This distinction between happiness and meaning was brought home to me during my recent read of Emily Esfahani Smith's book The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. The book weaves diverse personal stories to illustrate Smith's belief that meaning is what we are all searching for. She outlines 4 Pillars of a Meaningful Life that include:
- Belonging: being part of a larger community that you value and with others who value who you are
- Purpose: working toward something that matters, especially if it serves the greater good of others. It comes down to using your strengths and talents to benefit others.
- Storytelling: what you tell yourself about your life through personal narratives and reflections (perhaps through your journaling)
- Transcendence: connecting with something that is bigger than yourself, especially through the arts, nature or spirituality. Experiences with transcendence can make you feel less self-centered.
While happiness is found in small moments throughout life, meaning is found along a long road and takes time. Meaning can involve hard work. Unlike happiness that may come in brief spurts while engaged in enjoyable activities, meaning is something you grow. You take action to build meaning, and you may look back at your "work" toward meaning and find that you are proud of yourself, that you belong and that you have been heard. These are deeply rewarding things.
Why Does Meaning Matter?
Adding meaningful moments to our lives matters because of its lasting power in helping us move beyond happy moments to ones that enrich our lives in a more pervasive and lasting way. One Greater Good Science Center article found that meaningfulness:
- spans your lifetime and includes how you engage in the world (past, present and future)
- increases as you give to others; it is connected to actions that you take on behalf of others
- comes from living through and successfully tackling your life stressors and challenges
- is deepened when you express yourself, your personal beliefs, and your cultural identity
I see a pattern here, and many of the themes and topics that I talk about in my podcast, Let the Verse Flow, are echoed in these points: the importance of giving, the role of gratitude in our lives, working on personal growth after struggles, creative expression and reflection (journaling). It's not a coincidence that these elements reoccur in the research and writings on happiness and meaning. Taking action and giving to others, thoughtful reflection, creative pursuits—these are the backbone of building a meaningful life.
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Activities to Cultivate a Meaningful Life
Here's where things start to get good. There's a whole list of actions that we can take to help us lead a more meaningful life. You've heard me talk about most of these, but here's the starter list for you to consider:
- spending time with people you love
- helping others
- being creative
Of course, I put journaling at the top of the list. See below to access my free Journaling 101 guide, and listen to the podcast for journal prompts at the end of each episode. Happy writing!
In episode #10, The Road to Brighter Days, I discuss the podcast's tagline "May you stay on the bright side of the beat," and my wish that we develop a nuanced sense of what a positive spirit means by building our resilience.
I discuss: owning your feelings, setting boundaries, developing comfort routines/sensory pleasures, and connecting to caring, but it’s my invocation and poetry that’s doing the heavy lifting in this episode. I’m passionate about this call to actionꟷand I hope you’ll listen to me speak it into existence in different ways in this episode.
In episode #11, A Positive Spin on Aging (It's Tied to Purpose), I talk about all things aging by starting with an overview of research that shows that while we may experience a mid-life dip in happiness, there are benefits to getting older that help us move toward finding our purpose.
Mid-life can be a time when caregiving, health problems, and financial worries burden us. It sounds all “doom and gloom,” but there’s also a “flowers in bloom” side to aging—and that’s what I want us to focus on.
This episode offers a roadmap for building a more purposeful life when you make time for building community, feeding your soul, giving to others, and exploring your creative passions. Let’s remember that as we age, we also know more about the world and ourselves; we have a better sense of what we want, and we have the internal strength to make things happen.
Journal Prompts (to move toward making meaning):
I always wish you happy days, but I really want you to find meaning in your life, and journaling can help you tell new stories about your life and purpose. It's one of the greatest self-reflection tools we have, and from our journal, we can build a roadmap of new avenues to take. Here are some journal prompts to help you move toward finding more meaning in life.
- What are one or two talents or skills that you would like to share with the world? How will you take your first steps in that direction?
- Write about a happy time in your life, then write about a time when you felt your life had meaning. How did those two experiences differ?
- Write about a stressor or life challenge you tackled by getting out of your head and taking the focus off yourself. How did it make you feel to overcome this problem in this way?
Curious & Contemplating
What I'm Reading: The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O'Rourke
Gratitude Goes To...
My thanks to Marcelle, my first paid subscriber; thanks for supporting the show and newsletter. If you'd like to join Marcelle as a paid subscriber, please click here.
Today's Photo: Sunrise Over Central Park
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Until next time, don't forget to stay on the bright side of the beat. 🌞
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Let the Verse Flow is an independent publication launched in June 2023 by Jill Hodge. If you subscribe today, you'll get full access to the website, podcast episodes and a monthly newsletter delivered to your inbox (no spam). Members are vital to building a rich community of diverse voices. Join us by subscribing today; consider a paid subscription to support the community if possible. Thank you!