What do we need to achieve to make us happy? What brings us peace and meaning?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote this about his own life: “Some sort of essential instinct makes me guess at the joy, as the only worthwhile joy, of co-operating as one individual atom in the final establishment of a world; and ultimately nothing else can mean anything to me. To release some infinitesimal quantity of the absolute, to free one fragment of being, forever – everything else is but intolerable futility.”

For him, at the end of the day, there is only one worthwhile joy, the feeling you get from cooperating rightfully within the big picture of things, from taking your place within the great cosmic jigsaw puzzle. Joy and meaning come from being one tiny piece within the overall progress of the universe, nothing more and nothing less.

At first glance this might all seem a bit abstract, idiosyncratic, and applicable only to the spiritually elite, but what Teilhard says here is really true for everyone. We all feel this, deep down, though perhaps we are not as aware of it as he was. What he says is universally true. There is only one thing that can bring real meaning, only one joy that doesn’t bring as much anxiety as peace, and that joy is had only when we fill-in with our own lives that particular space within the universe that has been uniquely allotted to us and when we take no more space and no less space than is truly ours.

But how is this true? When and how do we feel these things?

We experience these things all the time in our everyday lives. Why do we feel good when we succeed at anything? Is it because we are admired for it, our ego gets stroked, or because we enjoy the satisfaction of doing something well? Yes, for all of these reasons, though none is the deepest one. Ultimately, though we aren’t generally aware of it, we feel good because, deep down, we have contributed our little piece to the big picture, filled in a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that only we can provide, been one necessary atom in the final establishment of things. That is why we feel good whenever we build something, help someone, give birth to something, help raise someone, teach something, complete something, nurse someone, perform a successful surgery, score a goal, clean a bathroom, cook a meal, do the dishes, or simply do anything properly. The satisfaction we feel at these times has a deep root. We have just filled in our little piece in the big picture, helped free up one fragment of being.

Conversely, why do we feel badly whenever we fail at something, betray someone, or realize that we have wasted some of our potential? Is this simply a feeling of wounded pride, frustration, shame? Yes, all of these things, but, again, it is more. Ultimately we feel a certain intolerable futility because we have not taken our rightful place in the cosmos, not filled in our proper piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

It can be helpful to recognize this more consciously, especially so as not to misread our own restlessness. Why do I say this?

Because we are born so restless, so incurably driven by the sense that we are special and meant to achieve something of significance. Nobody wants to live and not leave some mark in the world. “Have child, plant a tree, write a book!” says a popular axiom. Translated that means: “Make sure you do something to guarantee, a little at least, your own immortality.” We often lack the self-knowledge or honesty to admit this, but something inside us (the part that fuels our restlessness) understands exactly what that means. We want and need to leave a permanent mark somewhere. We are born for that reason.

But generally we misread this restless and what it is asking of us. The logic runs this way: We know that we need to leave a permanent mark somewhere. But we think we can only do this by becoming famous in some way, a person known to the world, a household word, someone with his or her name in lights, on the cover of TIME magazine. That is why we are always trying to achieve something of significance, something that will stand out, something that will last. Most often though our lives do not seem to measure up. We feel ourselves small-town, ordinary, unimportant, and so our restlessness begins to eat us up.

Our everyday satisfactions and disappointments though can teach us something. We need to listen closely to what makes us feel good or bad. Our lives can seem small, but we do not especially enlarge them through fame and recognition. You don’t get immortality – nor restfulness – for being a superstar. You get these for filling in that little piece of the big picture, that one wee atom, that is uniquely yours.