I’ve always thought that the highest compliment you could give or receive is that you have made a positive difference in someone’s life. To make a difference is a great way of giving meaning to your life.
And you don’t have to be famous to make such a difference.
But as a recent New York Times article points out, many of today’s college students think that living a meaningful life requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing. The author, Emily Esfahani Smith, notes that because of social media, purpose and meaning have somehow become associated with glamour. Yet the idea that a meaningful life must be or appear remarkable is not only elitist but also misguided.
Over the past five years, Smith has interviewed dozens of people across the country about what gives their lives meaning, and has read through thousands of pages of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience research to understand what truly brings people satisfaction.
The most meaningful lives, she concludes, are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity.
Smith notes that there’s perhaps no better example of that wisdom than George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” a book she thinks every college student should read.
(Side note: I remember starting to read that book about five years ago, and I did not get very far; I thought it was one of the worst books I’d ever read, even though I knew it was on many lists of the best novels of all time. Maybe I need to give it another try…)
Anyway, Smith believes that Middlemarch encapsulates what a meaningful life is about: connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, in whatever humble form that may take.
She notes that most of us won’t become famous, most of us will not achieve the lofty, idealistic goals we set for ourselves when we were younger. But that does not mean that your life lacks meaning and purpose. We all have the ability to help someone, to make a difference so that their lives are a bit better, a bit happier.
Smith points to a new and growing body of research within psychology about meaningfulness, which finds that meaning is found not in success and glamour but in the mundane. She concludes the story with this advice for college students, but it applies to all of us:
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.
I’ll throw in an excerpt from one of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson that comes to the same conclusion:
“…to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
And I think Smith and Emerson would agree that we are all capable of helping one person breathe easier…