Many of you read my previous post on the Happiness Formula and asked why “meaning” was the lowest priority. Others asked about the definition of meaning. I bring you answers.
Priority-wise, it simply makes sense to take care of yourself before you start searching for a higher meaning. You aren’t much good to anyone else if you’re unhealthy, a financial burden, or an emotional basket case. Fix yourself before you turn outward. It’s best for everyone.
So what does “meaning” mean?
When you serve a purpose larger than yourself, you experience the sensation of having meaning. There are plenty of larger purposes from which to choose: You can save the whales, feed the poor, shelter the homeless, march for peace, serve your notion of God, whatever. The details don’t matter.
If your reaction to my explanation of larger purposes was “none of that sounds interesting to me,” then you haven’t finished fixing yourself. When you do, you will automatically look outward. It’s how humans are wired. We survive because, on average, the people who manage to satisfy their personal needs are changed by it. They become seekers of meaning. They ask, “What’s next?”
I remember when Dilbert hit it big and it became clear that I would never again have to worry about money. It was a wonderful feeling, but it didn’t last. I went from happy to hollow with no warning. The first moment that I could afford any car I wanted, I lost interest in having a nice car. I simply couldn’t see the point, if there ever was one. Success is surprisingly disorienting.
One day, about ten years ago, I was alone in my office, sitting on the couch and reflecting on the fact that I had managed to become rich and famous in my dream job. For the first time in my life, I had no goals. And for a goal-oriented guy, that’s an empty feeling. Success was supposed to feel good and stay that way. But it tricked me. There was a huge hole in my soul. I sat in my office and sobbed.
Then the change happened. It wasn’t something I thought about. It wasn’t an indication that I am a good person or a bad person. It was just some sort of chemical reaction in my moist robot head. It was natural.
I turned outward.
And in so doing, bit by bit, I found meaning. I found ways to use my success to make the world a little bit better. It’s surprising how often the opportunity comes up. It ranges from personal favors to investment decisions to my choices to continue making a comic and a blog post for you every day.
I start work before most of you wake up because I’m a part of something larger than myself, and it feels good. I don’t work because I want more money. I work because it makes you happy, and that gives me meaning. And the extra money I make can be used to make other people happy too.
I measure my success by how many people would attend my funeral if I died tomorrow. I try to make sure that number grows every year. It’s a theoretical number, since I’m very healthy and plan to outlive all of you. But it’s the best measurement I can think of.
Don’t worry if you aren’t ready to serve a higher purpose. Fix yourself first. We’ll wait for you. You’ll know you’re ready when serving the higher purpose seems easier than not.