20 August 2015

A Quest for Meaning

Autumn in my hometown // personal picture (yes I'm starting to long for Autumn...)

I think I may be reaching a point where my simplicity journey is slowly turning into a quest for meaning. As if I had reached a certain level in the "simplicity" class to unlock the "meaning" specialization (sorry for the role-playing game linguo). But what is that quest for meaning and how does it appear in today's world?

Like many other adepts of the minimalist/simplicity movement, it all started with questioning consumerism, the place of objects in my life, and shopping habits. In today's society, this part takes time, as some of you probably know. Then, also like many fellows from the simplicity community, I started spending much less time browsing, making wishlists, tracking sales, going shopping...

From Free Time to Meaning

That freed quite some daily time and raised the question: what to do instead? The transition is quite slow, but I started reconnecting with old hobbies, interests, passions of mine. As examples, I read more, took violin lessons, started practising sports, reconnected with old interests like science, space discoveries, minerals and geology, and writing fiction.

For example, I'm reading the magazine Science & Vie again (I had a subscription when I was 12) and plunge into science-fiction novels these days (Banks! Herbert! Asimov! K. Dick!). Hell, I'm even writing a science-fiction short story. I wonder about translating my short stories to English. And whether I could make money by being a freelance translator. But I'm digressing.

I can't quite point out the origin or reason for that, but it seems reconnecting with all these deep passions helped knowing myself better, rediscovering parts that were previously shut down, as if I was blooming again. That's where the change started.

Feeling in better harmony with myself created new questions: what is my place in this society? What can I do for others? How can I be the change I want to see in the world? Do my share of the work toward a better world? In Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi says people are usually motivated by one of three things: money, love, or changing the world. I think I know which motivates me.

Happiness and Meaning

It's like the quest for happiness - through simplicity, reclaiming my time and mental energy from consumerism - is slowly turning into a quest for meaning. What do I really want to do with my life? What achievements do I want to be proud of, when I'm 40 and look back to my thirties? What stories do I want to tell my children? What eulogy would I want people to write about me?

Perhaps being happy in my life allowed me to be able to think about these "higher" purposes of meaning and self accomplishment. After all, self actualization is at the tip of Maslow's pyramid of needs, and can't be reached until the "lower" needs are fulfilled. So, perhaps the quest for meaning is the next step in the journey of simplicity and self awareness?

Perhaps meaning is an indispensable part of happiness?

Some Food for Thought

I will leave you with two pieces that have been food for thought on the topic for me lately. Unfortunately both are in French but, short of Google translate, here are a few words on what it's about and whay it made me think.

Marc de la Ménardière on TEDx
Marc de la Ménardière was a white collar working in New York, a dream job really - good pay, nice parties, living the "american dream" as he says. Until he broke his arm and ended up in bed for two months and a half, watching documentaries like the one on Monsanto, if you've heard of it.

He was particularly touched by the debate around water: is it an indispensable resource that should be free for all, or one submitted to free market like all others? Since he was working for a brand of "luxury" water at the time, thus started his life questioning and quest for meaning.

"Someone said one day, that being well-adapted in a profoundly ill society wasn't necessarily a sign of good health."

That's how his talk starts, to give you an idea of what follows. He tells his story, how he ended up quitting his job and went with a documentary maker friend to meet people who have solutions to the current "ill society". He eventually made a documentary of it: En quête de sens (A quest for meaning). Many of his points resonate highly with me - although, working in the video game industry makes it easier as it is a creative field, and not pure consumerism like "luxury water" can be. I'll leave you with this quote:

Ghandi's vision was that before being consumers, we were makers, creators.

Blogger "La Carotte Masquée" on leaving her job
This isn't the first of such stories, thirty-somethings having an identity crisis and leaving it all behind. I guess her story touched me because I could relate: she is a blogger, like me, a "real person" in a way, and not some famous author teaching lessons from their successful position.

In this post, she explains how she did everything by the book - a famous business school, working in the marketing department of a big cosmetic company, getting this stable job (the "CDI") every young French person is aiming for, and which is said to be so rare nowadays with the economic crisis.

"My mother is extatic: it's great, you won't be unemployed, my daughter. Even I jump from joy when I finally reach the Graal: a CDI [the stable, unlimited duration French employment contract], the species we thought to be on the verge of extinction."

Then she tells of her questining journey, of how she started doubting her job, as if there was an inner conflict with her values. Then she explains the steps she went through - questioning, huge doubts, fear, then the action: she quit her job and started working for a non-profit organization. She now lives in India and her life has never been so meaningful.

I guess the main takeaway from this article, for me, is that it's always possible. It isn't necessarily about quitting our job, but about being in line with our inner values, and have the courage to overcome our fear and take action, whatever that action may be. My personal addition here, such action can be making time for a long lost hobby, sending drafts to publishing houses, dedicate time for non-profit organizations over the week-end...


I guess this post is kind of a draft about searching meaning in my life. I thought that, since it seems to be a natural next step within the journey of simplicity, some of you may find the discussion interesting.

What about you guys? Has your journey to simplicity ever opened you to questions of meaning and your place in society? What have you replaced shopping with? What is self actualization for you? Are you a creator rather than a consumer? What do you make? I'd love to hear your stories.


  1. I have always had a great need for meaning in my life. I think this is one of the reasons why I chose to study literature: I love reading stories as they convey how other people see the world and how to relate to it as a human being. When I was looking for a job, it took me a long time partly because I wanted not just a challenging job that fit my capacities etc., but also because I wanted to work for a company that did something meaningful in my eyes. E.g. I once almost had a fight with my then boyfriend because he did a job interview at Shell, a company I abhor for all the known crimes they have done against poor indigenous people and the environment. I’m very happy to work for a publishing house now (our main branch is school books – which I do believe can play a vital part in creating a better world).
    Still, when someone in my family died at a very young age a couple of years ago, it threw me back into endless questioning of the meaning of it all. After all, doing your best to make the world a better place still can’t prevent horrible things from happening, as evidenced by the daily news. I think this ‘existential crisis’ got me on the route to overshopping because I had no better answer than to just have fun while you can. I’m very glad I encountered yoga, than mindfulness, now minimalism (as a helpful tool to promote mindful clarity). Because now I feel very strongly that building meaningful relationships and living intentionally can bring a joy to your life that no shallow ‘fun’ activity like shopping or curling your hair ever can. Maybe one day I will make a commitment to volunteering or start creating again, for now my main focus is on bringing more love to the equation: love for close friends and relatives, kindness towards colleagues and acquaintances, fairness towards craftsmen who make the products I buy.
    Was that oversharing?

    1. That wasn't oversharing at all, at least nor for me! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience, it is very thought-provoking indeed. All my condolences for your loss, and I'm positively impressed by this self awareness you have built in only a couple of years, and how you managed to create a positive mindset out of a life tragedy.

      Also, I admire you for looking for a job/company that is in line with your values in the first place; I remember looking for such internship the first time I worked in the communications field, but I think I've left my career take me wherever my job and netwrok may take me without giving much thought to meaning in that field. Luckily, I work in the video game industry, which is a creative field, so I do find a form of meaning in what I do, but it was pure luck and not by intention that I joined in the first place. But again, I'm impressed :) It is sometimes hard to admit that I had to wait until I'm almost 30 to try to reconnect myself with my inner values. But well, better late than never! Thanks again for this very thoughtful comment.

    2. No need to be impressed, I don't know how I got to be that way. It has a downside too - practically and emotionally. I'm easily depressed when I feel a lack of meaning in my life and have a very hard time getting motivated to do work I find meaningless or for a boss that I disrespect. So I'm very blessed to have found a good position and also, I realize many people don't have the luxury to be so picky.

    3. I think I am the same as you on that respect. I find it hard to work without meaning, and if my boss loses my respect, it makes my life very complicated. I admit that was the main reason why I left my previous job. I'm slowly discovering that one can find meaning outside of the 9-5 days though, and that meaning at work doesn't necessary limit itself to the current position and tasks, but can be linked to building a larger career - thinking about the expertise you want to gain, the direction to give to your career in the future. I guess I'm mostly impressed that you've been aware of this need of meaning from the start, when I'm just discovering it as I approach 30. I would probably have made different choices in the past if I'd known myself better ealier. But it's never too late to start now is it?

  2. It's a funny thing, the journeys we make. Mine was the other way around. I had always been a bit of a treehugger, but then I started a Masters in Environmental Management and learned about all the horrible ways we're destroying everything that sustains our life on Earth (it was rather depressing:) ). This in turn, led me to question my consumption habits and consumerism as a whole. And it was a difficult thing to do, especially as I come from an ex-communist country where growing up I dreamt of having loads of cool things "like people in the West". I don't think I've reached the end of the road, either. I'm still looking for my place and my way of contributing to making the world look more like what I think it should be. But it's like you said, once you strip away the distractions, you're left with the big questions and you've got to muster the courage to face them and act accordingly (wish me luck with that:) ). Thanks for one more post that made me stop my internet browsing and think for a while.

    1. Thanks for yout thoughtful comment! I never thought about how it might be for people who grew up in ex-communist countries and seeing the "western way of life" as a dream to achieve. It is interesting how your journey was the other way around indeed :) I sometimes wonder what pushes a variety of different people, from different countries and social classes to question the established order and try to change themselves and the world around them. But it's a hard leap to take, it is so much easier to let distractions coat the questionings away under a layer of mindless fun. On the other hand I don't want to give up fun, either! I guess it's a hard balance to achieve, to grow as a mindful and socially/environmentally engaged individual, but at the same time remain positive, light and happy :)

  3. I do love these stories about people who do an U-turn in their lives from workaholics-shopaholics to minimalists - I just wish I had at some point had the "6 figure paycheck" or whatever they gave up in search of a more meaningful life... It does not make a very dramatic tale that a writer who never made much money started questioning consumerism and still does not make much money but spends less of it on stupid impulse buys and has managed to part with some possessions she does not need :D

    The question of "what to replace shopping with" is an important one, it relates so much to the whole society and how our lives are shaped, and economy and other very large issues.
    On a smaller scale writing seems to be the natural answer, for whatever reason. Maybe it has the same positive creative aspects with shopping but none of the negative ones, except that it's kind of addictive. Many minimalist bloggers (back when I started reading them) seemed to gravitate towards writing to fill the 'void' after removing shopping and stuff maintenance from their lives (and of course spending more time with their loved ones, taking care of their health etc). I thought that's not for me, why and what would I write on my free time, since I write already to get money. And look what happens – now I'm sneaking minutes here and here from my actual paying writing job to write little SF stories. Warning: Getting rid of unnecessary stuff and curbing shopping can lead to fiction writing.

    1. Haha very good! I already imagine the little warning note at the bottom of a minimalist book: "Warning: getting rid of unnecessary stuff and curbing shopping can lead to fiction writing, and other creative ailments"

      I do love those stories too, although I'm hardly one of them, I never made much money either and, like you, it's just about spending the little I have less on inconsequential stuff and more on... well, I think it's starting to pile up on my bank account these days actually, not that I'm complaining about it. What I find most inspiring, it's those people who did it all "by the book" of what success is supposed to be about these days - fancy business schools, high paying jobs and all - realize it doesn't make them happy and have the guts to turn away from it all to live some improbable passion.

      But every tale is worth telling I believe, dramatic or not. You make an interesting point about writing. I think it is a creative outlet, I think people love to read and create stories. I think it is also a very therapeutic tool indeed, a way to make sense of things, let stuff out, share experiences, bring some meaning into all this. When you think about it, it's incredible that humans, some random mammals by all standards, are able to put their imagination on paper and share it with other humans. Sorry I'm losing myself here.
      By the way you are lucky to be able to write to get money. Communications isn't so far off, but I think I'd find more passion in my paid job if I could write more. Probably. Anyway, thanks for sharing :)

    2. You know, I think one of the main attractions of shopping/accumulating stuff has to do with stories. At the sight of a pretty pair of high-heel shoes, or some rugged outdoor gear, it is so easy and so pleasurable to weave a little story with ourselves in the main role: dancing until the dawn, or trekking all free and wild. Ads take advantage of this natural instinct, give the ingredients for these stories in case they don't appear without help (personally I don't need much help in this respect from ads or fashion magazines. Even if I see only a rusty nail, I can concoct a future where I've built an empire resting on exactly that little piece of metal. It's been a long journey to learn to distinguish these what-if's from practical needs). The positive part of shopping is, I suppose, this creative process.

      So, when letting go of the imagination-whetting hobby of buying imaginary futures, there is left over quite a bit of urge for creating stories. Which then can be channeled out of the system by writing fiction.

      Shooting off the orbit, sorry!

    3. Oh stories is most probably one of the main attractions for shopping, choosing one product or brand over another. It is also the spearhead of marketers these days, "brand storytelling" is the ultimate weapon to differentiate themselves from the other brands, and make people buy their products out of pure emotions (wanting to become a part of this story, imagine ourselves a different life and identity) rather than basing consumer choice on actual, logical and rational arguments.

      But you're right, it's probably a source of creativity for us consumers, to create all these stories around the objects we surround ourselves with. In that sense, writing fiction is probably a very healthy replacement indeed :)

  4. Chère Florie,
    Je découvre ce poste seulement maintenant. Tout d'abord merci d'avoir partagé sur ton blog mon post, j'en suis très touchée :)
    Ensuite il complète parfaitement le cheminement de pensée que j'ai eu, quand tu parles au début de remise en question du monde consumériste, de plus de temps libre qu'on peut consacrer à se poser les bonnes questions, etc. :) J'aime bcp, je reviendrais avec plaisir lire la suite de tes questionnements :)

    1. Merci beaucoup! Ton article m'a beaucoup touchée également, le fait de lire le récit d'une "vraie personne" rend les choses plus concrètes, et plus possibles, dans un sens. C'est vraiment intéressant de partager ce genre de réflexions, parfois personnelles, avec les lectrices et les lecteurs :) Du coup je suis moi-même ton blog avec grand intérêt depuis que j'ai découvert ton article. Si tu es plus à l'aise avec la langue Française je parle un peu de tout ça sur mon blog FR aussi, si le sujet t'intéresse... Merci pour ce gentil petit mot en tout cas!

  5. Ah oui je suis preneuse du blog français également ! Désolée pour la réponse tardive, je n'avais pas été notifiée de ta réponse :)