Part of me has always wanted to “make my mark on the world.” When I was in high school, I wanted to be a nationally ranked tennis player. When I was in college and graduate school, I wanted to publish the most cutting edge ideas and research in the most reputable scholarly journals. After finishing school, I have wanted to be recognized as a teacher that is a positive force for good with students.
As I have aged, however, I have sometimes observed that others appear to be making more of a “mark” than I am. It is particularly frustrating when others with more power appear to be using their influence to make the world a worse place. As clinical psychologist Meg Jay notes in her provocative and challenging TED talk, most of life’s defining decisions occur before the age of 35, and these early decisions both enable and constrain possibilities for the rest of life.
I don’t suspect I am alone in these feelings. As famed psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed, humans often long for meaning, and yet sometimes find this urge can be difficult to satisfy. It is easy to be discouraged when comparing ourselves with others who appear to be accomplishing more, whether they are doing so in reality or through a skewed portrait via social media.
My friend from graduate school, Mike Steger, is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of living meaningfully. Dr. Steger notes that individuals vary in the amount they seek meaning, with some individuals (like me and, if you’ve made it this far in this article, maybe also you) caring more about finding meaning than others. He also finds in his research that one of the keys to meaningful living is in finding opportunities for significance in daily life.
What I am learning by listening to my life and reflecting on this research is that it is difficult – if not impossible – to feel fully satisfied in the extent to which I am making my “mark” on the world, particularly when I compare my “mark” with others.’ It is unhelpful to spend much time regretting past decisions or comparing myself unfavorably to others. Still, there are many opportunities for living meaningfully today.
Self-help author Stephen Covey used to discuss the way that our roles in life have the potential to focus our strivings. I am the only husband of my wife, the only father to my daughters, and the only Psychology professor to many of my students, for example. Each role provides opportunities for regular meaning making.
Recently, I also have been learning how to create meaning in my life through the insights of the lovely novel, “Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger. Each of the characters in this gripping story has a burden to bear, but many of them rise above their challenges to make the world somehow better through simple acts of courage and kindness. Nathan was a patient husband and father, seemingly always trying to practice “the Golden Rule” toward those around him. Gus was a constant source of support for his friend’s children. Frank let his younger brother tag along with him, and was vulnerable enough to tell him he was his best friend after the death of their sister. Grandparents would offer cold lemonade to their grandchildren on a hot day. Jake found a way to say the perfect prayer at the perfect time when somebody desperately needed to “step up” to do so. In old age, the three grown men of the story reconnected and retraced their shared memories as they visited the grave sites of those they once loved and others that probably no one else would think to acknowledge.
There are so many ways to add meaning and significance in our daily lives, if we only look for them.
A few weeks ago, I attended a Quaker meeting in which individuals regularly seek to sense some kind of spiritual meaning and then, if they do, to share it with the others in attendance. It was during a time of political unrest – the day after President Trump’s travel ban was implemented – and the meeting was charged with energy. One of the members at one point rose and said she felt led to sing “This Little Light of Mine.” It was a moment of spontaneous outpouring and, as we together sang this song, I was reminded how each of us have the potential to bring the best of ourselves to a world in need. And, together, our light can shine brighter.
The meaning of life can be found today.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on the Psychology Today website on February 15th, 2017.