Our mental health depends on us having a good sense of what promotes the experience of meaning in us—that is, a good sense of what sorts of things give us the subjective psychological sense that life is meaningful.
This array—or menu of meaning opportunities—is naturally different person by person. What would you put on your menu of meaning opportunities? Consider the following nine possibilities:
- One meaning opportunity is love
We are built to experience love as meaningful. Unless life has harmed us to such an extent that we have stopped daring to love or unless we’ve become so self-involved that all the love we need is self-love, love is a golden meaning opportunity. You could love today—all it takes is a softening of your heart and an object of affection. If you bestow some love today, your life will feel more meaningful. Think of any of the words in the family of love, words like affection, kindness, generosity, and intimacy. They paint a picture of what loving means. You can take today as an opportunity to invest meaning in loving someone or in loving something.
- A second meaning opportunity is good works
Action makes us feel more alive. So does living our principles and our values. When we marry these two ideas we get the idea of “good works”: real work of our own choosing that reflects our principles and our values. Maybe your everyday work feels short on real value but you must continue with it because it pays the bills. So be it. Try to supplement that everyday work with some good works of your own choosing. Your life will feel more meaningful if you pick “good works” as one of your meaning opportunities.
Creativity is a rich, large word that stands for the way we make use of our resources and talents. We can approach anything creatively—creativity is not reserved for certain pursuits like writing a novel or inventing software. Life feels richer when we turn on that inner tap and allow our natural creativity to flow. Creativity in this everyday sense is an excellent meaning opportunity. You can choose to approach some challenge at work with grudging energy and a feeling of boredom or you can decide to invest something of yourself in meeting the challenge, bring to bear your inner resources and talents, spend a little of your passion, and attack it creatively. Life feels more meaningful when you approach it this way.
As children we start out with two energies, both of which appeal to us greatly: we love to experiment and we love to excel. Soon, though, because we’re pressured to get things right, we start to lose our taste for experimentation; and because much of what we do doesn’t rise to the level of excellence, we begin to fear that excellence isn’t in us. Out of this dynamic arises a middle-of-the-road approach to life. Still, excellence remains a golden meaning opportunity for you. You can decide to bite into something and do it really well. Maybe you’ll flounder at first; maybe you’ll make some heroic messes. But if you apply yourself and if you persevere, excellence is waiting. And how good it will feel! Give excellence a chance and add it to your list of meaning opportunities.
Protecting our individuality requires that we remain separate: we can’t think our thoughts or dream our own dreams unless we stay in our own skins. But while separateness and solitude are precious, relationships remain golden meaning opportunities. They are the place to love and be loved; the place to befriend and be befriended; the place to make work, business, and career connections; the place to be human in the presence of other human beings. Some of these relationships are rather like traps; others are the very beauty of life. Consciously decide where you want to relate, choosing the riches and avoiding the traps, and put relating high on your list of meaning opportunities.
It is reasonable enough to focus on our own survival needs, appetites, and desires. Evolution has built that primacy right into us. But nature has also provided us with a sense of right and wrong and an understanding of ideas like responsibility, mutuality, and shared humanity. Therefore we feel better if we aim ourselves in the direction of stewardship: in the direction of care for and attention to the world in which we live, the creatures of this world, and the ideas and institutions that maintain civilization at its best. We can aim to steward our children, civil rights, democratic institutions, the environment, or anything small or large that we think is worth our concern. It could be the stream at the edge of town; it could be the freedom of one person to speak. Stewardship meets both our ethical and psychological needs. Pick something to steward—a person, an ideal, a resource—and life will feel more meaningful.
Many of us curtail our natural desire to experiment as, during our formative years, we are instructed in school, at home, and among our peers to get things right and not make mistakes. Often we are literally punished for experimenting; and so we lose our taste for experimenting. However experimenting is a crucial core element of creativity, growth and learning. We can’t learn a new art medium unless we experiment with it. We can’t learn how to run our business except through trial-and-error experimentation. If you’ve lost your taste for experimentation, see if you can reacquire it by choosing experimentation as one of your meaning opportunities. Let go of needing a successful outcome, don’t worry whether you will get it right or wrong, and rejoice in the experimental process.
It goes without saying that people find pleasure pleasurable and a source of meaning. Yet because of familial, cultural, and religious injunctions against enjoying pleasure or because we think that pleasure is too low a thing to honor, many people reject pleasure as a significant meaning opportunity. In a well-rounded life where we are making meaning on many fronts, by creating, by being of service, by entering into relationships, and so on, pleasure ought to take its rightful place. If our life were only about garnering pleasure we might rightly feel that we had strayed too far from our principles. But if we’re living a value-based life we’re certainly entitled to include plenty of pleasure! Pleasure is not a suspect or second-rate meaning opportunity.
Self-actualization, like creativity, is a word that stands for our desire to make the most of our talents and inner resources. Instead of using only a small portion of your total being, you make the heroic decision to employ your full intelligence, your emotional capital, and your best personality qualities in the service of your meaning investments. This is hard to do. Your personality shadows may get in the way. The facts of existence may get in the way. We may want to use our full potential in the service of writing a novel, say, but that embroils us in the very real process of writing a novel, with all of its mysteries and difficulties. Despite these built-in problems, we know in our heart that we would love to “actualize our potential” and by doing so make ourselves proud.
There are many other meaning opportunities, too. Today, do the following “simple” thing. Just think a little bit about the idea of “seizing meaning opportunities” and the related idea of creating your own personal “menu of meaning opportunities.” Just do a little dreaming and thinking on these important ideas.
Today’s goal: To begin to understand the extent to which creating meaning positively influences mental health
Today’s key principle: You can create the psychological experience of meaning by seizing meaning opportunities and if you do so that will improve your overall sense of wellbeing
Today’s key strategy: Calmly considering the related ideas of “seizing meaning opportunities” and “creating your own personal menu of meaning opportunities”
Good luck today!
Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://ericmaisel.com. Contact Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel