As human beings, we absolutely need to have meaning in our lives. It's the energy that drives us forward, gets us up in the mornings and propels us to make the actions that we make. Take away this sense of meaning and we will quickly start to feel very negatively about ourselves, and our life. Without meaning, many of us will begin to not function at all; we will literally struggle to get out of bed. In other words, we may become very, very depressed.
The need for meaning is profound. We all know that our time on this earth is limited, and that we need to make it count somehow. Our brains have evolved to be more sophisticated than other forms of life - plants and animals - so that there is a lot more to being human than simply searching for food and a mate.
In our work we encounter a lot of people who no longer feel they have a sense of meaning in their lives, and this is making them feel very miserable indeed. Stressed out sales executives who have spent the last twenty years chasing down deals, making money for their company, working crazy hours, and maybe neglecting their home lives as a result, will often say something like, "I'm just not sure what this all means anymore." But this isn't quite the same as living a life devoid of meaning. Yet, what these burnt out business-people are really questioning is whether this level of massively focused hard work - to the exclusion of all else, including their own health and sanity - has been worth it. In other words, they may need to make some big adjustments to their work-life balance in order to recover this sense of meaning that they have temporarily mislaid. But, if they don't make these adjustments, they risk losing that sense of meaning altogether, and that's when the real damage can start to set in.
The meaning of my life, and of your life, and of Joe Bloggs' life, will vary according to what I, and you, and Joe Bloggs considers to be important. It's really all about priorities, and not losing sight of what those are. What I mean by this is that working very hard and making a lot of money are not in and of themselves bad for us mentally, the important thing is to act consciously and accept that work/life balance is just that; it's a balancing act. A lot of people derive a lot of meaning from their work, and that is absolutely fine. If you value earning large sums of money because of the material wealth it brings to you and your family – and you have carefully considered, and are prepared to accept, the sacrifices that will entail – then go for it. You will have balance, because you have considered the consequences. If at any point you start to question the meaning of working so hard, then it's time to make a change.
Other people, however, have different values, and that is also fine. They may derive meaning from spending a lot of time with their family. Their contribution to the world may be to grow vegetables on their allotment and home-school their children, for example, and they accept that the consequences of that are that they may have more limited funds for undertaking exciting holidays, but the bonuses are that they derive purpose and satisfaction from giving their children the gift of their time, and the feeling that they are doing good things for the environment by growing their own food and not flying around the world on a large jumbo jet. If that is you, then go for it.
That crushing sense of not having meaning in our lives is really caused by failure to consider the consequences of the course our lives are taking, whether that's in working too hard or, to take the flip side, in choosing to not go for promotions at work out of fear rather than because it's what we really want. What's important is to live life authentically. In other words, in your own skin, making brave choices that reflect who we truly are and accepting that every decision will have its upsides and downsides. It's easy to think that somehow a parent who chooses the stay-at-home life has made that sacrifice willingly, but it is just as possible they have done so out of fear, of worrying they will no longer have the ability to achieve such success at work now that they have a family, perhaps, and therefore opt out of the workplace so as not to have to face that particular fear. It is just as possible that a person in this position will start to feel stressed and burned out bringing up young children at home because they have ultimately not made the right choice for them, and they will lose their sense of life's meaning as a result.
Because we all need to have a purpose, a meaning, to our life, the thing is to work out what that is for you. What makes you happy? Is it important to you that when you die, you leave a legacy for future generations? A book, for example? Or a company to leave to your children? Or is life itself the thing for you, living your best life, meeting interesting people, sharing food and laughter with friends and family? Think about what really matters, and live your life in pursuit of those things, and you will keep your sense of meaning. Every so often, you may like to "check in" on the train tracks of your life, whether it is still heading in the direction that you want and that you are still able to do the things that are important. It doesn't matter what those things are, just don't lose sight of them!
After all, none of us are here for long. Let's make the most of it.