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Make A Meaningful 2019
2019: a new year. Some things in life are certain, this time next year you will be another year older. In 365 days’ time, will you be sighing to yourself, making plans to be happier, healthier- resolutions that will lapse under the weight of real life? Will you be developing an optimistic exercise regime or vowing to your family or partner that you will work less and take more holidays? Stress less, relax more? In other words, will you be making plans that are designed to make you happy by minimising pain and maximising pleasure, only to start all over again one year later? Possibly. Or you could try something new; you could aim to create meaning.
How is creating meaning different from pursuing happiness?
A recent study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology helps explain some of the key differences between a happy life and a meaningful one. Certain activities, such as going on holiday and spending social time with friends contribute substantially to happiness. But those reporting higher levels of meaning were often spending more time doing things that required more effort but brought more reward, whether related to work, study or spending time with close family. Overall, the study suggested that whilst getting what we want in life often contributes to feelings of happiness, meaningfulness often stems from giving to others, putting in effort and yes even sacrifice. It is clear that a highly meaningful life may not always include a great deal of day-to-day happiness. The study also suggests that pursuing happiness in the sense especially of short-term gratification may be ultimately be related to that unsatisfied sense of emptiness, of a life without meaning.
So how do we create meaning? Is it finding and pursuing a single overriding concept of our life – our life’s work as it were - or can it be found in the everyday and in every situation or adversity we face? Again the study suggests the latter and that some people reported meaning in acts as apparently mundane as housework. It is not the act itself, we might surmise but the meaning we attribute to it.
In Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he cites the example of an elderly man he was treating for depression. The patient could not overcome the loss of his wife and could see no purpose to his life without her. A pivotal moment in the therapeutic process happened during the following conversation with Frankl:
Frankl: 'What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?'
Patient: 'Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!'
Frankl: 'You see such a suffering has been spared her; and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving her and mourning her.'
The patient did not respond but shook Frankl’s hand and calmly left his office.
Before, the pain he felt was suffering to no purpose. This conversation gave him a new lens through which to view his experience. Feeling the loss of his wife was sparing his wife from the same pain. The magnitude of his suffering was a monument to his love for her and his willingness to spare her and this gave him meaning.
Relationships of all incarnations can provide meaning, whether loving and fulfilling, or in their breakdown. Relationships we have with those closest to us are often fraught. The heightened emotional landscape that is created by love of all kinds can make bring significance to experiences, good and bad, that might have gone unnoticed with an acquaintance.
I recently worked with a woman whose 10-year marriage had ended, following her husband's affair. She emailed me one day to say that she was struggling with the enormity of the pain and the fact that no one seemed able to offer her real comfort.
I responded: 'You are right in saying there is nothing anyone can actually do as the pain and hurt is too deep. You are experiencing loss, which can only be healed with time or if the object of loss is regained. This pain is unavoidable because you love him and he was important to you, because you see the impact on your kids, because you had dreams and aspirations with him. It makes sense you are in pain. The more you try to avoid this pain, the stronger and more overwhelming the pain will be and the longer it will last. Instead of trying to avoid the pain, try thinking about the things that the pain means for you. Perhaps, the intensity of your pain is proportionate to your loss and speaks of your great capacity to love. Maybe you hurt now because you loved well. It makes sense that the pain is deep but experiencing the pain of loss now is a way of honouring you and a testament to the love you gave. Finally, even in the moment of pain, there is nothing more powerful than life’s losses to learn about ourselves. Why? Because you love yourself and want to be able to choose to love well again, only this time, with new insight. Of course, we all would like to learn new things with less or no pain. What I’m trying to point out is the pain you feel is not passive or pointless, it is meaningful and it makes sense. Locate the meaning of the pain.
Finding meaning in life is far from just a theoretical or philosophical exercise. It has a bearing on health and mental well-being as demonstrated by Psychologists from Jung to present day. In 1980 the Psychiatrist Yalom confirmed earlier clinical observations that to live without meaning, goals, or values provokes considerable psychological and emotional distress.
So, for now, when you look to the future, when you plan your 2019, make time for the people and the things that will add to the meaningfulness of your life. Plan so that this time next year, there are new things you know about yourself and about the world you live in so that whether your year has been painful or pleasurable or (as for most of us) a little of both, that you have experienced what there was to experience and found meaning in both.
From us at All Relationship Matters, we wish for you not only a Happy New Year but also a meaningful 2019! Take care of yourselves and each other.