Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

How and Where Do You Find Meaning in Your Life?

In this morning’s column, I replied to a letter from a man who felt his life was meaningless and empty because he had not married and had children. He felt like a “loser” and “failure,” he’d withdrawn from people he cared about, and he dreaded bumping into old friends whose kids are now teenagers. We gave some good advice, but I think the topic is worth discussing some more.

Despite how the letter writer might feel, he’s far from alone in his status as single and without kids. Many of you fit one or both of those categories, some by choice and some by circumstance. Many of us do have a partner and kids and may still feel the same sort of meaninglessness the LW talked about. Having one’s own family is no more a guarantee for fulfillment as it is a guarantee for being loved and cared for in old age.

How and where you find meaning will be a reflection of your values, and, obviously, what may be meaningful for one person will not necessarily be meaningful for someone else. But, generally speaking, investing in causes that are important to you can create a sense of meaning and purpose, investing in relationships (familial, platonic, romantic, collegial), building a career that utilizes your talents and skills and supports something of interest to you, and spending time doing that which feeds your soul and spirit (for some that might mean practicing a religion and for others it could mean being outdoors) can give a sense of meaning to one’s life. How and where do you find meaning?

P.S. In the periods of my life when I questioned the path I was on and the meaning of it all, this book was always a guiding light.

8 comments… add one
  • Marcie January 11, 2018, 2:47 pm

    I find that doing things for other people gives me meaning. I don’t have any kids myself (by choice) and it is hard to find where I fit into this world without having kids. I try to go the extra mile for my friends and family, and that makes me feel good.

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    Miel January 11, 2018, 3:38 pm

    I find purpose mainly in my own career (medical engineering/research), and in doing science outreach activities of all types. I’m good at it and it’s my way of giving back to society, and contributing toward something that is bigger than myself.

    For me purpose stems from a certain amount of selflessness. I don’t really see how “having a boyfriend” would give me a purpose, because that makes me feel selfish. Like, I have a boyfriend because I enjoy his company, and I have fun around him, and life is simpler when I’m with him. But that’s not selfless, and that doesn’t “improve my community” in any way.

    I wonder how I’ll feel about kids one day. In a way, raising a kid sounds like it could be quite selfless, and like it could give me a great sense of purpose. We’ll see…

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  • Ange January 11, 2018, 5:39 pm

    I don’t really worry too much about meaning or purpose. I’m living a decent life, I look after those dear to me and i’m happy. I don’t feel like I need some grand plan for my life, it sounds cynical but I’m just one person among billions and as long as I’m doing minimal harm I can trundle along just fine.

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    TheLadyE January 11, 2018, 7:34 pm

    I find purpose in my life by really nurturing my friendships. It’s so easy to get busy and not really be there for people (or have people be there for you) but life is hard, being an adult is hard, and relationships are really the only thing that we have at the end of our lives and what really matters. I have developed what I think are extremely good habits about keeping in touch and being intentional about seeing people – I regularly (monthly) reach out to all of my friends locally to connect and have a meal or do an activity, and I schedule phone/Facetime friend dates for my friends out of town. I really invest in people and want to hear where they are, what’s going on, and listen to their struggles.

    If/when I get married, I will still want to do this and would want my husband to see that vision as I do, with us really sowing into our friends. I’m not sure I will have [human] children (35 and single, plus I don’t really feel a pull towards having children) but I do have a dog and she is as close to a child as I can imagine. I’m sure I will have more dogs throughout my life as well – they are the best.

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  • Kate January 11, 2018, 7:47 pm

    Has everyone seen this, written by a 27-year-old woman just before she passed away? 100% worth a read.

    Anyway. Totally different topic, but last year I had the time to do the self-assessment in the book “What Color is Your Parachute?” Yes, it’s a career book, but the self-assessment gets at what really motivates you and helps you uncover your values. It can help you figure out if there’s something you could be doing that’s better aligned with who you are and what’s important to you. Highly recommend.

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    • MissDre January 12, 2018, 7:03 am

      I’m really curious to take a look at this self-assessment because I’ve been having a bit of an internal melt down about my career lately. I LOVE what I do and I’m REALLY good at it, but I’ve learned that I absolutely HATE working in offices on corporate projects. I’m 100% happiest when I’m in my own bubble working hard on my own projects. So I’m wondering if it’s just because I’m an asshole who can’t get along with other people.

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      • Kate January 12, 2018, 8:47 am

        Yeah, parts of it are about how you relate to other people and what kinds of people, if any, you need to be surrounded by.

        It’s thorough.

  • wobster109 January 12, 2018, 4:55 pm

    The most important things for me are 1) stay busy, and 2) friendship is magic.

    I’m 28, so most of my life up until now has been a few years of one thing, then switch to something totally different. High school was nothing like college, which was nothing like working a job. In high school it was extracurriculars. In college it was surviving the all-night problem sets. When my job turned out to be a soul-sucking slog (boss took a dislike to me, long story), I found meaning in hobbies instead. Now I have a 2 week old newborn, and I’m leaving my job and getting married and looking for a new job, so who knows what will be meaningful next? Hopefully the family, baby, job, or some combination thereof.

    One constant has been that I need to be doing something. If I have too much free time, such as a summer vacation during college, it was bad for me. I wasn’t just bored; I’d wake up during the night with a paralyzing fear of death. I couldn’t think; I wanted to run but had nowhere to go; and I was fleeing something that no distance could leave behind. I was frozen in the moment. Is this what an anxiety attack feels like?

    So I try to keep it where a day off feels relaxing rather than boring. I used to fill my evenings with hobbies, hangouts, and dates. Things that I look forward to, and that I’m tired from afterwards. The next year will probably be way different.

    The other constant has been to do things with friends. There’s nothing like feeling connected to another person, and that’s true for me even though I’m very introverted.

    I think this morning’s LW is having trouble because he’s been doing the opposite things. He’s withdrawing from friends. I’m guessing he doesn’t “get out” much anymore. Staying at home can be fine too if you’re doing something with a purpose, but if you’re surfing the web and watching daytime TV, that will drive anyone crazy.

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