Category Archives: Meaning

The life of meaning.

Those who know about these things tell me that an important contributor to a happier life is having the feeling that you’re part of something bigger: living a life of meaning, if you like.

For some this may involve belonging to an organised religious group of some kind, and I’ve certainly heard it said that those who go to church regularly are happier than those who don’t.

(What we don’t know, of course, is whether going to church makes people happier, or whether in general it’s happier people who go to church.)

Being only very slightly religious myself (if that’s possible), I’d say we can all live a life of meaning without necessarily being an active churchgoer.

For a start, you can be part of your community: a more active part, perhaps?

There’s an opportunity for you.

You can be part of your circle of friends: again, perhaps a more active part?

Another opportunity. For example, I decided to step up the mark today, and do a friend a favour.

At the end of the day, it’s you who chooses what you’ll be part of, but knowing what an impact it can have, makes it all the more important to hunt it down.

Think like an ad executive today. Who you are, what you do, and why that matters.

When starting to work on a new brief in my ad agency days it was generally sensible to conduct an analysis of ‘features, functions and benefits’.

Huh?

Well in simple terms they’re defined as:

(a) What is it?

(b) What does it do?

(c) Why would someone want it?

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An demonstration, if you were advertising a cellphone, could be its caller display feature.

It’s a feature, so that’s (a) taken care of.

What does this do? Well it shows the identity of the person who’s calling before you answer the phone, and that’s (b).

As for (c), the benefits could depend on your situation. You might for example use it to avoid unwanted or unknown calls. Or it may enable you to ensure you pick up if the call is from someone important. If you’re otherwise engaged, you could put your phone on silent but keep an eye on calls, either to return them later or, if you believe they may be urgent, to excuse yourself and answer them immediately.

I wonder if you can apply similar thinking to the various roles you play in life?

It’s often said that it’s good to know your true purpose, and I’m sure that – if you can – this tends to improve your overall emotional wellbeing.

So let’s suppose you’re someone’s son or daughter.

That’s (a).

How about your functions and benefits then?

What’s your (b) and (c)?

What do you do?

Why would someone want that?

I’ll leave it with you, may I?

Our own mood struggles can make us uniquely qualified to understand other people’s.

It’s probably fair to say that virtually everyone suffers from low mood.

For a fortunate few this may simply be the occasional bout of feeling a little less-good than normal.

For others, however, it can be more serious.

Low mood – and ultimately depression – is debilitating, destructive and downright dastardly, so it would be hard to believe that it has any upside whatsoever.

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A friend back in the UK keeps her mood issues pretty much to herself, but because we’re able to be honest with each other, she does open up to me.

Somewhat to my surprise, chatting to her one day did make me see one definite advantage I’ve chalked up from my own trips to the dark side.

‘Ah,’ she said.

‘But you UNDERSTAND.’

And with those three words she demonstrated the powerful idea that the bad times we go through make us better able to empathise with others.

They help us connect with the people around us who’ve also either gone through it, or who are going through it right now.

Empathy, of course, is inclined to be a two-way street.

I understand you, you understand me, we understand each other.

We’re told that to be upbeat we should surround ourselves with positive people, but isn’t this rather simplistic?

You see, I think those who understand you best are your fellow travellers.

To give your life more meaning, start with the very smallest things, like connecting with others.

A clown without a circus is just a man with an oddly-painted face and over-large shoes.

A priest without a congregation is just someone talking to himself in a big chilly building.

And a doctor without patients is just a woman with a stethoscope and a prescription pad.

One way or another, most people’s lives have purpose when they interact with others. Feeling a sense of purpose can help you see that you’re living a life of meaning. For some, this can be a profoundly life-changing mission, but there’s just as much potential reward to be had from being a parent or through working at a job which gives you a sense of achievement at the end of the day.

This is fine in theory of course, but what happens when your mood has taken a nose-dive? It’s at times like these when, far from feeling you have a sense of purpose, just about everything can seem meaningless.

So how exactly do you tackle this meaning-deficit?

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Think, perhaps, of a piggy bank into which you drop just a few small coins now and then. Sooner or later it will be heavy with cash, but it rattles hollowly to begin with. You need to start somewhere, however. Perhaps the same applies when it comes to seeking meaning in life?

When your tank is low, the smallest shared interaction can help. Remarkable as it may seem, and even if you need to force them out, a smile and a hello to a stranger – a shop assistant or receptionist for instance – can be like pennies in the belly of your “meaning” piggy bank. Stroking someone’s dog (best, perhaps, to stick to small ones if you don’t know them) can remind you that your world has more than one species.

When you want to feel part of something bigger, it pays to begin by thinking small.

Get a quick boost of meaningfulness

Unless you’re fantastically fortunate there will almost certainly be times in life when things feel a bit meaningless.

A bit blah.

Sometimes this can be the result of circumstances – when someone you love (or loved) is no longer there, for instance.

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But it can also come about if the black dog comes calling, often for no apparent reason whatsoever.

When you feel like this, it’s received wisdom that it can help to believe that you’re living a life of meaning – that there’s some greater purpose for you being here.

But it could be that your low mood will have you questioning the very idea of this.

Some are able to turn to religious beliefs at a time like that.

But what can you do when the feeling of being part of something bigger might help, but you have no particular religious faith?

Here are five possibilities.

Maybe one will work for you.

Perhaps they’ll inspire you to think of others.

1. Get out into nature.

There’s nothing like a walk in the big outdoors to remind you that you’re one (vital) component in a complex, rich world.

2. Listen to a piece of beautiful, moving music.

Another human being wrote that, and others performed it: they weren’t so different from you.

3. Visit a church or cathedral and take time to soak up its atmosphere.

Think about the people who built it, and their motivations for doing so.

Again, they were human beings very much like you and me.

4. Spend time with children – a reminder that the human race is a never-ending relay, of which you’re an important part.

5. Borrow a library-book biography of someone you admire, preferably someone whose life seemed full of meaning.

As you read it, look for clues: what led them to being the way they are, or were?

While none of these are certain to provide you with a magic remedy on a meaningless day, they might help a little, and every little helps.

How to feel part of something bigger than you

If you’re ever asked to dress as a pantomime horse (a pretty British thing, I think), I suggest that it’s always preferable to do this as part of something bigger.

At the micro level it’s better of course to have another half. If you’re to be at the front you’ll need a back end, and if you’ve drawn the short straw and are facing the prospect of sporting the swishy tail, it’s crucial to hook up with someone who’s going to wear the head and do the whinnying.

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At the more macro level you’re likely to feel distinctly less uncomfortable if you and your fellow thespian appear in some sort of relevant context. I’m thinking you’ll attract less astonished looks if you’re on stage in an actual pantomime (or even participating in a marathon) than you will if you go to your bank similarly attired.

(I suppose in the latter case you could always proffer the excuse that you were just there to see the loan arranger.)

Although I can’t imagine you’ll be faced with exactly such a prospect today, there’s much to be said for remembering that humans in general thrive by being part of something bigger, and it’s surprising how often the opportunity to do so can present itself.

You can achieve it in a formal way by being a member of some sort of community organisation, or a team member at a place of work or study, for instance.

May I suggest, however, that there may also be smaller chances to feel part of something bigger all through your day? Even something as ostensibly lonely as waiting in line in a shop can turn into something else altogether when people start talking to each other. A simple smile exchanged with a stranger can make you feel that you’re a member of a community rather than a solo traveller.

So whenever there’s a chance today, see if you can join in.

Oh yes, and on matter of pantomime horses, if you’re given the choice I’d sign up for the front end if I were you. The view’s generally better.

Learning from birds of a feather

Is it the same for you? When a flock of birds flies overhead, I’m invariably drawn to watch them. There’s something quite mesmerising about the way in which so many separate creatures come together as one.

Twisting and turning in unison, they wheel through the air as if they have one giant collective brain rather than dozens, or perhaps even thousands, of tiny individual ones.

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For a bird, it’s an instinctive way to behave. The average starling is almost certainly not consciously thinking ‘left a bit, right a bit’. Instead, she just flies with her flock.

Of course we humans tend not to exhibit this kind of behaviour (for a start, we lack the wings for airborne stunts) but this certainly doesn’t prevent us enjoying that feeling of being part of something bigger.

Think back to happy periods in your past and it won’t be too surprising if at least some involved being around other people – in some cases, perhaps a lot of other people.

Maybe there were good times in which you ‘belonged’ to something? Your school, a social or religious group, a work team, a youth organisation, a sports team, a book group or an amateur dramatic society for instance?

Slowly and steadily through history we evolved to surround ourselves with our relatives, and also to live in bigger groups consisting of other families as well.

Perhaps we’ve been too quick to simply accept that families must inevitably drift apart, but it’s a fact of life. Few of us live five minutes’ away from parents, brothers, sisters or grown-up children.

So this makes it more important than ever to keep your mind open to the idea of being part of something bigger.

If a starling can do it, perhaps you too can.

(Or should that be you Toucan?)

Taking a more positive approach

Walking to work after having a coffee the other morning, I briefly stopped by our local supermarket to pick up some groceries. As the guy on the checkout scanned my shopping, I asked him how his day had been so far.

“Really great,” he replied. “I’m alive, and I’m in good health.”

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Now he said this in all seriousness, without the merest suggestion of it being platitudinous. And it really made me stop and think.

How easy it is to find fault with our lives. How easy to focus on what’s wrong and unwanted.

How hard it can be to recognise, instead, what’s good – for there almost always is something.

In 1857 the American writer Thoreau said “we find only the world we look for”. We might interpret this to mean that if we go through our day looking for only the bad, that’s probably how things will pan out.

Be like the Whole Foods cashier, however, and things could look very different.

It may not always be possible, but whenever you can, why not choose to take a more positive approach?

How do you enrich the life of the people closest to you?

In my ad agency days it was generally sensible to conduct an analysis of ‘features, functions and benefits’ when starting work on a new brief.

Features, functions and benefits? In simple terms they’re defined as (a) what is it? (b) what does it do? and (c) why would someone want it?

2015-01-16

An example, if you’re selling a phone, could be its caller display feature. So that’s (a) taken care of.

What does this do? Well it shows you the identity of the person who’s calling before you answer the phone, and that’s (b).

As for (c), the benefits may depend on who you are and what your situation is.

You might for example use it to avoid unwanted or unknown calls.

Or it could enable you to always pick up when the call is from someone close to you.

If you’re otherwise engaged, you could put your phone on silent but keep an eye on calls so as to either return them later or, if you believe they might be urgent, excuse yourself and answer them immediately.

Now I wonder if you could apply a similar kind of thinking to the various parts you play in life?

It’s often said that it’s good to know your true purpose, and I’m sure that – if you can – this tends to improve your overall mental wellbeing.

So let’s suppose you’re someone’s son or daughter. That’s (a).

How about your functions and benefits then? What’s your (b) and (c)? What do you do? Why would someone want that?

I’ll leave it with you, shall I?

Meet the man who’s been to every single country in the world

An inspiring new book will get you thinking in entirely new ways about giving your life a fresh sense of purpose and mission.

I thought I’d done pretty well to visit 17 countries in the year’s travelling I did when I was forty, but my achievement was as nothing when compared to the extraordinary odyssey undertaken by Chris Guillebeau.

Chris, you see, set himself the goal of visiting every single country in the world by the time he was 35, and to cut a long story short, he pulled off this mission in exemplary style by travelling to all 193 countries before it was time to blow out the candles on his birthday cake in 2013.

Chris blogs and runs events, and also writes rather good books, the latest of which is published today – I had the privilege of reading a proof a couple of weeks ago.

The Happiness of Pursuit (great title by the way) is an awesome collection of stories about people who found ‘quests’ that brought purpose to their life, just as Chris’s own world-travel mission has done to his own.

Three of my favourites?

1. Two guys who got fired by Apple, but then carried on sneaking into their office for months to finish off a project they were working on, which actually ended up getting shipped to customers. By Apple.

2. A young man who walked across America. Oh yes, traversing the Mojave Desert on the way.

3. A woman who went on dates in all fifty of America’s states from Alabama to Wyoming.

There are dozens more tales where these came from, and something that struck me powerfully as I read the book is (a) how empowering it can feel to have a sense of purpose and mission in your life, and (b) how dreadfully easy it is to lose this if you’re going through a shabby time mood-wise.

On a grey day I know it’s probably unrealistic to set yourself big audacious goals, but I do wonder if reading about others’ missions might inspire you, leaving you believing that you may be capable of more imaginative objectives than you’ve previously felt possible.

The Happiness of Pursuit has certainly got my own goal-setting juices flowing. Perhaps it could do the same for you?

Find out more about Chris’s brand new book.