Making art is no doubt one of your primary meaning opportunities. But for a rich and complete life, human beings need multiple meaning opportunities—a full menu of meaning opportunities. Here are five to consider.
Being of help feels meaningful. It is a service, for example, to make things easier rather than harder for the people around you, to hold the vision and values of your community, company, or family when that vision blurs, to spontaneously provide your expertise when your expertise is needed, and to point someone in the right direction. All of this is likely to feel meaningful. Some of your meaning opportunities require that you stand up for yourself and assert your individuality. Others provide you with the opportunity to share your human wealth and enter into relationship with others. Service is one of the latter. Life feels most meaningful when you honor both aspects of existence, the communal as well as the individual.
If you’re a painter, it isn’t your goal to paint an occasional painting and hide it away in your attic. If you’re a coach, it isn’t your goal to help an occasional client and wait months or years for the next occasion to help. “Career” is the word we use to stand for our desire to work in a regular, productive, and effective way in our chosen field. “Career” isn’t synonymous with “making a living.” A career poet can’t live on the money she makes from her poetry “sales.” Nevertheless, she can have a real career and many psychological and objective successes. You can turn any passion into a career by paying real attention to it and giving it a place of primacy in your life. If it evolves into a “career,” it may become one of the your most important meaning opportunities.
We make much of our own suffering by not getting a grip on our self-talk and by refusing to choose what attitudes we intend to adopt. For example, you can keep rehashing the past and by so doing make sure that the future resembles it—or you can be here, right now, enjoying all that there is to enjoy in the present moment. You can decide to invest meaning in your very attitude: in an attitude of mindfulness, in an attitude of contentment, in any attitude you deem desirable. Your attitude is one of your core meaning opportunities. Your life will feel more meaningful according to the attitudes you adopt and the stances you take toward life. You can turn everything into a drama or you can let unimportant matters roll off your back. You can worry yourself into inaction or encourage yourself to succeed. Your attitude amounts to an important meaning opportunity.
We are built with an ego and powerful desires and there is no reason not to honor that part of our endowment. Even if we have learned to live in a detached, phlegmatic, and philosophical way, we can still cherish achievement. We can congratulate ourselves for staying the course and for building a name for ourselves in our field, for completing large-scale projects, or for accomplishing tasks with fortitude and excellence. There is nothing paradoxical about holding both contentment and accomplishment as meaning opportunities. You can make a meaning investment in sitting contently by a pond soaking up the sun for this hour and make a very different meaning investment the next hour by accomplishing something in your studio. You don’t have to choose between “being” over “doing”: you can honor both.
Many people live a gloomy, pessimistic, critical and self-critical life. They may have abundant reasons for living that way but those reasons do not amount to a verdict. Even people who have been terribly harmed still have as one of their meaning opportunities the possibility of appreciating life. Life feels more meaningful when you appreciate a juicy apple, a day of rest, an accomplishment, a child at play, or a summer breeze. You can invest meaning one minute in writing a strong letter of protest and invest meaning the next minute in appreciating the peach pie sitting on your kitchen counter. The latter is not a small or shallow meaning opportunity.
You can make practical sense of the idea of meaning opportunities by thinking through which meaning opportunities seem most valuable to you, deciding which of those you want to investigate further, and actively investing meaning in your choices. Today you might invest meaning in experimentation, tomorrow you might opt for service, and Thursday you might choose pleasure (or, of course, you might opt for some of each on the same day!) By championing the idea of meaning opportunities, you energize your experience of meaning and reduce your unhappiness.