This article first appeared on Happify.com.
When my children were little, we would spend many winter afternoons in the warmth of our local library immersed in the magical world of books. One particular series that my oldest, 11 at the time, and I would enjoy together was called “Dear Canada”. Even though it was aimed at preteen girls, I too was mesmerized by the intimate worlds of young girls throughout different times in Canadian history.
What struck me most was how fundamentally different their lives were to ours. Aside from the obvious difference of food, clothing and shelter, I often wondered at their ability to overcome daily hardships and unforeseen disasters through strength of character and a spirit of “giving” that’s a natural part of collective living.
Today, and especially in the Western world, our lives are largely free from such challenges, and are ours for the making. We’re pretty disconnected from the pains and struggles of others, and quite content in pursuing our own happiness. And while this increased autonomy is generally a step forward in how Harvard professor Robert Kegan defines adult development, something seems to have gone amiss.
Our advancement has come with a certain malady of our times. We’ve been able to satisfy our wants and needs, and yet our rates of depression continue to climb. Without the daily grind that was once a part of our lives, we’ve fallen prey to the restlessness and negative self-talk that result from boredom.
This is because depression, in the words of psychologist Iain McGilchrist, is a soul sickness, and no amount of pleasure-filled activities can fulfill the needs of a brain looking for meaning. Nor can this emptiness find recourse in consumerist addictions that are but a compulsive search for meaning-in-a-bottle.
It is perhaps this search that is at fault. Michael Steger, a researcher at Colorado State University, has found that searching for meaning is not the same as finding meaning. Like happiness, the search comes with a plethora of expectations that often lead to the opposite experience. Meaning, like happiness, is found in doing the things that are part of a meaningful life. There’s no pharmacology of meaning. And perhaps our previous generations knew that.
Use Your Strengths
Research in positive psychology has found that meaning emerges when we use our highest strengths in the tasks we do. When daily life doesn’t provide us with many challenges, we need to set ourselves goals that stretch us, and that call upon us to bring out the best in ourselves. Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s research on meaning shows that using our strengths and natural talents results in increased self-worth, which affects the degree to which we show up as the most authentic and optimal version of who we are.
Stand by Your Values
The eighteenth century movement known as the Age of Reason liberated us from the superstition of the Middle Ages and led to clear thinking. But it also swung to extremes of rationality and left behind the subconscious world of emotions and beliefs. Today, we understand that reason is often slave to this subconscious world, an afterthought of impulsive reactions. In order to be more conscious in how we respond to life, we need to connect to our values, because they are the guiding light that steer us in a direction that’s aligned with our highest selves, and keeps us persevering even when the going gets tough.
Work for Others
Society today places a level of interest on the self that’s unlike it’s ever been. The rise of “selfies”, the addiction to Facebook “likes” and the worship of perfection means that we’re giving the self far more importance than is due. Even our need to find meaning is often more about the self than about others. And yet, the self is not a very good site for attaching meaning. Research shows that meaning is derived from giving to other people, from moving beyond an ego-system and into an eco-system. And philosophers, scientists and educators have found that the larger the purpose that we can credibly attach ourselves to, the more meaning we’ll find. Paradoxically enough, it’s in losing the self that we often find ourselves.
If you’re searching aimlessly for meaning, stop right there. Get to know your highest strengths and the values that justify your actions—and work at putting them in the service of others. That’s what a meaningful life is all about. And there’s no shortcut to that.