In an era where everything seems possible, we feel the pressure of “living up to our potential”. If we are unhappy, is it not our own fault? We are overwhelmed, trying to “find our passion”, dealing with FOMO.
As the world is shouting possibilities, it becomes harder to hear our own inner voice: What is it that we want? What does a fulfilling life look like to us?
Designing your life requires self-knowledge. You have to know what it is you desire, where you are prone to over-compensate, what you are avoiding. Otherwise you just follow everyone else and then wonder why it still feels like this is not really your life you are living.
While this is a very individual process, there are elements that well-created lives have in common. Throughout history, scholars of all disciplines have tried to uncover perennial wisdom of what makes a life purposeful and fulfiling.
I want to share with you a simple (but not easy) three-part formula about what a meaningful life includes according to Alfred Adler, one of the great psychodynamic thinkers of the last century.
The Goal: Your Life-Tasks
Alfred Adler believed that a fulfilling and meaningful life includes three elements everyone has to incorporate and master. He called them the “Life-Tasks” of community, work, and love.
But before we dive into each of them, we need to get familiar with the fundamental ability Adler deemed necessary to solve those life tasks, which is social interest.
Social interest or the German original term “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” refers to the feeling of belonging to a community. Someone with social interest has a deep sense of belonging to the human race and is able to extend empathy towards others. It includes the recognition that we all need each other and can’t make it through life alone. Therefore, it’s both required to develop yourself to the best of your abilities and with that being helpful to your community.
Social interest is the foundation to creating a meaningful life, which makes the three tasks of community, work, and love, that follow social tasks.
The first life-task is finding your place within a community. This includes building and keeping friendships, having a supportive relationship with neighbours or other people in your tribe. Contribution and cooperation is more important than individual shiny success.
The challenge many people face with this task is that belonging to a community means that it is not about standing out and being special. Our society and culture has become more and more focused on individuation and self-development for the sake of individual success. But the life-task of community is about gaining deep satisfaction through, yes, developing yourself but then being helpful to your community.
The second life-task is a logic continuation of last one. The question that needs to be answered is: How can you be of service to the greater community? What will you do for work that contributes to society and let’s you experience worthiness? Earning money, then, is simply an appreciation of being helpful.
The life-task of work includes living up to values of diligence, fairness, and care. And yes, it’s about you finding a job you enjoy but also one that is a contribution to society, whatever that may look like. It might be employment, starting your own company, sharing your creativity, or taking on the responsibility of parenting.
Lastly, the life-task of love is a task for two people. For Adler, love is more than just the continuation of the human race, it’s a direct opportunity for us to experience ourselves as needed, loved, and significant. But, also, it requires the ability for devotion and commitment which is something many people struggle with.
And how do you chose a partner? Well, Adler also had some dating-advice: He suggested that the partner needs to prove the ability to hold a friendship, needs to have interest in work, and needs to show more interest in the partner than in himself or herself. Aka a suitable partner has found good solutions to the three life-tasks.
By the way, if you want to dive deeper into questions surrounding life design and self-knowledge, I create a free resource on journaling for self-discovery, if your curious to discovery more of you on the page.
What Can Go Wrong?
All three areas are required for a satisfying life. But many people end up struggling in one area and trying to compensate by overemphasising another. They focus too much on work and neglect important relationships in their life. Or the thought of devotion sounds like entering a prison cell and people retract from relationships quickly. Many also idealize romantic relationships as more important than friendships, when really you need both.
The goal to designing a meaningful life according to Adler is to find good answers to the three life-tasks, having a solid grounding in social interest. In that process, you will encounter both opportunities and challenges. Let us look at how inferiority, your lifestyle, and life-lies can get in the way.
What everyone faces as they strive to create a meaningful life is a sense of inferiority. We may feel inadequate compared to those around us or feel that our efforts are not good enough. We may be overwhelmed by the complex decisions we must make in our lives or feel like we are not living up to our potential. It can be difficult to stay motivated and find the courage to pursue our goals.
For Adler experiencing inferiority is just a part of being human. It is normal to feel inferior and our goal in life (in whatever form that takes) is to strive for superiority. We want to become the best version of ourselves and overcome our weaknesses. In the best case inferiority then is the impulse for growth, developing your talents and becoming a useful member to society. But inferiority can also hold us back.
When we are convinced that there is no meaningful way for us to grow, we might take shortcuts or aim at “easy superiority” instead. People can then cultivate their inferiority as something that makes them special and demand of others to treat them accordingly. Or they put other people down to feel superior.
Identifying your Lifestyle
Another roadblock might be your lifestyle. And by lifestyle I don’t mean the modern concept of income, social prestige, etc. Adler defined lifestyle as all your beliefs about yourself, others, the world, and the behavior you use to achieve your goal. I wrote an entire article about this concept here.
But to put it short: It’s the convictions you hold about what life is like. For many people their lifestyle, goals, and beliefs they pursue are unconscious and can therefore lead to self-sabotage. Self-awarness is required to design a meaningful life. Otherwise you will be following unconscious goals, frantically trying to disprove inferiority, and getting burned out while striving for superiority.
When it comes to fulfilling the life tasks we mentioned before, do you see yourself as the victim of your own fate? Destined to miss your goals because of a particular reason? Then you might use what Adler called “Life-Lies”.
In order to protect our own sense of self-esteem, when we do not solve the life-tasks well, we tend to come up with seemingly plausible and logical excuses. Adler defines a life-lie as an excuse you give in order to avoid life-tasks. You put the responsibility elsewhere. You blame someone else. It is because of your past or circumstances that you things do not work out.
Adlerian psychology in its essence wants to be empowering. First, it is frustrating to accept responsibility for your life. And then it’s freeing. You have created your lifestyle, which means you can change it. You interpreted events a certain way, which means you can reframe them. This does not mean that bad things are your fault – but Adler deems it your responsibility to shape your life from here on.
Lastly, if you are stuck with a specific problem when thinking about how to design your life, I want to share a question with you. It is a question you can phrase in various forms that Adler (and later one of his students Dreikurs) used to get to the heart of a problem and the desired change. It is quite simple:
“If you could magically eliminate this problem, what would be different in your life?”.
This question allows you to imagine a life without this problem and lets you explore what life-task you would be able to fulfill if that problem were gone that you seem to be avoiding right now. It helps you identify the function of your problem.
I have actually wrote an article about this question called “The Miracle Question” from the solutions-focused approach — not knowing they stole it from Adler. Good thinking gets repeated often.
If you want to be kept up to date about more helpful psychodynamic concepts I share, feel free to join my email list (and get my free psychodynamic journaling guide + journal prompts).