I was blessed to grow up in a family that emphasized values like love, respect, duty, and courage. For my parents, aunts, and uncles, life was not about acquiring power, wealth, or fame, it was about quietly doing your work and standing for what was right, good, and true. Their lives were not easy, but their lives were meaningful and often joyful.
As a result of their example, I have had a lifelong interest in the benefits of finding meaning in life and work. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. Meaning is an intrinsic motivator, and those who are intrinsically motivated perform at higher levels. Most important, finding meaning is a key to being deeply happy. I think that each of us can, and should, find deep happiness in our lives and our work.
I went to college during the “student revolution” of the late 1960s. There was conflict and confrontation on many college and high school campuses, but there was also idealism and hope that positive change could be achieved. I worked mostly with high school student leaders during that time. I traveled the country, giving more than a hundred speeches in eight different states.
What I found disturbing was that so many young people went out to change the world but came back too soon. They gave up because change did not occur quickly, or people did not appreciate what they were trying to do. I urged them to love people, because change takes time, and love is one of the only motivations strong enough to keep you with the people and the process until change is achieved. I also told them that if they do what they believe is right, and good, and true, their actions will be meaningful, and that meaning can sustain them as they continue their work. If people appreciate you, that’s fine, but if you have the meaning, you don’t have to have the glory.
When I was 19, a college sophomore, I wrote a booklet for high school student leaders about the motivation and methods of working together with others to bring about change. That booklet included 149 words that I called “The Paradoxical Commandments.” The Paradoxical Commandments are guidelines for finding meaning in the face of adversity. The commandments subsequently spread around the world, until they had been used by millions of people in more than a hundred countries. The full story can be found at www.paradoxicalcommandments.com.
To download a copy of the Paradoxical Commandments, click here.
In 1997, I learned that Mother Teresa had put a copy of the commandments up on the wall at her children’s home in Calcutta. That discovery inspired me to start speaking and writing about the commandments again, thirty years after I first published them. I have published five books about the Paradoxical Commandments: Anyway, Do It Anyway, Jesus Did It Anyway, Have Faith Anyway, and The Paradox of Personal Meaning.
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The Paradoxical Commandments are about finding personal meaning in the face of adversity. The paradox is that even when things are going badly, you can still find meaning and deep happiness. There is another paradox, which is that when things are going well, it can be hard to find meaning and deep happiness. Research and personal experience show us that symbols of success like power, wealth, fame, prestige, and social status provide little meaning and happiness. For that, we have to look elsewhere.
In 2021, I published The Paradox of Personal Meaning. The book provides an introduction to the Paradoxical Commandments, describes the importance of finding meaning, and then discusses eleven Meaning Maximizers that can provide you with much more personal meaning and deep happiness than the symbols of success. To download a PDF of the book, click here.
I have also published a short story, Missing the Last Train: A Christmas Tale (2012). It is a short story about a man who has lost his focus on the most meaningful things in life. Working too late on Christmas Eve, he misses the last train home, and is stuck overnight at the train station with his bag of presents for his children. The station attendant invites him into his small office, and shares “The Four Rules” for finding meaning in life. When the man boards the first train the next morning, he knows that “The Four Rules” are the Christmas present he needed most. To download a PDF of the book, click here.