Long before most of us are able to independently think about what makes life truly worth living, we’re being conditioned to believe life’s ultimate aim comes down to achievement and acquisition. Not only does our most basic evolutionary drive to see our genes into future generations cause us to tirelessly work towards the enhancement of our own and our children’s life situations, but social influence and advertising amplify this inborn desire by telling us that we can set ourselves apart from the pack and guarantee our success by making more money, outdoing the competition, winning the praise of our peers and obtaining the finest material possessions. Yet, as we approach life from this ‘always more to have, always more to do’ mindset, the invaluable moments are slipping through our fingers.
Unfortunately, for all too many individuals, the realization that they haven’t truly enjoyed the precious gift of life, and instead spent their days working away as a slave to the system, doesn’t come until it’s too late. This disheartening truth is one that an Australian nurse by the name of Bronnie Ware, who spent years working alongside terminally ill patients in the weeks before their deaths, came to intimately understand. In her deeply moving memoir The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, Ware points to the problems with how we seek fulfillment and encourages us to recognize that life’s ultimate aim is to graciously enjoy each day. She writes:
Start creating the habit of counting your blessings for being alive today. Take ownership of your life. Shift your priorities. You are going to die! Understand this, and get excited about the gift of today. You are alive right now.”
Unsatisfiable Psychological Drives vs Aims Rooted in Wisdom:
When examining how our most fundamental Darwinian nature causes us to tirelessly pursue safety, enhanced preservation, and sexual reproduction, it becomes easier to understand why our desires for power, status, sex, money and possessions, which are reinforced by the messages we receive from society, never leave us satisfied. Although we believe that we’ll find eternal fulfillment by rising to the top of our field, buying the trendiest clothes, and finding the perfect partner, it isn’t long after we achieve these aims when our happiness returns to a monotonous level, a phenomenon that’s psychologically referred to as the hedonic treadmill, and we start dreaming of what’s newer, bigger and better. Why is this the case? Robert Wright, the award winning scientific journalist and author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, reminds us of our inborn inclination to use dissatisfaction for procreative purposes by telling us:
We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones.”
In addition to this limiting yet essential evolutionary feature, there is another important reason why we’re unable to find fulfillment in materialistic and worldly goals. Where as our thirst for more relates to what we believe we’re lacking, however, this second hinderance relates to a limited perspective that prohibits us from clearly seeing the true reality of nature. That being, of course, our ignorance towards the impermanent nature of all things, including ourselves, and the fleeting feelings of pleasure we attain from achieving our misguided aims. Undoubtedly, the nagging sense of dissatisfaction that drapes over our existence is largely due to assuming that impermanent objects, people and feelings can create permanent happiness. The celebrated Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us:
It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
Fortunately, in stark contrast to the impermanent and unsatisfiable drives we naively assume will bring us lasting happiness, there is another set of aspirations that can infuse our lives with more meaningful joy and purpose. These wisdom-filled aims, however, aren’t directed at briefly appeasing sensual urges or reaching some fictitious final destination of fulfillment but rather towards partaking in our daily activities, the ones we regrettably undervalue, with a sense of contented grace.
It’s certain that by shifting our focus away from the momentary satisfaction we receive from financial gains, social praise, and overindulgence, and towards the sustained sense of well-being that comes from prioritizing our most meaningful relationships, new experiences, the activities we genuinely enjoy and making a difference in our communities, we’ll be on our way to getting more out of the limited number of days we have on this earth. Yet still, to truly achieve life’s ultimate aim, we’ll not only have to rearrange our priorities but also transform our minds so that our thinking is rooted in wisdom and gratitude for the gift of being alive. The award-winning self-help author Vironika Tugaleva so adequately proclaims:
Everything changes. The leaves, the weather, the colour of your hair, the texture of your skin. The feelings you have today – whether they kill you or enthrall you – won’t be the same tomorrow, so let go. Celebrate. Enjoy. Nothing lasts, except your decision to celebrate everything, everyone, for the beauty that is there within each moment, each smile, each impermanent flicker of infinity.”
Striving to Become More with Balance & Understanding:
Although it can be easy to assume, upon coming to realize that the goals we typically associate happiness with inevitably leave us unsatisfied, that there isn’t any reason to approach life with a sense of ambitious vision, the truth is that living with an ‘it doesn’t really matter’ attitude will similarly leave us unfulfilled. In fact, because we’re naturally driven to improve our circumstances and ourselves as individuals, the only possible way to live harmoniously is by committing ourselves to become the best individuals we can be. Of course, it may seem inconceivable for someone to maintain a sense of peace when adhering to the seemingly contradictory lifestyles of letting go and pressing forward toward their goals, but it’s important to remember that anything is possible with balance and understanding.
If we are to set out to become all that we can become while simultaneously aiming to achieve life’s ultimate aim of graciously enjoying each day, the first thing we’ll have to realize is that balance is key. For those of you who struggle to effectively manage the most precious resource of time, this may mean making an ongoing effort to monitor your internal states, intentions, the path you’re currently taking, and the ways in which you juggle the various facets of your life. Additionally, as you’re aiming to create a sense of life-affirming equilibrium, it’ll serve you quite well to cultivate contentment for your current situation while relinquishing the need to push, control or complain about how unfairly you perceive your circumstances to be. Thomas Merton, the late great American writer and theologian, reminds us:
Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”
While there is little denying the fact that living with balance is the only way possible to simultaneously strive to become more while graciously enjoying each day, what is perhaps most important is that your lifestyle approach is rooted in understanding of the causes of happiness and the ultimate reality of impermanence. The reason our knowledge of these things is so important can be found in the fact that it’s only after realizing there is no final destination of fulfillment, because the pleasure we obtain from reaching our goals inevitably fades away, can we become contented with the continual process of personal growth while also rejoicing in the gifts of today.
Furthermore, it’s certain that by gaining experientially based insights into the problems that arise from associating our well-being with fleeting feelings and impermanent things, we’ll be able to more easily detach ourselves from the outcomes of our actions and offer love to all that we encounter. Rabindranath Tagore, the immortalized Bengali poet who transformed Indian culture, tells us of the components of true success:
Great calm, generous detachment, selfless love, disinterested effort: these are what make for success in life. If you can find peace in yourself and can spread comfort around you, you will be happier than an empress.”
Transforming Our Minds to Achieve Life’s Ultimate Aim:
Based upon what’s been explored up until this point in the article, it should be easy to understand why achieving life’s ultimate aim is no easy feat. This, however, isn’t to say that our instinctual drive for more and our ignorance towards the impermanent nature of reality can prohibit us from graciously enjoying each passing day. Of course, to accomplish what should be considered the loftiest of all aspirations will take a bit of personal refinement, most of which comes down to transforming our minds. Fortunately, by undertaking the following seven spiritual and psychological practices, while striving to live fully in the present moment, it’s certain that we’ll be well on our way:
Search for Happiness Within:
There is perhaps not a single activity that can help us achieve life’s ultimate aim more so than the practice of meditation. By shifting the direction of our fulfillment search from worldly desires towards the acquisition of wisdom and internal transformation, we’ll be able to uproot limiting ways of thinking, develop a sense of sustained equanimity and find more joy in the eternally changing present moment. The immortalized Vipassana Meditation instructor S.N. Goenka tells us:
Removing old conditionings from the mind and training the mind to be more equanimous with every experience is the first step toward enabling one to experience true happiness.”
Cultivate Warmhearted Feelings of Contentment & Compassion:
One specific way that we can use meditation to help us achieve life’s ultimate aim is by cultivating warmhearted feelings of contentment and compassion. Recently, scientific research has linked these two life-affirming traits, which can be developed through practices such as Metta Meditation, directly to individuals’ subjective well-being and indirectly shown how we can increase our levels life satisfaction by cultivating them within.
Monitor Your Thoughts, Emotions & Behaviors:
Where as meditation and the cultivation of warmhearted feelings most precisely relate to one’s spiritual life, another similarly structured and immensely useful personal practice that comes from the field of psychology is that of self-motoring. While individuals suffering from debilitating mental health disorders, and receiving treatment in the form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or other therapeutic approaches, are instructed to monitor their thoughts, emotions and behaviors so that they’re able to challenge and modify the cognitions and actions that limit them, each and everyone of us can rely upon the practice, which is closely related to mindfulness, to transform our misguided beliefs.
Become a Student of Life:
If we are to graciously enjoy each passing day, it’s certain that we’ll have to increase our understanding of what makes life truly worth living. Fortunately, as the previously mentioned Australian nurse Bronnie Ware has learned from years working in the palliative care unit, we can infuse ourselves with both wisdom and joy by becoming a student of life. Moreover, if we immerse ourselves in life-affirming literature and media, related to a wide variety of inspirational and insightful topics, we can attune our thinking so we’re able to continuously get more out of life.
Shape Your Beliefs with Conscious Questions:
Another powerful personal practice that we can rely upon to transform the way we approach life is what we like to refer to as conscious questions. It’s certain that by taking time each day to ask ourselves transformational questions, such as ‘What do I want in life?’, ‘What is success?’ and ‘How can I make today memorable?’, before proactively pondering the answers within your heart, we can uproot limiting thought patterns and shape our beliefs so we’re able to live with more joy.
Find Purpose In Your Passions & Meaning In Your Morals:
To achieve life’s ultimate aim, it’ll be vastly important to consider both your passions and morals. This is because unless we’re guided by our most meaningful interests and virtuous intentions, as opposed to entering into a professional field for money or acting in an unethical or selfish manner, we’ll forever remain unfulfilled. While it may be intimidating to completely modify your professional and/or social lives, so that your living in accordance to the passions and morals of your heart, rest assured that doing so will be one of the greatest gift you’ll ever give to yourself.
Celebrate & Savor Life’s Precious Moments:
While all of the practices we’ve discussed thus far can assuredly help us graciously enjoy each day, the single most important thing we can do is savor life’s moments with understanding that one day we will pass away. Although thinking about death is something most of us consciously avoid at all costs, putting our limited time into perspective can help us value being alive and encourage us to celebrate the seemingly ordinary moments which are anything but. The late great author and spiritual teacher Wayne W. Dyer perfectly sums it up by telling us:
Seize every second of your life and savor it. Value your present moments.”