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Building a Meaningful Life

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A traveler came upon a group of three hard-at-work stonemasons. He asked each in turn what he was doing. The first said, "I am sanding down this block of marble." The second said, "I am preparing a foundation." The third said, "I am building a cathedral." It is the third mason who sees a greater purpose and meaning in his work, even though he is doing exactly the same work as the other two.

To find meaning in life, one needs to reframe reality in a cumulative way. Thus, our actions and activities get stored in a metaphorical bucket. We should set goals and make progress toward these goals. A goal can be anything from cultivating a garden to losing weight, writing a poem, preparing for a marathon, or contributing to a charity or a cause. The key is to recognize that each day you are making progress towards a goal, like filling a bucket with water.

In the following, the first section represents a less goal-directed process. The second section represents accumulated action. To develop a cumulative view, one must appreciate how far you have come, rather than just what you have accomplished that day.

View Reality as Cumulative

Stream (water poured today): It does not count

Disconnected Actions
  • Job
  • Study
  • Activity
  • Practice sports
  • Play an instrument
Disconnected Emotions
  • Joys and sorrows
  • Entertainment sex
  • Child care
Consumption
  • Keeping a gadget
  • Buying a souvenir
  • Profit

Stock (water stored in the bucket): It counts

Progressing Toward A Goal
  • Career
  • Earn a degree
  • Project
  • Skill building
  • Accumulate learning
Life Narrative
  • Part of the book of life
  • Building a relationship
  • Raising a family
Accumulation
  • Collecting
  • Adding this to a collection
  • Net worth

Why do cumulative goods and activities (progressing toward goals, learning some skill, helping with causes that transcend us, or developing relationships) give us happiness? The fundamental equation for happiness is:

HAPPINESS equals REALITY minus SHIFTING EXPECTATIONS

With cumulative goods, when consumed at a constant rate, reality and expectations become two lines that increase in parallel, leaving a space of happiness between the two.

Cumulative goods act as basic goods if the bucket does not break. But very few things are safe. Long-term relationships break down, loved ones fall sick, large companies go bankrupt, and belief in causes can be lost. The bucket that has provided happiness while being filled can go empty. This is the nature of life.

You may be tempted to try to avoid such large losses by never engaging in cumulative activities that have a risk of being lost. Bus, as the saying goes, "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

The true joy of life is in the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us. -- "The Station" by Robert Hastings

Rakesh Sarin is a distinguished professor of management at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. Manel Baucells is professor of business and economics at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. They are the co-authors of "Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life," (University of California Press, April 2012). Rakesh was recently invited to discuss Engineering Happiness at a TED conference.

For more by Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.