Living a Meaningful Life …
I recently stumbled across a short video online that resonated with me. It was a TED talk given by writer Emily Esfahani Smith in which she discusses how finding meaning in life is more fulfilling than just being happy.
Smith used to think the whole purpose in life was pursuing happiness. As she discovered through her studies of positive psychology in graduate school, the data showed that pursuing happiness actually makes people unhappy. As she put it, “The suicide rate has been rising around the world, and it recently reached a 30-year high in America. Even though life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone. There’s an emptiness gnawing away at people that , according to the research, is not caused by a lack of happiness. Rather, it’s a lack of something else — a lack of having meaning in life. And the studies show that people who have meaning in life, they’re more resilient, they do better in school and at work, and they even live longer.” Smith then spent the next five years examining how a person can live more meaningfully. Her research and interviews culminated in identifying what she calls the four pillars of a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.
Belonging comes from being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. But some groups and relationships deliver a cheap form of belonging; you’re valued for what you believe, for who you hate, not for who you are. True belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals, and it’s a choice — you can choose to cultivate belonging with others.
The second pillar, purpose, is less about what you want than about what you give. Purpose gives you something to live for, some “why” that drives you forward.
The third pillar of meaning is also about stepping beyond yourself, but in a completely different way: transcendence. Transcendent states are those rare moments when you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to a higher reality. For example, for one person transcendence comes from seeing art. For another, it was at church. For Smith herself, as a writer, it happens through writing when she gets ‘in the zone’ that she loses all sense of time and place. These transcendent experiences can change you; you feel less self-centered and more generous and inclined to help others.
The fourth pillar is storytelling, the story you tell yourself about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you.
Finding The Meanings in My Life …
For most of my adult life, meaning in my life was derived from my career in the military. I was part of a institution in which members afforded each other a sense of value, worth, mutual respect and interdependence. Our shared unambiguous purpose was to serve for the benefit of our fellow citizens; stressed environments and situations provided transcendent experiences in which the needs of our brothers and sisters in arms took precedence over our self-interests. And how I described myself reflected both pride and a certain humility in being a small footnote in the larger story of that institution, and perhaps in the lives of those I served with.
Not married and childless, upon retiring I spent a few years on various lengthy travel adventures which, though fun and interesting, were largely without purpose or meaning. I had stories to tell others, but no meaningful story to tell myself.
Then when my aged mother’s health began failing her, she moved in with me and I became her primary care giver. My purpose had changed and so did the meaning in my life. I found myself reconnecting in a deeper sense with immediate family members and relatives; my mother’s infirmary and care were as important to them as to me. Life moved slower and my routine revolved around my mother’s daily ritual and needs. The story I told myself and others was no longer that of a retired senior military officer. Now I was simply a caregiver for an elderly parent, another one of the ‘old taking care of the old.’ It wasn’t the life I had planned on, certainly it wasn’t the life I envisioned when I retired. But, not surprisingly, I found being a caregiver more rewarding than simply adventuring around the country. I don’t know if I was happy. But I was certainly fulfilled.
With my mother’s passing earlier this year, my life once more was devoid of obvious purpose and meaning. The deeper emotional bonds established with family members and siblings during those critical months in which my mother was dying reverted back to the more familiar. Whereas for the past ten years I identified as a primary caregiver, with her passing I once again identified myself as simply ‘retired.’ Which is to say life had given me a fresh opportunity to find new meaning and purpose.
Which isn’t easy. Even for wise old folks like me. Finding a meaningful life is more a process than an event. It takes time, thoughtful effort, some luck, and a willingness to adapt to the unplanned stuff that life throws at you. And as the circumstances of life change with age, so too does the meaning we find in it. And so now I find myself in a sort of transition period between my old purpose and the next.
Which is where Ceara Lynch comes in.
Now I not saying it’s wholesome to the point of achieving some level of self-actualization or anything, but acting as Ceara Lynch’s online ‘slave’ offers a reasonable facsimile for finding a certain level of meaning in my life. It’s consistent with the ‘service’ and ‘giving’ thread that runs through my life. And it does fill my life with something approaching meaning … at least until I find something deeper and more sustainable.
So for now I wake up each morning with a modicum of purpose, even if it’s only something as shallow as posting a promo on my Twitter timeline, writing another entry for this blog, or sending her a few dollars now and then. And though I’m not expecting an invitation to her wedding or anything, I think we have moved beyond customer or acquaintance. I think we trust in each other and relate within the friendship zone; i.e., there is a sense that we value each other for who we are and not just for what we can do for each other. As for periods of transcendence? Well, I can’t say there have been any (unless you count the many many times I’ve lost track of time and sense of self while watching her videos.) And finally, through this blog, I guess I am telling myself and you a story about who I am now. It may not be the story I want posted in my obituary, but it’s not a bad story for this moment. It’s certainly who I am, so it’s a story I can live with and tell myself, at least until I once again find a another more meaningful way to live my life.