How do we live a meaningful and happy life?
As a young adult, I cultivated the habit of reading. I knew enough to know I didn't know much about life. Though I had a college degree, there were many subjects that I felt unschooled in, so for each of them, I sought out mentors. If we want to go somewhere, it is helpful to find someone who has gone ahead of us to that place and ask them how they got there. I don't take financial advice from broke people, health advice from obese people, or marriage advice from divorcees (except for maybe to learn what not to do). It is better to know what you want and keep your eye focused on that than to know one hundred things you wish to avoid. We move towards what we focus on.
Humans are highly visual. You may have noticed that you don't navigate primarily through your sense of smell or your sense of sound. We look to where we are headed, what has our attention or where our focus is. Our vision determines our direction. Your life design is only limited by your imagination.
Happiness experts have collected tons of data on this. We create positive emotions by making progress towards our goals. This is why aimless people are depressed. If we don't have a motivator to get us out of bed in the morning, we aren't living properly. Of course we do have seasons of confusion, disorientation, or grief, but that should not be our set point. If you find yourself without a purpose, it's time to make some changes. You cannot be content or satisfied with your life if it is devoid of meaning. It cannot have meaning if you have not set aims.
Where to Look?
One challenge I faced was that I didn't actually know people who were living the life I imagined that I wanted. So, the next best thing was to find books by people who I respected and wanted to emulate, at least in their field. This led me to read books on finances, relationships, career, spirituality, lifestyle, health, and more. Each book provided some insight that was helpful, even if not all of it was relevant or applicable.
After more than twenty years of reading and applying what I learned, I am living the life I had imagined. It is possible to live life by design. It took work, and things didn't always go the way I would have wanted, but all in all, I am content and grateful for how things turned out.
Here's the thing. Life is hard for all of us. There are always challenges and struggles, whether or not you are consciously progressing towards your goals. So, you can define your dreams, and go for it and suffer the obstacles that will inevitably arise. Or, you can sit on your bum and suffer obstacles that will inevitably arise from having no dreams. I chose to go for the win and in the broader picture, I hit my goals way more than seventy-five percent of the time. Lesson: your life is going somewhere so you might as well design where to goes.
Early on, I discovered the value of considering major areas of life and intentionally creating what I wanted each to look like. These are nine paths to a happy life. This is a classic coaching strategy. Its a type of dream-boarding, life-by-design. Though different people list them in various form, the ones I use and find most helpful are Spirituality, Health, Relationships, Work, Finances, Giving Back, Personal Growth, Recreation, and Physical Environment.
On a regular basis, no less than once every six months, I visit where I am in each of these nine categories. I set aside some time with a journal and do a life analysis. First, I rate each on a scale of 1-10 on how well I am pleased with the area. The metrics I use are my own standards, because we cannot live for others. We have to be the ones who ascribe meaning to our lives, otherwise the motivation will not be there. You can't work for your mother's goals in your life, you will eventually fizzle out.
Then I note what is working well and if recent changes have caused improvements or set backs. Finally, I consider what could be done better, by me (since I am the only one in my control). As a general rule, the areas that score high (8 or higher) are of less concern than if one comes in at less than average (5 or below).
Our lives are dynamic, therefore, so are these ratings. It's not like you rate yourself a 10 in any one area and then you are set for life. Each of them requires constant maintenance and attention to be kept up. This is because our educations, finances, jobs, relationships, resources, faith, health and homes are in constant flux.
When I first began this journey, of rating major life areas, I was in my early twenties. The world was my oyster so there was lots of consideration to be made. There were clear goals that I set. Some important ones were:
develop a daily spiritual practice
learn scriptures in depth
find a faith community and meet regularly
stay fit by keeping my weight healthy and exercising regularly
stay healthy by proper diet and nutrition
eight hours of sleep a night
maintain good relationships with parents, family and friends
find a fitting spouse
prioritize visits with family and friends
enjoy my work and find meaning in it
help others start butterfly gardens
write books and teach online classes
pay off my mortgage
own income properties
create a multi-million dollar net worth
consistently give time, money and resources to charity
help others organize their lives (once I had some experience and success)
reach specific education goals
read at least a book a month
learn my strengths and weaknesses
retire early in order to pursue interests fully
make art, jewelry, write, innovate and create on a monthly basis
study butterflies and garden
spend summers in the Pacific Northwest
always maintain a tidy home
be discretionary with the company I keep
Progressing Towards Goals
When we are young, there are so many options. What do we want to do? Where shall we live? Who shall we marry? One challenge of adulthood is to narrow those options. Once they are defined in higher resolution, the challenge is to identify the smaller goals that together form the framework for the higher goals to be accomplished.
Note: I am using the word "goals" for lack of a better one. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits stresses the importance of becoming a certain type of person over any goal. For instance, rather than having an emotionless goal of "8 hours of sleep", we must become the type of person who is well rested, mentally sharp and ready for a new day. This shift in mindset that redefines me will effectively set the goal of "8 hours of sleep." But becoming a new version of me is the motivator and focus that helps create the goal.
Though this is a quick blog read, it is important to know that the content within was generated over two decades of study, re-orienting, shifting and surprises. Like a GPS, we are constantly having to revisit our path and make necessary adjustments. For my life, these tools and systems helped me reach my meta-goals and become the highest version of me that I had envisioned (though this is an ongoing process). For me, all success in these areas were framed by these overarching tenets.
Spirituality - I am a recovering Evangelical. That said, I primarily embrace the life and teachings of Christ. They are my north star. My understanding of what that encompasses is far broader than it was in my narrow-minded past.
Spending time in meditation, prayer and scriptures is the foundation of my life.
Health - The primary tools that have been most effective for me are focusing on diet, exercise, sleep and stress management. Our bodies keep score of how well we are handling these components.
Relationships - This is a broad category because it includes spouse, family and friends. For over 30 years I studied personality typologies, Myers Briggs, Strengths Finder, Four Temperaments, Love Languages, Mark Gungor's work, DISC and more, but then I found the ultra relationship tool. For this area, by far, the most helpful system I have found is the Enneagram. This is why I am a certified Enneagram coach. When I find something that works, I want to share it with everyone.
Work - Everyone is different, but I have always had a strong compulsion to work in fields that I am passionate about. This is undoubtedly a personality drive, but for me it is necessary, so I am very intentional about my work. Our work fills our days, becomes our contribution and shapes our story. Mine encompasses the changes I would like to inspire in the world. In our early years, that is not always possible. We are unskilled, inexperienced and hungry. Yet, after I had some training, skills and savings, I shifted into soul-filling endeavors (faith, butterflies, writing, Enneagram, solar energy, tiny homes, financial independence).
Finances - The Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) culture aligns perfectly with our dream life. This embraces intentionality, frugality, investing, saving and living with simple focus. Any financial literacy starts with this: you must make more than you spend. Finances are more emotional than mathematical. If you cannot keep spending in check, or if you don't earn enough to survive, there are deeper things going on.
Giving Back - Giving 10% of your financial income is a foundation in Judeo-Christian tradition. However, there is far more to giving than this elementary starting point. Giving involves finances, time and energy. So many people complain about the world. It's shocking how few people are actually giving of themselves to make things better. Activism gets really old when people aren't lifting a finger to enact change. If something jumps out at you in need of fixing, that means it is your work. There are millions of great causes, find the one that compels you and give in that direction. Oh, and don't get judgmental with others who have different causes calling to them.
Recreation - This word has two meanings. One is a relaxing and refreshing past-time. The other is similar re-creation. Making yourself anew. This is doing what makes you come alive. When we try new things, we may discover something that becomes a lifelong passion. For me, these currently include butterflies, creative projects and hosting loved ones. Hikes, art, yoga, cooking, laughing, reading, campfires, coffee, writing, and gardening are some of mine. We must make space for renewal and play.
Environment - Our physical environments, including home, workspace and who we surround ourselves with matter. Things don't need to be fancy, but any type of clutter takes a toll on us. Keeping an organized home fosters creativity, serenity, safety and self-care. A designated work space helps us stay inspired and on task. We each have different tolerance levels, but you know if your space needs to be tidied up, redecorated or completely reworked. Move furniture, make art and take inventory of who you spend your time with. These things affect us profoundly.
The life I live will probably not look ideal to what you want your life to look like. But, there may be some areas of my life that look attractive to you. If so, it could be helpful for you to note what worked for me in that area. It is for that reason that I provided the guidelines that I have worked into my habits, work and life-design.
The idea of nine major areas (give or take) is not one that I created. It is useful because it is a great way to take inventory of one's current position in order to assess what needs adjusted. We are all on a journey, the quest never ends, but hopefully something in this post is useful to bring more light and life to yours.
So, if you are up for it, grab a pen and paper and start assessing your life. What do you want to have? Who do you want to be? Where do you want to help? What do you have to offer? Who do you want in your corner? What skills would you like to have?
If you want some Enneagram help, my book, Enneagram Grace can help you to know yourself better and what it is that makes you tick.
Grace and Peace,