Fitness Magazine

What is a Meaningful Life?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

What is a Meaningful Life?

By Marie Lossky (@Marie.Lossky on Instagram)

“You don’t have to change the world or find your one true purpose to lead a meaningful life. A good life is a life of goodness — and that’s something anyone can aspire to, no matter their dreams or circumstances.”—Emily Esfahani Smith 
In her New York Times editorial You’ll Never Be Famous — And That’s O.K. Emily Esfahani Smith, an editor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness says that over a five-yearperiod she interviewed dozens of Americans about “what gives their lives meaning” and read thousands of pages of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience research to learn about “what truly brings people satisfaction.” Her conclusion was:  
“The most meaningful lives, I’ve learned, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.”  
Smith’s editorial was addressed to college students, about whom she says, “too many think that living a meaningful life requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing like becoming an Instagram celebrity, starting a wildly successful company or ending a humanitarian crisis.” But I think her ideas apply to all of us. After all, how many older people do you know who feel like “failures” because they compare they life they lived to what they hoped to achieve when they were young? And how many people are trying to work their way through some kind of life list that they feel is necessary for them to complete in order to feel fulfilled? I actually wrote about this in my post Contentment, Happiness, and my Family.
And to illustrate her point, Smith uses the novel Middlemarch by George Elliot, a book I’ve read at least twice (though I certainly never thought I’d be discussing it in terms of yoga—life is so full of surprises, isn’t it?). This novel portrays the lives of two idealistic young people, Dorothea Brooke, a wealthy young woman with dreams of becoming a philanthropist, and Tertius Lydgate, a doctor with the goal of making important scientific discoveries. By the end of the long novel, we see that for both characters their lives don’t end up as they’d hoped, with neither achieving the lofty goals they set for themselves. Dorothea, after a terrible first marriage, settles for a life as the wife of man she loves and as good mother to her children. And Tertius marries an ambitious woman and because of her settles for life as a doctor the rich. 

But even though the two characters both fail to achieve the goals they had when they were young, their lives still turn out very differently. By the end of his life, Tertius dies believing that he was a “failure.” On the other hand, Dorothea is able to find true contentment in her ordinary life and is able to “do good” in the world by being a loving person. As the novel says:
“Her full nature, like that river which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
For me this relates to the two yoga concepts that I keep returning to again and again: contentment (santosha) and detachment. I’ve written about these both many times. 

According to the Yoga Sutras, contentment (santosha)—“the ability to be comfortable with what we have and what we don’t have” according to TKV Desikachar—is what leads to true happiness.
“2.42 From contentment and benevolence of consciousness come supreme happiness.” –Yoga Sutras, trans. by TKV Desikachar
See Yoga and the Pursuit of Happiness and Yoga Philosophy and Contentment by me and the powerful post Beth wrote on the topic Enough.
And according to the Bhagavad Gita, the path to equanimity is to practice “detachment” in everything we do. We do our work—whatever it is—with dedication but without attachment to the outcome of our actions. Living a yogic life doesn’t mean you need to give up your goals, it just means you need to do your work toward them without attachment to the outcome so not achieving them doesn't make you feel like a "failure."
See Gandhi and the Bagavad Gita, Acceptance, Active Engagement, and the Bhagavad Gita, and What We Need to Practice.
But even though we’ve covered these topics many times before, I really think that they bear repeating. Because although Smith says that it is young people who are constantly bombarded with the message that living a meaningful life “requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing,” I think people of all ages are constantly hit with the same message (hey, lady, most of us are on Facebook and Instagram, too!). I had a week off from all of it last week when I went off the grid and spent a week on a very peaceful island with some friends. But when I got home, I was still really glad to read Smith’s editorial. I don’t know if it’s true for you, but I always need reminding that:
“the idea that a meaningful life must be or appear remarkable is not only elitist but also misguided.” — Emily Esfahani Smith

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