When you look hard enough at the actions you take, and start questioning everything, things can start to break down. What are we working towards? What kind of a future do we want? How can we make ourselves happier? There are a lot of questions, and practical wisdom doesn't answer our questions well.
The problem here is that we don't know enough about the goals we'd like to pursue. We can be capable at reaching our goals, but not know how to figure out where they are. These kind of flaws are why you see a lot of rich people who aren't very happy, high achievers who don't seem very satisfied, but also why you see some otherwise relatively poor people really content with their lives.
To help, it's worth taking a step back and considering what motivates you.
Source: Schwartz, Shalom. (2017). The Refined Theory of Basic Values.
We have so agonizingly little insight into how to move forward, or even where our values lie, so much so that it becomes helpful to look at some external guidance. Research has been narrowing down on the values that are shared amongst all people and cultures, and that circle above is the most accurate representation above.
On the inside are the values, and then the outer circles try to categorize the values into themes. These serve as the "guiding principles in the life of a person or group".
Think of them as the commands passed down to you in your genetics. These values are inescapable and absolute. If you reject and act against these values, you'll feel a lot of emotional pain. And on the other side, if you follow your values, you'll end up living your life to the fullest.
Big questions like asking what people stand for often gives you complex answers, but in reality they all boil down to some values on this circle. If you try, you can make up convincing and moving descriptions of a sense of purpose, which actually convey simple values.
A mother of four who loves her kids? She probably values the benevolence sector, like being dependable and caring for others.
High performance enterpreneur? More sensitive to self-direction, stimulation, and achievement.
Senior citizen who feels a strong connection with her community? The entire conservation sector, with things like conformity, tradition, and security, play a part in making her life a positive experience.
The idea here is that behind rich and meaningful stories, there's always some simple and universal values. That means that making your life meaningful isn't an opaque journey. People don't suddenly become happy. Instead, it's these values that make life worth living to us, and these are values that we can quantify, categorize and track.
For values that are instinctually built in to everyone, we do a poor job of optimizing for them.
It's almost a cultural trope where people work very hard, amass a lot of money, and then realize that all those years they've neglected the so-called important things in life: things like purpose, family, connection, happiness.
Chasing one area of life, like achievement, security, or power, can only go so far.
We often learn that fulfilling a value feels good, and then spend a lot of our time chasing it, trying to make things even better. But these things have decreasing rewards as you put in more effort, meaning although on the surface it can look like you're performing really well, emotionally you're probably closer to reaching a plateau.
This also gives us perspective on what's important to us. Generating money isn't a goal in itself - money is just a proxy for power and achievement, and very often, it's not particularly good at that. If you're already highly fulfilled in power, you should start working on other values, like gaining more self-direction in your life, or building up a sense of security.
So, back to the questions at the beginning - what should we work towards? How should we figure out what to do?
If you feel unsatisfied, you should evaluate and deeply consider which values you're fulfilling, and which could do with a little more work. Let's take an example. If you've achieved a great deal, it could be worth your while to step back and spend a little time doing other things: like caring for nature, or investing in cultural tradition to take a small part in something that can span centuries. Striking a balance is key, although what that balance looks like is different for everyone.
When you're making decisions, whether you know you are or not, it's important to step back and look at the big picture - your time is limited, but life is long if you know how to use it.
I can't give you a map of how to live, but at least you get a compass to point you in the right direction. And beyond that, all the mountains, valleys, and obstacles - they're yours to climb.
Thanks to Stephen McAleese for reading a draft of this.