You Need To Find Meaning Outside Of Work (Seriously)
One particular social nicety that really grates me is the question of what you do for a living. Not only because I find it boring, but because I also see the value in it. To know how someone spends the large majority of their time certainly gives you a quick sense of their everyday life. But it’s an offering that always falls short of insight, fails to express anything noteworthy about their interior lives, interests and motivations.
So I’ve tried to develop the habit of asking people how they make their money, and then asking them afterwards what they do for fun. I feel like a bit of a wanker doing this, to be totally honest. Mostly because asking people to delve deeper than small talk takes them aback. “Where do you find your meaning from?”, or a version of this, is the stuff of panic inducing, existential dread.
We’re more than happy to hide our personalities behind our job description because it feels enough. We work hard for 40 plus hours a week, so we deserve to do nothing but relax in our time off.
However, we need to think seriously about the necessity of life outside of what pays our bills. This isn’t ‘work-life balance’, it’s about setting up a life for yourself that has a sustained sense of purpose, fulfilment and meaning. Like a superannuation account for your future happiness.
So what’s the best way to do this?
Writing for New York Mag, Brad Stulberg broke down the two things to incorporate into your life if you want to find meaning outside of work. He writes, “Though there are myriad ways to transcend one’s self, two of the most powerful and practical — each grounded in works of philosophy and psychology and both of which can be found outside of formal employment — are pursuing mastery and performing acts of kindness.”
Pursuing mastery and performing acts of kindness: that’s the major key.
Pursuing mastery, or getting good at stuff
Finding something you have an interest in and getting really good at it is one surefire way to find a sense of meaning in your outer world. Stulberg explains Aristotle’s idea of “arête”, or excellence, as pursuing a skill endlessly, losing yourself in it and constantly developing it. Aristotle believed that while you should enjoy it, it should be a pursuit that is more important that just pure enjoyment, “A virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at what factors contributed to making a person feel happy and fulfilled in their life. Of the 300 participants surveyed, those who were constantly working on their skills and personal development had much higher self-esteem and general happiness.
Why is this the case? Well, it turns out that even though you’re working on something for you, you’re losing yourself within it. It becomes not an act of ego, but one of complete service to a task or craft.
Which is why pursuing fame will never make you happy. It’s an inherently selfish and egotistical pursuit; it’s backing away from the ultimate goal of fulfilment rather than taking steps towards it. In your endless work to master the craft of something, whether it be motorcycle riding, playing piano or writing the great Australian novel, you have to want to work on it for a reason that has meaning beyond your ego and what others think of you. It has to be adding to and transforming your sense of self.
Be a good person
The second way to lead a meaningful life outside of your job is to concern yourself with doing things for others. This, Stulberg explains, is even more powerful than devoting yourself to mastering something.
He cites a range of studies that prove those who take part in altruistic pursuits have a higher level of happiness and wellbeing. One by psychologist Daryl Van Tongeren found that the higher the frequency of taking part in altruistic acts, the higher the levels of happiness. He even studied people who had never taken part in altruism, got half to do so, and measured the difference in the group. Those that had started doing things for others greatly increased their general fulfillment.
Volunteering, sending thank you notes, buying flowers for your loved ones, coaching a soccer team. All of these things will give you a more sustained feeling of contentment than any promotion you receive at work or Instagram follower you gain.
Basically, strong hobbies and doing things for others are the key. It’s the ticket. It’s how to set yourself up for a happy, fulfilled life. Brad Stulberg concludes it best, “The more we can lose ourselves in our crafts and communities, the fuller our lives will become.”