[Personal] Finding the Meaning of Life

I am not financially free yet. But I do consider myself financially secure.

Something happens as you inch there: you think about the subject of life a whole lot more. Specifically, the meaning of life. This short, fleeting life.

The thought process didn’t come overnight; rather, it was an increment. It gradually builds itself up and took up more space in my head.

Rationally, I know why it happens. As you accumulate money, you get to choose what conveniences to buy. That gets you time. And when you have free time, you start thinking about how to fill it.

This realisation shocked me; even though I should’ve seen it coming – I did write the 23 Things That I Can Do At Home, Instead Of Spending Money article a while back. That was me exploring what I can do for cheap with the extra time that I had. And this is me using that time to put my thought processes about the meaning of life into order.

The society-accepted ‘Meaning of Life’

pixel2013 / Pixabay

The societal norm for achieving a fulfilled life should be familiar to you, too: Go to school, go to university, find a job, find a spouse, buy a house, have some children, work your ass off, save for retirement and enjoy retirement (with some grandchildren).

The guideline is helpful enough to start, especially when you’re young and have no idea yet what you want to do in life. It’s standard, and it helps you assimilate into society.

At this point in life, I did the first three, but I’m not sure I want to proceed with the rest. Not that I reject it, but I want greater flexibility in available options. I’ve seen people regretting their marriages and house purchases, simply because ‘it was time to get married/buy a house’. Kids are nice, but not a compulsory element for a fulfilled life – people can be just as happy without them, if not happier. Maybe those funds can be better spent towards what truly makes one happy, however one defines it.

Then there’s the final three phases, the work-hard-until-retirement phases, where only then you’ll be allowed to rest from working all your adult life.  I don’t want this at all. Instead, I like the idea of permanent semi-retirement even from a relatively young age. I like the idea of always working on projects I’m passionate in, regardless whether I’m 30 or 60 or 90. Not having things to do beyond housekeeping and providing childcare seems like a terribly boring way to live (no offence to those who enjoy this, good for you).

For me, knowing what I don’t want is the first step towards finding what I do want out of life. Process of elimination and all that.

The fear: regret

pavlelederer2 / Pixabay

As a feeling, regret ranks way up there in the ‘nope’ category, doesn’t it? I don’t have major regrets in life (yet; touch wood), but even the small ones make me cringe, no matter how many years have passed since then.

A while back, I read the ‘top 5 regrets people have before they die’ articles with interest. Copying from this article, here they are:

  • I wish I pursued my dreams and aspirations, and not the life others expected of me
  • I wish I didn’t work so hard
  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings and speak my mind
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish I had let myself be happier

Oooh, a punch to the guts. I really don’t want to be thinking of these on my deathbed!

I did make some progress in ‘defying others’ expectations’ (regret no 1). After high school, I penned a letter to my Dad begging for his forgiveness for not wanting to go down the medic route, like he wanted me to. I cried writing it, knowing it’ll break his heart. I just want to say he’s a great Dad – he said ‘I love you’ a lot – and choosing not to do what he wanted saddened me, but it also relieved me. Thank you for your unconditional love since then, Dad.

I’m also known as a fairly blunt and direct person (regret no 3). This has hurt my Mom’s feelings many times, usually after I dismiss her many motherly suggestions (stay home, wear hijab, etc). However she did admit finding value in this trait. She said she values my opinions because I don’t say something just for the sake of ‘jaga hati’. Thank you for understanding, Mom.

I’m nowhere near perfect, but I try to keep in mind the above regrets when I make life choices. Work-wise, I prioritise projects that allow me ample rest time (regret no 2). I try to meet up with friends as often as I can (regret no 4). Knowing that experience – not things – provide higher levels of happiness, I prioritise travel and self-development (regret no 5).

Life-long passion vs short-term passions

Jordan-Al / Pixabay

I’m lucky enough to have a specific area of interest that I’m wholeheartedly passionate in: personal finance. This blog is 2.5 years old, but I’ve recorded my expenses since I was 17. I had my first job (telemarketing) and earned my own money at 18. I moved out of the family home and managed my own expenses after college. I’m not ‘better’, just privileged, mind you.

I hope this passion continues. It dreads me to think of the day when I might not like it anymore. There have been times when it came dangerously close – when I developed passions for other things (or so I thought). During those times, I stopped reading/researching about personal finance and dedicated all my energy to something else. For example, when I was in college I was hooked on anime and cosplay culture for a while. I watched anime every single day, during any available free time. I went to cosplay conventions. Cosplayed only once though – as Cooking Mama (lol).

Okay, so maybe short-term passions are fine as well. Maybe I can just call them ‘flings’. They make life interesting. I shouldn’t be guilty of this, now, should I?

There are a few ‘flings’ I’m considering right now. Being a full-time traveler is one. Being a coder is another. Being a data scientist, too. My third ambition – back in primary school where teachers ask you to fill in the ‘cita-cita saya’ box – was to become a scientist. I even drew myself in a lab coat. (The first ambition was flight attendant, the second one was ninja assassin).

There was a time when I felt guilty (there’s the G-word again) about wanting to reinvent myself throughout life. The norm is dedication to a single craft, no? But over time, I’ve witnessed people – successful people – who have reinvented themselves again and again. Julian Hosp of Tenx (a crypto-related startup) was a professional basketball player, a professional kitesurfer, a medical doctor, and now a startup founder.

Why the heck not? Allowing myself that freedom to try out things completely outside my area of expertise and outside of my comfort zone was liberating. Recently I became a theatre producer for a (small, one-night only) show. It was fun as heck. I even made a small profit out of it – paid more or less the same as the performers in the show – but a profit nonetheless.

Research-backed ways to be happy

Research-backed paths to happiness appeal to me more than religion-backed paths to happiness. To be clear, it’s not binary, not one-or-the-other. It’s more like one-over-the-other. Even when I refer back to religion, I choose the ‘God-as-a-loving-entity’ narrative rather than the ‘God-as-the-punisher’ narrative.

This article is one of the best compilations I’ve found on the topic. Sharing their infographic:

Money-related habits appear pretty regularly, either as a means or a tool to achieve happiness. See it in: 7) Pursue personally meaningful goals, 11) Let go of materialistic tendencies, 12) Give freely, 18) Jobs as a calling, 19) Have things to look forward to, 20) Spend money on experiences and 21) Spend money to benefit others.

Of course, there’s also that other study that proved money is needed to achieve optimal emotional happiness. Apparently you are happiest if you make at least between $60,000-75,000 per year. Make over the ‘satiation point’ ($95,000) and the income/happiness correlation no longer applies. Note: the amount differs from country to country – from as low as $35,000 (Latin America) to $125,000 (Australia/New Zealand). Note 2: No idea what’s the specific amount for Malaysians.

In any case, can I admit that THE NUMBERS ARE FREAKING INTIMIDATING???? Even the lowest number $35,000 is RM135,000 per year!

Hmm, oh well. Change what you can, accept what you can’t. I guess I’ll be okay with whatever level of happiness I can get with my income level. I’ll try my darnest to earn that amount, but even if I don’t, I will make the best out of what I have, dammit.

Conclusion

The conclusion here is anticlimactic: I have no conclusion. I still don’t know what is my personal meaning of life. I just know:

  • Money bought me the time to think about life fulfilment
  • Maybe the society-accepted Meaning of Life model is not for me, and that’s okay
  • Try my hardest not to make decisions I’d regret
  • Work on passions, and keep finding new passions (even temporary ones)
  • Use research to guide me towards making habits that generally make people happy

And just be open to possibilities and make the best out of it. While I figure out my meaning of life, I’ll keep trying for that sweet income level recommendation. Maybe the progress in that area is the catalyst. It’s a start anyhow.

What is your thought process like in deciding your life path? Was it consciously yours, or did something (or someone) else guide you?

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10 comments

  1. I love this post, Suraya! For me, it’s pretty much because of the aging/adulting (I refuse to call it my mid-life crisis..haha..) and my thought process usually start/kicks in when I see others fail/succeed in their passion projects. That is when I’ll think about my life holistically and set some goals on what is it that I really want in life. Over time, I WILL be dragged back into that black-hole of society-conformed-happiness-concept, but then when I see a particular special something (like this post, or even you; for instance) the thought will keep flooding back in and takes me back to the overall meaning of life that I thought of in the first place. So it’s always a ‘drifting away’ and ‘swimming-back-to-shore’ kind of process for me and I have not at all reach where I want to be, but thank you for this post for bringing me back to ‘shore’…at least for now 🙂 Keep writing & know that you are one of my many aspirations in life 🙂

    1. Thanks, Kuma-chan! Your reply is very thoughtful and reflective, enjoyed reading it. The waves analogy is so fitting too. Glad to be the shore this time around 🙂

  2. Brilliant article Suraya — wishing you the best on your journey to finding the meaning of life!

    Just wanted to add that if based on PPP conversion, the “optimal” number (based on my calculations) for income happiness would be around RM 106K. Basically PPP conversion is the way to “USD” in local currency. It answers the question, “How much do I need in local currency to purchase local items that are equivalent in the US?”

    I wrote some more details around that in my article: “5 Uncommon Truths About Money You Need to Hear” (can’t insert link here as it marks as Spam).

    Keep the great articles coming!

    1. Hey Hazwan, I’m content enough, yeah, but always feel like I can do more, push more. Sometimes I like this feeling, sometimes it’s very tiring too. Double-edged sword scenario :/

  3. Hi Suraya, I really like this article as it makes me reflect on my own life. l always believe that life offers an endless possibilities and it is up to us whether we want to catch it or not. I’ll say, go get all the “flings” that you want as long as you stay true to yourself and it makes you happy. That is the most important thing, do things that makes you happy. Sending you positive vibe all the way.. ;D

  4. Hey Suraya.
    I’ve been reading your articles for a while now but this one especially resonated with me. I have been doing post production work for the advertising industry for the longest time (about 15 years). Personal finance became a keen subject of interest to me, mainly because I was tired of trading all that time for money, and that prompted me to go freelance. This enabled me to eliminate all major debts i.e house and transport (small apartment, 2nd hand car). I also did the ASB loan thing, but still the first million seemed like a distant dream from that point.

    One day in December 2017, through the grace of God, infinite love and generosity from mum, and sheer dumb luck on my part, I received 1.5M in the form of an early inheritance.

    Today I have completely removed myself from the ad industry and have all the time in the world to be who I want, reinvent myself and spend time with those that love me (i cant count them with one hand). It has forced me to deal with tough questions that we think we know but when faced with it, answers are not straightforward. To this day I have not told anyone about this windfall for obvious reasons. I’ve put in annonymous donations into the accounts of some cousins and nephews. So now I’m reading books and blogs like this, but none of it is worth jack until I get up and do something. Its been months and I’m just typing this in my living room. Having too many options can be paralizing, but no complaints jere – its a wonderful problem to have, requiring deep introspection and a level of self-awareness only people with too much time will indulge in. I still have no concrete plan on what I will do, except maybe revisit your article on “Passive Income Options in Malaysia”.

    Thank you for creating this awesome blog ❤️

    1. Hi Sudonima,

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience regarding impact of a financial windfall, it is insightful. Living with that kind of secret is a wonderful problem indeed, but still a problem, even if its something I’m sure many people would be glad to have

      All the best with your plans, and I hope the money will bring joy for as many people as possible throughout your lifetime <3

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