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When people feel that their lives have meaning, they perceive their lives as significant, purposeful, and valuable. This is critical for psychological wellbeing. People who feel that their lives have meaning feel less depressed and even have better outcomes in psychotherapy. Feeling that one’s life has meaning can also ease the psychological burden of medical illnesses. For example, people who have medical conditions such as a spinal cord injury cope better when they feel that their lives have meaning, and having a sense of meaning can improve the quality of life in cancer patients.
What to do when your sense of meaning slips away
Anything that makes you feel less safe—the death of a loved one, an illness, sudden financial burdens—can create a kind of anxiety that obscures all meaning. That’s when you may start to ask, “Why am I working so hard?” or “Why do I actually care about anything?” You may start to search for meaning frantically. While meaning is the “primary motivational force in man,” searching for meaning does not guarantee that you will find it. When you feel psychologically adrift and disconnected from meaning, how can you increase the chances that you will find it?
You might be surprised to learn that reconnecting with meaning may not involve a set of techniques, but a set of spontaneous actions removed from the humdrum of life’s everyday routines. As helpful as “psychological techniques” such as reframing or positive thinking can be, they often miss the mark in the search for meaning. Stanford psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, explained that it is the intangibles and “off the beaten track” thoughts and activities that can make the greatest difference, much like the cook who spontaneously throws in a handful of spices into a dish without thinking much. When we examine the psychological elements that underlie the cook’s instinctive “throw-ins,” we find clues as to how we can jumpstart meaning in our lives. Here are three ways to open yourself to rediscovering meaning.
Seasoned cooks are capable of these precise “throw-ins” without much thinking because they are willing to be curious and follow their instincts. As much as the cook may follow a recipe, it is curiosity that drives the exceptional touch and activates the intangible taste that results from it. As Samuel Johnson said, “The gratification of curiosity rather frees us from uneasiness than confers pleasure; we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction.” Curiosity, defined as the desire to know, see, or experience new things, can activate a sense of purpose and meaning. Adding this vital ingredient to your life by literally walking a safe path you’ve never walked before or tasting a brand-new dish may get you back to the road of meaning. It is this “unfocus” from learned daily habits that is necessary to activate meaning.
Understand that we want to be independent and connected all at the same time
Underlying the cook’s “dare” are two well-known psychological attributes that shape how we relate to the world: agency (a feeling of independence) as well as communion (a feeling of connection to others). These are contrasting, yet important aspects of who we are, and having enough of both in our lives can also help to activate meaning. By doing so, we acknowledge our two-sided selves. Too much independence can lead to isolation. Too much communion can lead to loss of a sense of self. Living life fully requires switching between the two and organizing your day so that you have enough of both. In the cook’s dare, she is independent, but she is motivated by feeding and tantalizing the palates of others too. Learning to accept your contradictions is central to experiencing a sense of meaning and more rewarding that choosing to be “one” or “the other” thing.
Notice when “meaning” appears
When you feel that sense of meaning, it is like a taste that “hits the spot” with the first mouthful. What you are tasting is not just a carefully crafted combination of ingredients, though you can be sure that that is part of the picture. In addition, you are the beneficiary of the cook’s spontaneous insight—an important factor in meaning-making. When you make time for spontaneous insights in your day, you can jumpstart the flow of experience, which is characteristic of meaning-driven activities. You can’t have such insights if your day is run like clockwork or if it is jam-packed or if your calendar dictates your meaning (unless, of course, your calendar leaves room for spontaneous whims and fancies—these moments can require space too). Setting aside time for doing something with no particular goal in mind adds a vital ingredient to your life that can bring back the very meaning for which you were searching.
In essence then, when you are psychologically adrift, you may be tempted to try to ground yourself with rational approaches to life. In fact, what you may need is to also find your “psychological wings” so that you may catch the breeze of life and enjoy gliding into it before you land.