As the holidays approach, let’s consider how to live meaningful lives

The historic Old South Meeting House, Boston, Dec. 2013 (photo: DY)

As we approach the holiday season in a world of social, political, and pandemic tumult, it’s understandable and even sensible that many folks may feel more reflective than celebratory. Among the worthy topics of contemplation is how to find meaning in our lives.

Dr. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1956) is one of the most personally influential books that I’ve ever read. Frankl was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who lost almost all of his immediate family in the Holocaust. The first part of the book details his concentration camp experiences. The second part explains his theory of counseling, called logotherapy. Frankl believed that life’s essence is about a search for meaning: “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic titled “Three Simple Ways to Find the Meaning in Life” (link here), Arthur C. Brooks summarizes a 2016 research study that identified three key dimensions for living a meaningful life:

If you haven’t yet found a sense of meaning at all, how do you go about searching for it without searching too much?…You can do so most effectively—and without too much obsessing—by assessing your life along three dimensions, which the psychologists Frank Martela and Michael F. Steger defined in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2016:

  • Coherence: how events fit together. This is an understanding that things happen in your life for a reason. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can fit new developments into your narrative the moment they happen, but you usually are able to do so afterward, so you have faith that you eventually will.
  • Purpose: the existence of goals and aims. This is the belief that you are alive in order to do something. Think of purpose as your personal mission statement, such as “the purpose of my life is to share the secrets to happiness” or “I am here to spread love abundantly.”
  • Significance: life’s inherent value. This is the sense that your life matters. If you have high levels of significance, you’re confident that the world would be a tiny bit—or perhaps a lot—poorer if you didn’t exist.

Both Frankl’s and Brooks’s summaries may sound a tad abstract. They need examples from our lives, which is where we add in our own content — or create new content. For folks who have been around the block a few times, that new content may include recovering from adversity and doing life and career resets.

Given the readership of the blog, which includes many people who have experienced severe abuse at work and other forms of mistreatment, I’ve repeatedly invoked individuals such as Viktor Frankl and Dr. Edith Eger, another Holocaust survivor who became a trauma therapist, author, and public speaker:

  • “After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races” (2017) (link here)
  • “Viktor Frankl on finding meaning in the face of great adversity” (2016) (link here)
  • “Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor” (2018) (link here)
  • “Dr. Edith Eger’s The Choice: On trauma and healing” (2017) (link here)

If choice or circumstance finds you leaning more towards reflection than merriment this holiday season, then may it lead to a better and meaningful year to come. For additional food for thought, you might also check out these past cogitations on the meaning of life:

  • “Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives” (2016) (link here)
  • “Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your ‘body of work'” (2015) (link here)
  • “Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul” (2014) (link here)
  • “Transitions and inner callings” (2014) (link here)
  • “Chris Guillebeau’s advice: Do your own annual review” (2014) (link here)
  • “Holiday reflections: The end of limitless possibilities (and that’s good)” (2013) (link here)
  • “What is a ‘Ulyssean adult,’ and how can you become one?” (2012) (link here)

 

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