The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Research and experience have shown this to be true. Having a sense of meaning makes us more resilient and persistent, and less dissuaded by setbacks. It helps us find creative solutions to hardships and gives us the power and courage to sublimate hurt and pain, so we can heal and protect others, because we understand what is at stake. People who know their purpose, navigate stress better and have reduced levels of anxiety and worry. They fret less about decisions and are not governed by the opinions of others. Importantly, people with a clear sense of their “why” are more likely to live longer and have greater satisfaction with who they are and where they are going. We discover our purpose when we connect with something outside of us, something bigger than ourselves. Finding meaning is about sculpting new narratives that provide a sense of coherence around everything sad and wonderful in our lives. Often, a first step is that sense of awe we feel in nature, through spiritual practice or in losing ourselves in another’s eyes. Awe shrinks our ego and connects us, intimately, to something all-encompassing.
Here are three practical things we can do to help us reach out and find meaning beyond ourselves.
Meaning in Work. Meaning at Work. Look for the connections between what you do and something “bigger”. Maybe the services or products your company provides responds to a deep human need or even saves lives. That connection need not originate from your job. Where are the other places that you give your energy and passions? How does “what you do” make other’s lives better or solve a problem? Some days, that connection may be remote, or not always clear. However, we can still have a dramatic effect on others by the way we do what we do. How can you do your work in ways, that regardless of the task, injects more humanity into the lives of others, making them better, and gentler? Regardless of what you do, you can always have a positive effect on other people’s lives.
Giving Back. What special experience, talent, or skill do you have? It could be something you are passionate about, that fills you with energy and gets you up in the morning. Or, maybe you are a survivor of some trauma or made some terrible mistake. Others desperately need what you have to offer. Look for ways that you can use that to give back to the world and leave people better than you found them.
Legacy. Think ahead to your life as you would like it to be, and especially how you would like to be remembered by the people closest to you. What would you like them to say about you? What accomplishments and personal strengths would they talk about? Do not indulge in fantasy, but don’t be modest either. Write a few paragraphs describing your legacy, and then see if you can summarize it in a single line. Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself the following two questions: What can I realistically do to bring about my legacy? What am I currently doing now which will move me towards this goal?
Happiness Field Manual. These are just three strategies for enhancing well-being excerpted from my Happiness Field Manual. Some will have a stronger effect than others. Some will last longer. Not every exercise will work for every person, all the time. There are also complexities and subtleties to each that are not addressed in this short post. Starting April 2018, the complete Happiness Field Manual will be available for free on this site. Sign up for your free copy here.
©2018 John Albert Doyle, Jr. A version of this article also appeared on Sean’s Luminous Things blog on Psychology Today.