Meaning. We've all likely mused about it or thought about engaging in more pursuits that feel meaningful; however, soccer practice, needing to provide a steady income for the little things like a roof over your head, food on the table, healthcare, etc. sometimes fly in the face of a Mother Teresa-like image of making meaning.
First, the bad news. When palliative care expert Bronnie Ware published the top five regrets of the dying, most were tied to not having enough meaning in life. When Dr. William Breitbart noticed that many of the very ill cancer patients he saw were asking for assistance with suicide, Breitbart inquired why... Surprisingly it wasn't pain or fear...it was that they didn't feel as if their life had any meaning. Take-home message: at the end of life, meaning is what it important and without it, people want their lives to end.
Now, the good news (because you know I'm a "glass half-full" kind of gal). You can create meaning in your life...wherever you are in your life, whatever your financial, physical, spiritual conditions...in very simple ways. That's right folks, no need to sell off your possessions and move to remote areas of the Andes to save the leprechaun fish (although that is a perfectly worthy effort if it brings you meaning). Take a look at Bronnie Ware's top 5 regrets of the dying (and I'm paraphrasing) and then focus on the ACTION FIX to bring more meaning your life.
1. Not living a life true to myself but rather doing what others expected of me. The ACTION FIX: What can you do now in your work life, community life, friendships, etc. that feels more true to yourself? It can be as little as expressing your true creativity and talents by making hand-made cards for your friends to as big as quitting your corporate paper-pushing job to go back to school to pursue your childhood dream of being a __________________.
2. Spending too much time at work and missing out on time with my family. THE ACTION FIX: If you NEED every last penny of your salary to support your lifestyle, how can you simplify your life so that you can take a lower-paying job that allows you the flexibility and time to be with your family? It can be as little as ditching your monthly cable package and packing your lunches to as big as downsizing to a smaller house with a smaller price tag so you don't need as much money coming in.
3. Not expressing feelings. THE ACTION FIX: How can you express yourself more authentically? This could be as little as telling your spouse that you are very hurt when he/she tells the story about you burning the lasagna dinner at every social gathering to as big as having a heart-to-heart conversation with your sibling with whom you haven't spoken in years about your hurt. The field of psychoneuroimmunology (say that five times fast!) has shown connections between repressing feelings/emotions and actual physical illness.
4. Not staying in touch with friends. The ACTION FIX: Connect with others! This can be as simple as sending a Facebook message to those friends you haven't spoken with since your wedding to forging new meaningful friendships based on your current interests, place in life, and geographical locations. Research has shown that poor (or nonexistent) social connections are related to mental and physical illness and mortality risk.
5. Not allowing one's self to be happy. THE ACTION FIX: Drop the self-judgment and the fear of what others think of you and do what brings you joy. This could be as simple as drinking your morning coffee outside for five minutes each day rather than chugging it while stuck in traffic on the way to work or as big as standing up to your spouse and telling him/her that you haven't been being true to yourself for fear of what he/she will say and then taking steps to remedy that. Many of my clients feel guilty for pursuing interests and friendships that bring them happiness....what they fail to see at first is that they will often be a better person/mom/dad/wife/husband and show up happier, with more energy, and more authentically when they are pursuing those things that make them feel good.
You can get the benefits of Dr. Breitbart's meaning-centered psychotherapy (and here is some published research indicating that it works) without joining a group or seeking out a therapist trained in this growing type of therapy. The key elements of his individual and group treatments include focusing on an sharing with others times when you have felt the most meaning in your life (including relationships, friendships, hobbies/passions, etc.) in both big (having a child) and smaller (paying for a fireman's coffee) ways.
So, what's all the buzz? It seems that finding meaning is important in both a fully-lived life and pre-death. So, what are you waiting for? We aren't guaranteed another day in this life, so the time to start making your life more meaningful is now. If you have made changes to bring more meaning into your life, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!