Life’s Big Questions: Did I ‘live’ Did I ‘matter’

Everyone was all praises for Ms. T. for getting a PhD degree and landing a job at an international university. Friends and family applauded her constant efforts and her passion towards success. On the other side, after accomplishing these professional targets that are universally believed to guarantee happiness, there were questions that troubled Ms. T. She thought to herself if this was really what she wanted? Did she want to leave her family and move to a new country? Why did she purse PhD?  Was she happy? Will she continue to remain happy?

A lot of individuals may resonate with Ms. T. as we invest great time in pursuit of happiness, striving towards greater status or possessions in life. Unfortunately, for some, there is this sense of lack of fulfillment and meaning that paves way for stress and frustration. There is a rat race going on and the need to compete, the urge to win and progress further. Growing up, we are socialized into set norms that direct us to universally accepted goals in life. Everyone strives for a good education, high paying job, stable marriage, children and the cycle repeats itself. If an individual falls short of any of these achievements in life, they feel a sense of loss and failure and then feelings of envy are born for those who seem to reach the highest rung of the success ladder.
Let us now explore the underlying issues behind this dilemma. Jean Piaget, a renowned psychologist, helps us understand how during the adolescent years, cognitive development reaches a formal operational stage where the individual develops abstract reasoning skills. At this stage, the individual can grasp concepts like morality, justice, happiness, success and love. Also, theorist Erik Erikson talks about the psycho-social development stages in which, during the age range of 11-19, there is an existential crisis that makes the adolescents think about their personal ideologies, need for identity and purpose of life. Collating the two above-mentioned developments during adolescence, we can understand how individuals tend to seek answers to life’s big questions during this transitionary phase from childhood to adulthood. These thoughts pertain to an individual’s life aspirations, future goals, identity and purpose of existence. The socialization via multiple social institutions like family, media, educational institutions and peers shape the beliefs like success and happiness. This is what makes the individual strive for perfection, compete for the best and reach the standard goals set by the society. What we fail to address is the gap between an individual’s and society’s definitions of success and happiness.
We are living in a world with materialistic tendencies, which put a high worth on physical comfort, material possessions, wealth and ownership, undermining the significance of intellectual, spiritual or cultural values. Research indicate that one of the traps of materialism is that they locate happiness and success in material possessions. This instant gratification offered by materialism is short lived. Consumerism is integrated in our everyday life in ways we often do not seem to recognize. The consumer culture seems to replace spiritual aspirations and reduces human beings to competitive, insatiable consumers of goods, which may or may not have a purpose and transform them into objects of manipulation. With the increasing technological advancements and the significance of virtual identity on diverse social media platforms, there is a subsequent rise in materialistic mind set of the youth. The emphasis on consumer culture, glorification of luxury goods and admiration of the masses as a sign of success, all influence the decision making and lifestyle choices of  avid followers, majority of which are the youth. Emulation is a core component of 21st century consumerism where individuals look up to those who are above them in the social hierarchy and strive to imitate their lifestyle and aspirations. Symbols embedded in mass media exhibit unrealistic expectations about food preferences, clothing styles, leisure activities and relationship goals, which shape users’ attitudes towards ideas about success, wealth and happiness. Happiness is difficult to measure, however, in reality; it has been recognized that becoming less materialistic leads to more contentment in life. The interplay of materialism and unhappiness is complex, where one may fuel the other and vice versa.
People who pursue material wealth are generally perceived as being superficial but the need is to realize that living a less materialistic lifestyle doesn’t mean abstaining from all of life’s pleasures. It means that the philosophy of the individual towards life puts less value on material things, which leads to inner peace.  The need is to realize that everybody creates their own happiness. This implies that for some people happiness comes from the fact that they  can afford luxury and expensive experiences, can travel the world in their pursuit for spiritual connection, contribute to philanthropic causes and attain internal satisfaction that they were aiming for; for others, it may include taking a low paying job that offers free time to indulge in hobbies like art or sports. 
The real questions should be how we define these social constructs of success and happiness. We can take help from celebrated Austrian Psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who teaches us about the primary purpose of life—the quest for meaning—in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He suggests ways to find our own purpose, without which individuals can seldom attain the success and happiness that they believe in. He highlights: “Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.” To find meaning of our lives, Frankl says we need to ask what legacy do we want to leave, what is really important to us, what are our skills and what is our passion; collating which results in clarity of our meaning and a purpose of life. We find a lot of examples of individuals who find their true passion at a later stage in life: engineers turning into artists and corporate employees re-emerging as entrepreneurs, Col Sanders who was inspired to make burgers at the age of 80 and opened up what is now a renowned fast food chain.
Letting go of materialistic approach to life involves clarifying your intrinsic values, which may include self-growth, enriching peer relations, connection with family members and meaningful contributions to community. This leads to higher self-esteem and well being.  Material possessions should never define someone’s status or identity as Tyler Durden says, in the movie Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” Also, in contemporary times, debates on consumer culture being unsustainable and robbing us of our humanism along with the advocacy of minimalistic lifestyle is trying to propose a balance in our lives. A new discourse around moderation, love, justice, sacrifice and service to the common good needs to be propagated as ideal human values for a ‘good life lived’. As a society, we should allow and rather celebrate diversity of meanings for subjective concepts like happiness and success, as everyone searches for their own meanings and strives towards only those specified goals. This is similar to a Spanish proverb: “Traveller, there are no roads, roads are made by walking.” HH

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