Mistakes People Make in Their Search for Meaning
When people are looking for their meaning in life, they will have trouble finding it if they make erroneous assumptions about how life works or what they’re supposed to do with the one that they’ve been given. Unfortunately, such fundamental assumptions are held sometimes without people having thought about them critically or even realizing that they’re there. If they aren’t identified and corrected, there is a high risk of having regrets in life and/or missing out on a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment over the years.
So what are these fallacies, and what can you do to identify and correct them? Well, I’ll save you some time and list eight of the biggest ones that hold people back from realizing their purpose in life and living it to the fullest.
Fallacy #1: There is one purpose in life that you have to find and pursue to succeed.
Reality: The purpose of life is growth, but toward what outcome is for me to decide. I define success for my life and pursue it.
The biggest mistake people make is that they conflate the “meaning” of life with the “ultimate goal” of life. This can keep people searching forever and never finding anything (or, worse, getting sucked into a belief system with a charismatic leader that might have malicious intent). The only universal purpose that all living organisms hold is growth. What you grow toward is up to you given the capabilities that you have as a human.
Yes, everyone grows physically, but not everyone is a bodybuilder or weightlifter. Everyone learns in life, but not everyone is a scholar. Everyone earns a living, but not everyone is wealthy. So, which goal is right? Well, that is up to you: you define success, even if you let others define it for you. Your direction in life is up to you, but growth is always the means. You can look around for ideas, as you can find what you love by seeing people you admire or experiencing something that makes you feel alive. But the answers to what matter to you and what success is for you are always within.
Most importantly, even if you identify a goal that feels like your calling, your goals can and will change as you grow. Therefore, there is no “ultimate” goal. Define success for yourself, and then if you attain it or it stops feeling fulfilling to pursue it, change your definition. You’ll be a lot happier and more fulfilled than if you let others define success for you or stick with a goal long past the point that you no longer want it.
Fallacy #2: You either “have it” or you don’t.
Reality: All people start as a cell (zygote) and grow through experience, so all people who “have it” grew from not having it.
One of the biggest fallacies in people that inhibit their growth is that they think that their ability and/or potential is “fixed” and cannot be changed. Dr. Carol Dweck explored this idea in her book, Mindset, where people who believed that their abilities were fixed gave up faster and were less successful than people who believed that they could continue to grow and improve.
Yes, “nature” (genes) and “nurture” (experience) are both involved in your full potential, such as someone who is shorter being less likely to be an all-star basketball player than a taller player. But there are always different ways to achieve your goals in life, whether it be Mugsy Bogues’s path of succeeding at basketball despite being shorter or a Bill Cowher in football who had a relatively short career as a special teams player before becoming a hall of fame coach.
In any case, successful people keep moving forward with additional experience is the areas that they are interested in and continue to get better in various ways until they succeed in life. Experience is the medium through which all growth occurs, so you can only get better as you get more of it.
If you’re unsure of what experiences you want or need, you can identify them by tracing back from goals, such as if you look at a successful person’s career and see where the best in your field of interest started. Just remember that you can improve no matter your starting point. You can always get better with more experience, so keep seeking new experiences to keep progressing and to keep life interesting.
Fallacy #3: You always want what you don’t have and have what you don’t want.
Reality: You will always have desires; fulfillment comes from appreciating what you have while striving for more.
One of the biggest fallacies is that you will never be happy with your life no matter how hard you try, so it’s best to suppress your desires or learn to live with disappointment. There is, however, a third option that is better than those two: you can always be content and never be satisfied. It might sound like a paradox, but it is a very simple process of appreciating what you do have so that you feel good about where you are while desiring more that you do not have yet so that you continue forward on your life journey.
If you wish to take this approach, then you just need to find and appreciate what you love about your life today and think about new things that you might want to do, be, or have in the future that will make your life even better. While it seems like there are unlimited desires and limited resources, note that everyone will have various wants and differing priorities, and you will find ways to get what you want given enough time for your subconscious mind to help you think of ideas. Remember that we now live in a world where a song or movie could theoretically be consumed by every human being on planet Earth because digital technology makes scalability of media practically infinite. Similarly, you can love everything about your life and love all the future possibilities at the same time.
Finally, if you are ever really down on getting what you want, remember that a desired outcome is just another desired experience. There are children with disabilities who get to have the experience of running for a touchdown in a football game because two high school teams agree to let them play for a down to do it. You can rent a nice car, hire a limo service, or visit a mansion that allows visitors if you want those experiences; you can run down a football field imagining scoring the winning touchdown if you want to see whether you want that experience. There are many ways to appreciate what you have and many ways to satisfy your desires. Never let your current experience squelch your desire and appreciation for/in life.
Fallacy #4: Things are the way that they are no matter what you believe.
Reality: Belief is a key ingredient in making any dream a reality.
As a child, I remember rationalizing to myself that it was better to be a pessimist than an optimist. If you were an optimist and something bad happened, you would be disappointed; if you were a pessimist and something good happened, you would be pleasantly surprised. However, my younger self didn't fully understand how beliefs influence your perception, behaviors, and outcomes.
Beliefs affect your choices, your perceived options, your effort in any endeavor, the length of time you work toward your goal, and your likelihood of succeeding as a result. Negative beliefs can squelch even the strongest desires. While you can't fail if you don't try, you also can't succeed. Most importantly, the people who attain their goals have to sustain belief through any adversity they face. Success is never guaranteed, but despair guarantees failure. Therefore, if you want to succeed and achieve, you have to believe.
Note that you don't have to become a cock-eyed optimist tomorrow by any means to begin to have belief work for you. First and foremost, you can identify believable goals or steps to begin any journey and make yourself much more likely to begin than if you had resigned yourself to the conclusion that your goal was a pipe dream. Then, you can look at the positives in yourself and your current state to possibly find more options or more reasons to keep going for when you need them. At minimum, the psychological concept of priming kicks in when you do this and makes you more likely to see those opportunities and remember the positives than if you didn't, and that makes you more likely to succeed and, in fact, changes your reality and your future compared to holding pessimistic beliefs.
Fallacy #5: The ultimate goal in life is to be happy.
Reality: Emotions communicate whether (you believe that) an (anticipated) experience is beneficial or harmful.
This one is huge because it causes people to erroneously seek mindless pleasures or assume that there is something wrong with them if they cannot be happy all of the time. Happiness is an indicator of growth and an outcome, not a goal. In other words, your emotions provide feedback so you know how to behave. If you feel good, you're growing, thriving, and can enjoy the moment before/as you continue forward on your journey. If you feel bad, then something is either harming you or stopping you from making progress in your life. So if you feel bad and try to cover it up with pleasure like drugs, gambling, etc., you're simply "hacking" your emotions rather than addressing the issue in a way that will allow you to continue growing in life.
A more accurate description of the goal of life is to find what makes you happy. Because the meaning of life is growth and the result of growth is happiness, then you can find meaningful growth opportunities by finding what you like to do in life that makes you feel happy and fulfilled. While people who conflate pleasure and fulfillment will seek “highs” in life, you will now seek long-term happiness drivers like spending time with friends and family, doing a job you care about or that funds something you care about, or performing community service. Finding things in life that you love to do and look forward to doing will go far in your sense of meaning and happiness in life.
Most importantly, you need to listen to, process, and release negative emotions when you have them so that you can return to a state of well-being. Negative emotions from past traumas that you don't deal with can haunt you for years, causing self-destructive behaviors that can ruin your life. Don't beat yourself up for feeling bad and not being happy with your life; instead, accept the emotion as telling you something valuable about your desires, beliefs, and experiences, and then give yourself permission to do whatever you can to address the emotion and then let it subside. Not only will you feel relief, but you'll then be able to focus more on growth-enabling activities that will bring you back into a state of joy.
Fallacy #6: There are fundamental rules for life that apply in all situations.
Reality: Ethics are situational and evolve as society evolves.
Unlike what most people seem to believe, ethics are subject to change over time and aren't universal. Ethics are rules to maximize your growth while minimizing harm, and everyone knows that any system, sport, or game with rules has had them change over time. The reason for this is that the world changes, and there might be less harm in actions over time or more. Good examples of these include pandemics, which change the socially acceptable rules for human interaction, and technology, which changes ethics like how frequently you should communicate your location with your friends and family.
Now, there are some core ethics built into our genetics as a social species: fairness, reciprocity, and minimal harm. These are necessary for cooperation because people will not cooperate if they're not treated fairly, will not do nice things for you if you never return the favor, and will treat you as an enemy if you hurt them. In general, people will accept fair rules that everyone follows that do not harm people. Outside of those, however, ethics are situational. Take, for example, honesty, which people say you should always do—but you're not going to do if someone wants to hurt your best friend and then asks you where he or she is. Obviously, the ethic of minimal harm supersedes honesty, so you're more likely to lie to reduce harm than tell the truth and get them hurt. In that respect, all ethics are situational.
Most importantly, positive ethics—defined as behaviors you should do to achieve your desired outcome (vs. ones you shouldn't do because they're harmful)—are even more situational and depend on your goals. If you want to play football well, for example, you might use different plays based on the strengths and weaknesses of your team. There is no strategy that will work best and perfectly in all situations because there are so many factors such as the opponent's strategy, strengths, and weaknesses. This point applies to most things in your life, as your career, perfect mate, or best approach to making friends will differ based on a variety of factors that will combine in a unique way just for you. If you are an introverted person who loves computers, your life will likely look very different from an extroverted person who loves people and can barely understand and tolerate technology.
Despite all of the above, there is a way to figure out an ethical approach for yourself consistently. Instead of rigid rules, however, consider your action’s impact on all affected parties. If your action will harm people, see if there is one that will not. If one option is better but you prefer another one, consider whether you are seeing one option as "better" because other people define success differently and the other option is actually "better" when you use your definition of success. When you find ethics that optimize your life without harming anyone else, you'll have the right set for you.
Fallacy #7: People are inherently selfish or bad, and everyone is out for themselves.
Reality: Most people cooperate to meet their needs and achieve their goals.
Yes, almost everyone has to take care of themselves so that they can survive without being a burden on others. With respect to accomplishing that goal, selfishness is a good thing. But the idea that everyone is looking out for themselves to others' detriment is not true; social creatures are cooperative by nature. As we mentioned about ethics, humans are hardwired to reciprocate as long as their distrust has not overridden it. The reason for this tendency is that cooperating enables groups to achieve more than any individual. Therefore, if you want to be more likely to stay alive and thrive, then you want to help others and accept help.
The truth is that people with shared goals work can together for greater outcomes, and the most successful people help others attain their goals. It is a lie perpetuated by the misinformed that, say, rich people are always exploiting poor people or that life is a zero-sum game. On the contrary, if it would take a person 10 hours to complete a task alone and 3 hours to complete it with someone else, then cooperation saves each party 7 hours to do it together. No one is worse off. Similarly, if someone invents a new phone, hires unemployed people to build it and sells millions of units, literally everyone is better off: the inventor is rewarded handsomely for the risk and ingenuity; the employees earn money that they weren't earning while unemployed; and the customers now all have phones. In fact, even people who have no involvement in the cooperation benefit from others' cooperation, such as when crime goes down from the employment or fires cause less damage because of the additional tax money raised to fund more fire services.
In short, life is better with cooperation, and people know that intuitively and so give and receive help frequently. If you want to get help in your life with something, you need to look for it, ask for it, and give it. Remember that in large societies where everyone either needs something or is trying to sell something, people will be asking for help or offering a product or service often. Therefore, if you want to get help, remember to either ask people you have a relationship with or offer something first/in return to trigger the reciprocity ethic. Many people will help with certain things no matter what, such as someone in danger of being harmed. In other cases, however, like work, you'll be more likely to need to reciprocate support. In either case, securing help is usually possible.
Fallacy #8: There’s nothing I can do to change my situation in life.
Reality: Your life is the culmination of your choices—even if you choose to do nothing.
Finally, and possibly most damaging, is the idea that you don't have a choice in life. The worst form of this, determinism, is the idea that because nothing happening now could have happened without the things before it happening, somehow that means that what is happening now is the only thing that could've happened. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humans have the ultimate ability to determine their actions, and your life is a sum of the choices you make throughout.
Yes, there are controllable and uncontrollable factors in life. Those uncontrollable factors are getting lesser every day, though, shown in the classic "I can't change my genes" argument being slowly eroded with advances in surgery and genetics. Even before those advances, however, there are plenty of things in life that are within your control. You choose your thoughts, beliefs, words, decisions, and experiences. You always have a choice in any situation where you put your attention and how you think and act. Yes, those are all only possible because of uncontrollable factors like your genetics and your existence, but they don't fully determine them. What you do with your life is up to you, for better or for worse (depending on how you choose to live it).
Remember that if you do not choose, you are simply choosing to let others choose for you. For example, most people select from clothing that matches what everyone else wears. You risk nothing but public disapproval by wearing underwear on your head (I'm not telling you to do that; I'm simply pointing out that you could but choose not to). While it may seem reasonable to follow social norms regarding clothing, other things like picking a job, hobby, or recreational activity based on what others think is praiseworthy vs. what you want is much more detrimental to your likelihood of living a fulfilling life. It's those choices where you want to focus more on what you want than what others think and live your own life.
Finally, keep in mind that there is great news regarding life decisions: your brain is evolutionarily equipped to generate happiness for you once you commit to an option. In other words, you'll either be able to change your mind regarding a decision you can change later or commit to an option and learn to live with it regarding a decision that you cannot change. It's a wonderful gift of evolution that allows you to make choices in life when you are uncertain so that you don't have to worry as much about being wrong.
So those are the eight biggest fallacies that people make in their search for meaning in life. Hopefully, these insights will help you avoid them and stay on the path toward meaning and fulfillment. There are many other false beliefs that people can hold that can hold them back, but fixing these will likely see the most gains in someone's sense of purpose because of how critical they are to finding meaning in life.