How to live a meaningful life (even in lockdown)

    5 January 2021

    There’s no denying that the current crisis has thrown the new year’s resolutions we are used to making at this time of year into sharp relief. Gone are the globe trotting bucket lists and iron man races. So what should take their place? When societies fracture, we tend to lose sight of who we are and what we believe in. As old certainties and long-held tradi­tions start to fade from view, we cast around for a safe harbour, yearning for a return to sanity and order.

    Society is crying out for a return to meaning and an appreciation of what really matters, but instead of consoling us with deep, life-affirming truths, jaded cultural arbiters have chosen to mirror our existential despair and exag­gerate the sense of hopelessness. As I argue in my book The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life, it’s vital therefore to hold on to all those civilising influences that make life seem bearable and reassess the aspects of our society that have the power to diminish us – from serial dating to social media.

    Here’s how to make 2021 count, whatever the circumstances:

    Embrace the wonders of new media

    The mainstream may have abandoned its remit to inform, educate and entertain but meaningful content has never been more plentiful or accessible if you know where to look. Beyond the shallow confines of social media, pornography and funny animal videos the internet offers a vast treasure trove of informative, educational and entertaining content. Wade past the soundbites and immerse yourself in thousands of hours of unrestricted long-form discussion forums with some of today’s sharpest minds and enjoy a vast archive of material featuring some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Here are a few places to start.

    Defer your gratification

    We live in an age of instant gratification. The immediacy of the digital world means we now expect everything to be on tap, from deliveries and ready meals to sex and romance. A sense of entitlement pervades our culture. Waiting is for losers. Many of us struggle with the idea of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Instead, we indulge our impetuous natures forgetting that a gratification delayed is a gratification gained. You only need to look at Walter Mischel’s famous Stamford marshmallow test to see the reality of what self control can offer. Mischel’s study may have concerned the psychology of children but it’s never too late to make delayed gratification a habit, even as adults. In order to live a meaningful life we need to accept that true fulfilment takes time and effort. Once we have learnt to temper our desires we will start to gain humility and a sense of perspective. Small victories will seem like substantial gains and waiting will no longer feel like a waste of time.

    Avoid online dating and embrace compromise

    The online world appears to offer us a less self-conscious way to meet, as well as the thrill of unlimited opportunities, but the truth is our ability to make decisions is dependent on our willingness to accept compromise. Too much choice feeds our indecision and makes having to choose even more stressful. You may balk at having to rein in expectations but whether you realise it or not, every encounter involves a certain degree of letting go. Are you prepared, for instance, to sacrifice an attractive face for a witty sense of humour? Will the excitement of a younger lover’s boundless energy outweigh your different perspectives on life? Does kindness compensate for crooked teeth and a deafening laugh? Some of these compromises may seem trivial or even cruel, but they all feed into our decision to be with someone. Each failed attempt at an online connection weakens our resolve, sapping our spirits and damaging our self-esteem. In short, internet dating can feed greedy, narcissistic desire, so make sure you explore all other avenues before signing up and stay alert to the pitfalls.

    Realise that perfection doesn’t exist

    Perfection is a myth perpetuated by movie makers and advertisers. Real life is full of dashed hopes, crippling disappointment and existential longings. The more we chase after the fantasy of a perfect life the harder we fall. Write PERFECTION DOES NOT EXIST in big capital letters on a post-it note and stick it next to your computer. Reining in expectations will free you from the tyranny of entitlement and false hope. By accepting that we live in an imperfect world populated by flawed individuals we can start to view each other not as a threat but as fellow imperfect travellers on the rocky road to meaning.

    Foster a healthy attitude to sex and relationships

    As culture has coarsened so too has our attitude to sex. The proliferation of pornography is an obvious example but even the mainstream media treats intercourse as little more than a smutty ratings winner. Their prurient obsession speaks of a broader disconnect between physical and emotional desire now permeating much of our culture. When societies fixate on the mechanics of intercourse, it is often a portent of imminent collapse as in the latter stages of the Roman Empire and the final few years of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Sex without love tends to be short-lived, empty and dispiriting.

    Make your peace with the aging process

    As we shuffle inexorably towards life’s departure lounge, try to remain philosophical. During this time of profound reflection, we need to stay engaged and avoid wallowing in nostalgia. Your body and mind will inevitably start to let you down and this is difficult in a culture that is so dedicated to health, fitness and ‘wellness’. Don’t give in to bitterness and resentment. Author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes, ‘If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.’ These are tough words but if suffering is inexorable – something each of us will face at some point in our lives – then we might as well stop pretending it can be avoided and confront the search for meaning that it can often prompt.

    Don’t worry about leaving a legacy

    What do you want your life to stand for? Many of us worry about our legacy. We want the world to know that we were here and that we mattered. For most of us, however, the vapour trail of our existence will dissolve remarkably quickly, leaving virtually no trace. How many of us, for instance, know much about our great-grandparents’ lives? Go back three or four generations and predecessors are little more than strangers in faded photographs, however much they may have achieved in their lifetimes. The chances are no one will remember you beyond your immediate friends and family, and once they are gone you too will become just another stranger in a digital photograph. If that sounds depressing, take comfort in the fact that even Nobel Peace prize-winners and world-renowned philanthropists will be shorn of significance once their flame has burnt out. Coming to terms with our own transience doesn’t need to be depressing. On the contrary, it can help us avoid comparison with the successes of others and reassess how we use our time. Perhaps the things that we often invest our time in – from social media to our inboxes – are not actually the things we hold most dear.

    The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life by James Innes Smith, published by Little Brown, is out now.