In the 1940s, a Viennese teenager dreamed of becoming a physicist after being inspired by the works of Albert Einstein and Max Planck.
Manfred Steiner was a scientist at heart but after World War II, he was advised to pursue a degree in medicine to guarantee stable employment. After earning his degree, Dr Steiner moved from Austria to the United States, where he eventually became a haematologist at Brown University and then professor.
At the age of 70, Dr Steiner went back to school, attending undergraduate classes in physics at Brown, earning enough credits to enrol in the PhD programme.
Earlier this year, the 89-year-old student defended his dissertation successfully after recovering from a severe medical condition. When asked what advice he would offer to people, he replied, “Do what you love to do because later in life you maybe regret that you didn’t do it.”
What an inspiring story. Dr Steiner reminds us that the meaning of life is the meaning we create by engaging in what matters to us, what brings us joy and a sense of purpose.
We’re also reminded that life isn’t a race, nor a set of arbitrary milestones to be met by particular ages along the way. That said, reading Dr Steiner’s story, I realised I wasn’t as free as I sometimes like to believe from the pitfalls of comparison and self-judgement. In my late 30s, nagging thoughts occasionally arise in my mind such as, “Time marches on… will I ever start a PhD?”, “I should have a five-year plan”, “Everyone you know is thriving in their careers – you should be working harder to catch up”, “You really should be settled in life by now….” This is what the mind does. It’s like a well-meaning relative who turns up at family gatherings every year and says unhelpful things with the ostensible intention of helping us along the way.
An important lesson I’ve learned from my own therapy is that life is an unfolding experience, not a set of checkpoints. It’s perfectly fine to not have everything in place or know exactly where you’re headed at this particular point in time.
Ambiguity is the mother of possibility, and possibilities can – and often do – unfold over time. There’s no need to compare yourself with others. There’s not even a need to compare yourself with who you were yesterday. As the saying goes, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” It’s only humans who rush against the clock and feel the need to make the gift of life more than it already is.
When we chase after “just one more”, nothing is ever enough. If we could just have one more promotion, the latest smartphone, a nicer car, a better relationship… the running never stops.
Ironically, it’s when we slow down and appreciate what we have within and around us that we start to enjoy more of life and recognise what’s truly important. Making the most of what we have, we see there’s no need to search for happiness or contentment; it’s already where we are.
If I were to attempt to sum up a contented life, it would comprise of three things: curiosity and exploration of things that interest you; knowing your values and giving to yourself and others through them; and engaging in people and things that bring you joy and remind you the privilege of being here in the first place.
Here’s a fascinating thought experiment you can try: Ask yourself, “What would make me happier than I am now?” Feel free to write down your answers or go over them in your head. Once you’ve done that, ask yourself, “What makes me happy now?”
Comparing the answers to each question, do you notice anything interesting? I’d wager that, for many, your mind thought mostly of material things when thinking about what would bring you more happiness.
On the other hand, when you thought about what makes you happy now, it’s likely that loved ones sprang to mind. Perhaps there were also thoughts of gratitude for your job, your health, your interests, or the fact that you helped someone recently or were helped by another.
It’s also probable that thoughts of what makes you happy now brought a deeper sense of satisfaction compared with the longing or craving for material things you don’t have.
From a young age, Manfred Steiner loved the precision and elegance of physics and being a scientist was a long-held dream now finally realised. I’m sure the prestige of holding a doctorate will feel wonderful for a while, but the true joy for Dr Steiner will undoubtedly be the engagement in the work itself, having the knowledge and skills to understand more about our universe.
Be like Dr Steiner: find what you enjoy doing and give it your all.
Any achievements along the way will be a lovely accomplishment, but making the most of the time we have to connect and engage with who and what we love is what brings real purpose, meaning, and happiness to life.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.