humanity. It seems as if by serving humanity, human beings can strive to become fully human individually and collectively, rise to the next stage of human evolution and become part of creating a loving, just and peaceful world. One of my favorite responses was, “My aim is to be the best person I can be and to strive to change the world for the better even in a small way.”

When I was reviewing the responses I realized that some people had accepted the traditional meaning of life, the meaning offered to them by their families, communities, religions and cultures, while there were others who had rejected the traditional meaning but found their own meaning to their lives.

When I shared the responses with the people I was working in my clinic who were struggling with meaninglessness in their lives they found those answers quite helpful. It offered them hope and inspired them to discover their own unique meaning by:

  • doing some voluntary work to serve their communities,
  • developing new relationships and creating a circle of close friends, that I call family of the heart, and
  • focusing on their personal talents and pursuing a hobby, a passion and a dream. They finally got in touch with the unknown but special gift life had offered them.

I was pleased that my friends and colleagues sent thoughtful answers to my questions and I felt honored that my patients gave me an opportunity to help them in creating meaningful lives. Helping them also gave meaning to my life as a humanist psychotherapist.

Peacefully,

Dr. Sohail

10 thoughts to “CREATING A MEANINGFUL LIFE”

  1. Dear Dr. Sohail,

    This blog was lengthy but compassionate. Summing up the impressions of common people as well as writers gets a great coverage of the opinions out there for the most important question.

    I have wondered about this question too. I saw an animal documentary where a tiger attacks and eats beautiful grazing deer. The deer must be thinking that life’s meaning is to stay alive and graze. But the meaning given to its life was different.

    Jalaluddin Rumi said, ‘An eye is meant to see things, the soul is here for its own joy.’ Is seeking joy of the soul meaning of life?

    Life has come a long way from being simple single celled to complex muti-organ beings to thinking humans. Its on its way to some kind of refinement. But an individaul does not feel that meaning of his life is playing his role in the grand process. Perhaps like the deer. Is seeking God a way to align with the grand scheme? Or helping others is?

    Thank you Dr. Sohail for the thought provoking article. Keep us engaged.

    Kindest regards,
    Malik Jahanzeb

    1. Dear Malik Jahanzeb, Sorry for my delayed response. Your comments are always very well thought out. I believe that life runs according to the laws of nature. The more we are aware of those laws, whether biological, psychological or social, the more we are able to use them to our advantage. Lucky are the people who have the courage to dream, have the stamina to make their dreams come true and create meaningful lives. I was always grateful to my circle of close friends, that I call my Family of the Heart, who inspire each other and make each others’ lives meaningful. I wish more people had their own families of the heart. Thanks for taking time to read, reflect and respond.
      Peacefully,
      Dr Sohail

      1. Dear Dr. Sohail,

        Thanks for the appreciation. I completely agree with you that we need to be aware of the laws of nature, or the eternal Tao. But first we need to be peaceful for that. As the Zen saying goes, ‘the quieter you become, the more you are able to listen’. It’s the inner noise that keeps us from listening.

        Those who have a family of heart are fortunate but perhaps such a family needs to be created or earned. I’m sure you would have done that for yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.

        1. Dear Jahanzeb, I am lucky to have a close circle of caring and creative friends, my Family of the Heart. I encourage others to create that circle too. Your comment reminded me of one of my short poems
          APPREHENSION
          I am afraid
          The noise of the outside world
          Will drown one day
          The music inside
          …….
          Let us keep our inside music alive.
          Peacefully,
          Dr Sohail

  2. In my opinion “Meaningless” is the opposite of “Meaningful” with the difference being that which gives us fullness within ourselves is missing, at least to our own perceptions. Being or becoming aware of what really means something to us and then exploring that side of ourselves gives self-gratification and ‘fullness’ within. If we look at the world at large and apply it to ourselves – it would naturally be overwhelming and frightening. The world is a crazy place filled with an excess of negative, even deviant personalities. But we can take pride within ourselves in our own abilities, skills and loving attitudes – regardless. We can ‘fill’ our lives with what gives us meaning – thus meaningful rather than meaningless. Knowing and acknowledging our own weaknesses does not make us ‘less’. It simply means that these are not our strengths. For example I am hopeless at math skills. I mean HOPELESS. But it’s ok. I excel in other areas of my life and I accept and even laugh at my math ineptness. I know that I am a good person with a good heart without a hidden agenda to hurt others. I cannot say that about the world – there is much to question and fear about the world at large but I can fill my own personal life with meaning and that is what I strive for. Always pondering ……..

    1. Dear Georgina, One of our Blog readers told me that she was pleased to see some regular followers and contributors to our Blog. You are one of them. I like your idea of acknowledging our weaknesses but not letting them define us. Have a sense of humor about them helps. Defining ourselves with our strengths and aspirations is far better. Thanks for your inspiring feedback. Many readers enjoy them
      Peacefully,
      Dr Sohail

  3. Dear DJ, You are right. Self satisfaction is an important aspect of one’s activities. The more we feel we ‘are doing the right thing’ the less we are affected by other people’s comments, especially negative comments. We can all add our own unique meanings to our actions. Such meanings can do wonders. I believe that when ordinary life experiences are impregnated with meaning they transform into extra-ordinary existential encounters. Thanks for your insightful comments.
    Peacefully,
    Dr Sohail

  4. Many people work hard at their jobs, or helping their friends and family with the expectation that they will get a thank you or a promotion. In reading your post it is clear to me that people are ‘contributing’ to themselves also and should be ready or learn how to say ‘I did a good job today’ instead of waiting for someone to say it too them.
    Thank you for the wonderful post.

    1. Wonderful article on Meaning of Life for a human being. It encompasses almost all aspect of this age old inquiry. But when a Nihilist says that Life is Meaningless then he perhaps means that on this tiny speck of dust which we call earth the very existence or absence of life makes hardly any difference what to talk about the vast universe, life is just meaningless for all practical purpose.
      Even on this insignificant planet It is only one out of billions of living beings bothers about meaning of life, including vast majority of human beings too.
      Having said that this article provides very practical and eloquently written guideline for that tiny minority which bothers to ask this important question, what is the meaning of my life?

      1. Dear SHH, thanks for your philosophical feedback. In my opinion most people give meanings to their lives unconsciously, only a minority reflect on it consciously. Meaning becomes more important when people are suffering. Victor Frankl in his book…MAN”S SEARCH FOR MEANING…suggests that meaning makes human suffering more bearable.
        Peacefully,
        Dr Sohail

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