Finding Personal Meaning – The Key to Happiness

By Kent M. Keith in Happiness on December 7th, 2008 / No Comments

Each of us can be, and should be, deeply happy. What do I mean by “deep happiness”? I mean the kind of happiness that touches your spirit and connects with your soul. Some people call it self-fulfillment, or self-actualization, or being centered. Others call it living their passion, or following their bliss. For people of faith, it’s about finding the divine will for their lives, and then living that will.

Each of us should be deeply happy so that we will be at our best, and will be able to help others to be deeply happy and be at their best as well. When we experience deep happiness, we become more loving, more giving, more patient, more enthusiastic. We become a gift to others. So we should be deeply happy for their sake as well as ours.

Finding Personal Meaning Is the Key
We know from research, the teachings of our elders, and our own experience that finding personal meaning is a key to being deeply happy. If we want to be deeply happy, we have to focus on meaning.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Our culture promotes symbols of success that provide relatively little personal meaning. For example, power is a symbol of success, but there is more personal meaning in service than in power—more meaning in helping people than in ordering them around.

Wealth is a symbol of success, but there is more personal meaning in enjoying the richness of daily life, such as our families, friends, hobbies, and sunsets. Fame is a symbol of success, but there is more personal meaning in being known intimately by a few people rather than being known superficially by millions.

The symbols of success aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just not enough. They’re not enough if we want to find personal meaning and be deeply happy.

Where do people find meaning? They find it in their relationships with their families and friends. They find it in loving and helping others. They find it in doing their best, living their values, and doing what’s right.

The Paradoxical Commandments
The good thing about focusing on meaning is that we can always find it, even when times are tough. That’s the message of the Paradoxical Commandments that I wrote back in 1968, when I was 19, a college sophomore. Here is what I wrote:

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

The Paradoxical Commandments are guidelines for finding personal meaning in the face of adversity. The paradox is this: Even when things are tough – even when the world is crazy – we can still find personal meaning and deep happiness. We do that by facing the worst in the world with the best in ourselves. We do that by living a paradoxical life.

The Meaning Is in Our Inner Lives
The fact is that, as individuals, we can’t control the external world. We can’t control the world economy, and the rate of population growth. We can’t control the weather, or natural disasters like fires, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes. We can’t control when terrorists may strike or wars may break out. We can’t control which companies will acquire which companies, and which jobs will be eliminated and which jobs will be created.

We can’t control what other teams will do, or who will get sick or injured, on other teams and our team. We can work hard, and prepare, and seize opportunities – we have to do that. We can join with others, and try to influence the external world – we ought to do that, too. But there are lots of things in our external world we just can’t control.

What we can control is our inner lives. We get to decide who we are going to be and how we are going to live. We can decide to live our most cherished values, and be close to our families and friends, and do what we know is right and good and true, no matter what. When we do, our lives become meaningful and we can find deep happiness.

The decision is ours. So why not be deeply happy?

About the author:
Kent M. Keith is the author of Do It Anyway, Jesus Did it Anyway and Anyway: The Paradoxdical Commandments.  He has appeared in national media from Today to the New York Times.  A former attorney and university president, he is a popular speaker on finding personal meaning in a chaotic world. He lives in Indianapolis, IN. His website is:

Based on the book Do It Anyway: Finding Personal Meaning and Deep Happiness by Living the Paradoxical Commandments © 2008 by Kent M. Keith. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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