“All any of us wanted, really, was to know that we counted. That someone else's life would not have been as rich without us here.” ― Jodi Picoult , Handle with Care
Joanie makes thirty thousand dollars a year doing work that she finds meaningful. She has three strong friendships and laughs a whole lot more than she worries. Is Joanie living a good life? Is Joanie a good person? Do you desire to live a life like Joanie’s?
This scenario and these questions are like those posed by researchers who want to know more about what regular folks (rather than philosophers, theologians, and psychologists) consider “good” - what they believe “the good life” to be.
As it turns out regular folks think money is nice (the Asians find it nicer than most people do), but after the basics are covered, money is five times less important than happiness to those surveyed.
But happiness turns out not to be the biggest marker of the good life. What regular folks consider to be six times more important than money is having meaning and purpose in life.
If we really want to journey to the good life, we should be spending much more of our time becoming affluent in meaning and purpose. Oops. That can make a lot of us nervous. Finding our purpose or more meaningful lives may have never worked for us.
I knew one miserable man who paid thousands of dollars to go around the world to engage in a process which told him what his purpose was. He was elated when he returned, “I like to help people!" he gushed with enthusiasm. Huh.
Really, it isn’t funny. It does hurt when everyone is saying you need more meaning and purpose and you agree, but you can't do it. Feeling like you want meaning and purpose and not being able to find it is painful.
According to Dr. Michael Steger, one of the top gurus and researchers in the field of meaning and purpose, some of the capacity for finding meaning and purpose is related to our genetics and some to our nurturing like most of our capacities. Steger seems to endorse this idea for some people who are having difficulty finding meaning and purpose. Just get active, get busy doing something helpful for others.
There are many other approaches. For example, one of the typical approaches is to notice what you already do and think about the most noble spin you can put on it. Remember the oft quoted story of the three bricklayers? There are many different variations online. Here’s one.
When Wren asked one bricklayer what he was doing he replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” The second one replied differently, “I’m a builder, I’m building a great wall.” The third replied, “I’m building a great Cathedral to the Almighty.”
That bricklayer story has been used a lot to help us see whatever we are doing with new eyes. Some may see their dental assistant job as a spit sucker while others may see it as providing comfort and improving another’s life.
We may argue that some jobs are more inherently meaningful, but researchers say that’s not the case. Some janitors ("I'm helping to heal people") find as much meaning or more in their work as some doctors ("I'm making decent money so I can retire early").
Maybe how we see our jobs is a choice to some degree. However, I can tell you from experience working with others who seemed to have fabulous jobs but could find no meaning in them that this hurt most of all, i.e., people telling them they had great jobs, but the work felt meaningless, and they could not change how they viewed it. (BTW, Steger sees meaning as a bigger umbrella with purpose more like a goal orientation underneath it.)
Another way people have found more meaning in their work is to craft it to themselves in some way. For example, there's a popular story about a grocery bag boy, Johnny, who created more meaning for himself and quite a sensation where he worked by putting in his own thought for the day in the groceries he was bagging. People would wait in line while other cashiers were open and twiddling their thumbs. The customers wanted to see what Johnny had written.
There are easy ways to experiment with meaning like talking to strangers, learning new skills, taking care of a plant. I do believe many of us can figure out a way to find meaning and purpose even under difficult circumstances if we are creative. I watched my dad.
At the age of forty-nine, my father had a serious heart attack which compromised his capability but increased the intensity of his desire for meaning. He thought about what he could do to contribute to others’ lives. Here’s what he decided to do.
Dad had a large church directory of local people which listed their phone numbers as well as their birthdays. Every evening he called birthday folks, acknowledged the importance of the day, and encouraged them; sometimes he sang. Though my father was given less than a year to live after his heart attack, his birthday mission lasted for thirty years. At his funeral many people told me with tears in their eyes how much they looked forward to my dad’s call and would miss it.
We may seek a bigger 401K, new toys, and more exotic vacations. All that may be just fine if we remember our true turn on – what really makes us feel alive and rich, doing something worth our while. Usually, it involves helping others in our own way which is some combination of what we care about/ find interesting/fun, what we can do, and what we think others want or need. It is a bit ironic that the way we feel most significant is often by using ourselves to transcend ourselves and connect to something larger than ourselves.
We never really know the full impact we have had on others, the small things that we did or do which make others’ lives better, richer. I remember the smile of an elderly stranger across a throng of people which still makes me happy. (If only we could attend our own funerals, we might learn more.)
And finally...about getting super thin. Don't eat. Well, really it might work out that while we are doing meaningful things, we aren't bored and feeling empty… scavenging for food to fill the vacuum. Both my husband and I have noticed that we lose weight when we are doing work that feels meaning full.
How you move up to the good life by becoming more affluent in meaning?
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