Focusing less on the outcome
In ancient Greece, King Pyrrhus sat down with his adviser, Kineas, to draw up daring plans of invasion. Pyrrhus wanted to conquer all of Italy.
“After the conquest of Italy, what will you do?” Kineas asked.
“We will vanquish Africa,” Pyrrhus replied.
“And then, after Africa?” Kineas probed.
“We will set out for Asia and conquer Asia Minor and Arabia!” Pyrrhus exclaimed triumphantly.
“Where will we go next?”
“Next, we will go all the way to India.”
“And after India?”
“Ah,” Pyrrhus said. “Then I shall rest.”
“Why,” Kineas asked, “don’t you rest right now?”
This old anecdote has been much discussed over the centuries: whose attitude would you prefer, that of Pyrrhus or of Kineas?
On one hand, without dreams and ambitions, we would still be in the Stone Age. On the other hand, in a wider context, so much of our individual striving looks feeble, even meaningless. Like Pyrrhus, who failed even to conquer all of Italy, few of us reach all of our goals in life.
How to perceive our normal life as meaningful in its own right
If you can make your activities meaningful in themselves without being fixated on the outcome, you have perhaps achieved a golden mean. As the psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl writes:
Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.”1
For instance, people often exercise in order to reduce their weight rather than to experience the exercise as meaningful in itself. Obviously, there is nothing wrong about running fast but if the goal isn’t reached as soon as you would like, it will quickly become wearisome – as frustrating as any activity that is valuable only because of a very specific outcome. Generally, the effort tends to grow disappointing and, so, to be sustainable only for the short term.2 What are your own experiences?
Try to choose the meaningful rather than the extreme
Changes in lifestyle intended simply to achieve, say, control of your weight or blood sugar level tend not to give you the sense of inner motivation that comes with alterations that feel worth doing for their own sake.3 This is why long-term, gentle changes are more effective than, for instance, extreme diets or training schedules that may give quick results but, the long run, are too tough for most people.
Healthcare nowadays are very much intended to prolonging life. Hopefully, your questions will help you to find changes in your lifestyle that will enrich your everyday life rather than just get you through to your hundredth birthday.
It is at least arguable that Pyrrhus’s ambition to conquer the known world was well over the top. It seems he was so keen to reach his goal that he never gave himself time to reflect on whether the journey itself had any meaning for him.
What about you? Which of your goals are truly meaningful in their own right, and which are intended only to allow you to reach a distant goal?
1. Viktor E. Frankl. Man's Search for Meaning. Ebury Publications, 2004 (first publ. in English, 1959 in transl. by Ilse Lasch)
2. Cohen G et al., Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2014. 65:333–71
3. Teixeira et al. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:78