by Christina Pettinato, MS, NCC, LPC, DCC
Ask anyone on the street what his or her greatest wish is, and you’ll probably hear some variation about winning the lottery, going on a dream vacation or owning a new home. A person on a diet might wish for a guilt-free sundae; a prisoner might wish to be home again; someone with a terminally illness might long for improved health and more time. All very real and very valid things (security, safety, freedom, comfort), and having any of these might make someone happy. And everyone wants to be happy, right?
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and curator of all things steeped in “meaning” wrote: “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
Meaning drives us out of bed and into the world, and it looks different for everyone. Each of us has meaning. Everyone has purpose, and it is innately buried in a person’s psyche to fulfill that purpose. And therein lies the challenge, “Who am I?” and “What brings meaning to my life?”
These questions, because they are so entwined with the human psyche, are not easy to understand. How do we find meaning in our lives? Will finding meaning always bring us happiness, and are meaning and happiness the same thing?
A (very loose) example from a friend of mine: “Christina, before my husband and I had children, we would spend entire weekends loafing around our apartment. We worked hard during the week, and we’d get things done on weekends, but for the most part, we just sat on our futon in the living room and even slept there. Sounds heavenly, right? It certainly did to me, but five years later I am the parent of two kids and absolutely no downtime in sight. But the truth is, I found those days to be so unsatisfying. Instead of feeling wonderful, I felt tired. Relaxation led to a certain kind of laziness, headaches and a deep sense of ennui. Believe me; I’d love a day with no responsibilities. But I also wouldn’t want those huge stretches of time back where I did nothing. It was an illusion of comfort and happiness. Those days were filled with empty minutes, time which I sadly wasted. I was unfulfilled.”
Happiness does not always equate meaning, and meaning doesn’t always equate happiness, but when we find our meaning and work toward its fulfillment, we open opportunities to find joy.
The first step is to ask what is it that I want? Meditation is wonderful for this: it clears our minds, enabling us to dig deep and foster a healthy inner-dialogue. An app that helps that meditation and relaxation is called Calm, which uses guided meditation as well as ambient noise to provide an environment conducive to meditation.
The second step is to reach out and locate your tribe. Like-minded people are relatively easy to find on the web. Using apps like Meetup to discover others who are engaged in activities that give their lives purpose is a great way to ensure that you will be able to do so, too.
The third step is to promote physical and emotional well-being. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (eating right, exercising, meditation, and good sex) can make it easier for your body, mind and soul to find balance. This includes good mental health; seeking help for issues that hold us back can help you find your way through the fog of uncertainty and lead you to a place of clarity and action.
Finding meaning and purpose in your life may feel overwhelming at times, but what journey doesn’t have an occasional shortcoming? Meaning is within us all. It is a call that only you can uniquely answer, and the world can be much a better place because of your contributions!
Christina’s blog features articles from the perspective of an existential therapist who writes about psychology and theories connected to the human experience.