Using the Principles of Positive Psychology to find Purpose and Meaning
Tal Ben-Shahar, Positive Psychologist proposes that finding happiness in life is about creating a balance of meaning and pleasure. Often, we feel we must focus on finding one true, BIG meaning in life and that can leave us feeling like we are in a never-ending quest to find the elusive unicorn. What Positive Psychology shows us is that the things that bring us a sense of pleasure and meaning can evolve and change over time and that the balance of what creates happiness for each of us, is unique only to us. Added to this are those big life events – birth of a child, loss of a loved one, marriage – that can also throw us a curve ball and leave us questioning our purpose and meaning. Feeling as though we have lost touch with our meaning and purpose in life can leave us feeling anxious, unable to focus, unable to motivate ourselves and depressed.
I went back to University in my early thirties to do my PhD and I found that completing it left me feeling like I had no direction, no purpose. Having worked on it full and part-time for five years I suddenly had this HUGE gaping hole in my life where it had previously been filled with the drive to complete my thesis. It left me asking “who am I?” “What do I want from my life?” “What is my purpose?” I fell into the unicorn trap – looking for that elusive creature in the form of the next big thing that would bring me purpose and meaning. I worked, I walked my dog and I felt mostly empty. I tried to convince myself that my work was meaningful, but for me that was not enough. I tried to find hobbies that would inspire me and bring me happiness through becoming absorbed in them, but I couldn’t stick at any of them.
Not all of us are lucky enough to find a career that feels like our true calling, and sometimes what originally felt like a calling begins to feel like a chore as our life evolves and we grow and age. According to Rashid and Seligman “feeling that our lives have purpose means that we feel the world is a different place because we are in it” (p.238) but how do we find the things that give us that sense of meaning? Here are a few tips on how to identify those things in your life that provide you with a sense of meaning and purpose as a start point:
Make a list of all the things you love doing and/or hope to do in the future
What feelings do these things evoke for you?
What legacy do you want to leave?
How do the things on your list compare with your legacy?
What does this reflection tell you about you and where you are in your life?
What small things can you start to do for a few minutes each day that you love?
Incorporating a few minutes of something that brings us joy into each day helps to build positive neural pathways in the brain and enhances happiness. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, just small daily practices. You can also top off your working day by reflecting on “what is the best thing that happened today?” as you travel home. This helps to increase our focus on the positive and has the added benefit of setting us on our journey home from work each day in a more positive frame of mind. As you drift to sleep each evening, reflecting back again on your most best moment of the day – to end the day on a positive note and set yourself up for a great start the following day.
Essentially, the point to remember is that those things in which we find meaning and pleasure often change in the course of our lives. According to Positive Psychologist Maria Sirois meaning must be cultivated and must connect with what is authentically you. The benefits of small daily practices in meaning and purpose include increased happiness, reduced depression, reduced anxiety, greater satisfaction, greater resilience in the face of adversity, greater connection with others and creativity. We invest in our physical health and we need to develop a mindset of doing the same for our mental health and wellbeing.
So, what does meaning and purpose mean to me at this stage in my life? It is about appreciating beauty in nature when I walk my dog, it is about spending quality time with family and it is about a new career direction as I take the leap from the corporate world into that of self-employment to become a therapist. My focus has evolved from my past aspirations to help enhance safety, health and wellbeing in organisations to helping individuals with the challenges and barriers they face in their life. What does happiness mean for you?