What do you really want in life?
It’s a difficult question, but it may be the essential question.
Maybe you would answer with a concrete response, such as “I want sleep,” “I want a new phone,” or “I want to play more golf.”
Or maybe you would reflect more broadly. Some people even go beyond everyday desires to imagine deep yearnings for something more.
Source: Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler / Wikimedia Commons
“Sehnsucht” is a popular German word with no simple English translation (click here for pronunciation). C. S. Lewis often relied on this concept in his writings, defining it as “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what.” Instead of “wishful thinking,” Lewis suggested how Sehnsucht involves “thoughtful wishing.” In my words, Sehnsucht has to do with an intense desire for something beyond our human capacity to fulfill. It is a bittersweet feeling that seeks a slice of perfection at the same time that perfection remains elusive.
To better understand, let’s consider some of the ways Lewis reflected on the concept.
In his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Lewis states:
“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning… a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and always are wishing you could get into that dream again.”
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.