Lesson 1 - Healing With Life Purpose and Meaning

Much about life makes our heart hurt. Not getting what we want out of life hurts our heart. Feeling on a treadmill and working all the time just to survive hurts our heart. The burdens of chronic pain or chronic poverty hurt our heart. Not feeling loved hurts our heart. Feeling ruined—feeling that our life experiences have harmed us to such an extent that we are broken—hurts our heart. The thing called “depression” is exactly this despair, this aching heart, this pain that brings with it tears and “symptoms of depression” like lethargy, sleeplessness, and a profound loss of pleasure. Hundreds of millions of people are moving about with an aching heart.

What soothes many people is the warm blanket of belief. If you believe in a loving god who loves you and who cares for you or if you believe in an esoteric, mystical universe where everything is for the best, those beliefs may work wonders to heal your heart. If, however, you are someone who does not believe, as soothing as such beliefs might prove, then you are stuck with that ache in your heart—unless you come around to another vision of life, one with a real power to heal your heart.

In this “other” vision of life you give yourself to life. You ask less of life and instead you say, “I will make strong life purpose choices and live them.” You dedicate yourself to a vision of life that you yourself create and ratify. When you do this, life feels more meaningful. The hard work of life is now hard work that you engage in more easily and more happily because you know that you have a clear, unwavering intention: to make yourself proud by your efforts and to stand tall. This new inner dignity helps heal your heart.

By identifying your life purposes and by choosing them, ratifying them, and living them, you “create new meaning” in your life. That is, you actively and actually create the psychological experience of meaning. This is a very important point. Your heart is aching in part because you are not experiencing enough meaning in life. That is, you are bereft of certain experiences. You can have more of those experiences by adopting the vision of life I’m suggesting. Rather than “seeking meaning,” as if it existed outside of you somewhere, and rather than trying to adopt and embrace the “second-hand meaning” of a particular belief system, you make value-based meaning in accordance with your values, principles, and life purpose choices.

Over the next eight weeks I want to explain to you how this works. Today I want to present you with some core ideas. You have no “work” to do today except to think about these ideas. If you would like to do some additional work, begin to jot down your thoughts in answer to the following question: “What are my life purposes?” Just consider your answers to this question as your first attempts. I’ll provide more guidance about how to name and frame your life purposes as we proceed.

Here are three core ideas to consider:

1. MEANING IS A SUBJECTIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIENCE

Meaning is first of all and primarily a psychological experience. When our running subjective experience has a certain resonant quality to it—maybe it’s a feeling of rightness, maybe it’s an oceanic quality, maybe it’s some integrative quality, maybe it’s an experience of significance, maybe it’s an experience of joy or pleasure—we have the sensation that life possesses meaning. This is the “psychological experience of meaning.” At such times life feels like it matters, makes sense, is “all right,” and so on.

Because human beings aren’t trained to notice these as experiences of meaning and because we don’t possess a robust vocabulary of meaning, we often don’t notice that we’ve just had the psychological experience of meaning. We might spend an afternoon walking the back streets of a French town wearing a smile on our face because something has been stirred in us by the experience and nevertheless not credit that afternoon as a “psychological experience of meaning.” We had the experience but we didn’t quite know to label it as such or to credit it as such. For this reason the majority of our psychological experiences of meaning pass by unnoticed and do not get credit.

How you conceptualize meaning matters. If you hold that it is outside of yourself and must be tracked down, you have one idea of meaning. If, however, you conceive of it as a subjective experience, that it sometimes comes unbidden and that it can also be coaxed into existence, and that when it is absent you must try to create it rather than try to search for it—then you are holding a very different idea of meaning. It should go without saying that what sort of idea you hold about meaning matters a great deal—in fact, it completely dictates how you will live your life and how you will experience life.

2. VALUE-BASED MEANING-MAKING

One of your goals in life, if you would like to live authentically, is to make sufficient meaning and also to have that meaning align with your values. A sunny day, a bit of tomfoolery, anything might provoke the psychological experience of meaning. That unbidden meaning is of secondary importance to the meaning that you make “your way,” in alignment with your values and your life purpose choices. The phrase “value-based meaning-making” stands for your thoughtful judgments about how you want to provoke the psychological experience of meaning.

Ah, but the effort to make value-based meaning is such a serious and challenging one! It is not at all simple or straightforward to choose to do the right thing when you want to do the impulsive thing. It is ever so hard to honor your values when your liberty or your ease is at stake. It is seriously challenging to escape from or transcend your formed personality, with its habitual demands and its repetitive thoughts. It’s quite a project even to know what values to support in the real-life situations that tumble before us one after another without pause.

Consider what the phrase “making value-based meaning” represents to you and what it would take to implement this concept in your life. This a core idea and a core question for you to consider.

3. YOUR IDEA OF MEANING

“Meaning” is primarily a subjective psychological experience, one that you can cultivate, influence, and coax into existence. But it is also an idea. You can craft a smart, functional idea of meaning to deal with the fact that meaning is primarily a “mere” psychological experience and you can rally around your idea of meaning even if something you are trying out isn’t feeling all that meaningful.

For example, you might decide to write a novel as one of your life purposes but you might find the experience of writing it more arduous than “meaningful.” To keep yourself on track and motivated, you would say to yourself, “I understand that I am living my life purposes by writing this novel even though I am not getting the psychological experience of meaning out of my daily efforts. This makes sense to me, since in my conception of ‘meaning’ I understand that something that may prove meaningful to do may not feel meaningful in the doing.”

By understanding meaning this well and by maintaining a clear perspective on how meaning operates, you keep in decent spirits even if your daily efforts aren’t feeling all that meaningful. You remember not to “give up” on the possibility of experiencing meaning just because a given didn’t provide the feeling you were after. You continue to live your life purposes, remaining hopeful that by living them lots of meaning will get generated.

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These ideas may feel very new to you. You may have to go over them a few times in order to get what I’m proposing. On the other hand they may seem instantly familiar – they may be ideas that you’ve been contemplating for a long time, maybe without the language to articulate what you’ve been thinking. Either way, they form our beginning. If you would like to do some additional work today, in addition to just thinking about these core ideas, begin to try to answer the question, “What are my life purposes?” We’ll continue our conversation tomorrow!

Today’s goal: To begin to appreciate the extent to which life purpose and meaning matter when it comes to emotional health.

Today’s key principle: We make life purpose choices and we have experiences of meaning. To have more experiences of meaning, we must make strong life purpose choices and then live our life purpose choices in a daily way.

Today’s key strategy: Getting acquainted with some new ideas about life purpose, meaning, and emotional health.