My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent topics from (roughly) the last seven days.
Scientific American: Power of a Meaningful Life by Gareth Cook
New York Magazine: What Makes Your Life Meaningful? by Melissa Dahl & Allyson Young
Times HigherEd: Happiness expert advises UK’s first ‘positive university’ by Jack Grove
Center for Positive Organizations: Soft Skills Training Boosts Productivity by Greta Guest
BBC: How to be wiser by Claudia Hammond
Guardian: Quick steps to mindfulness: the running Treatment by William Pullen
The Positive Organization: Living on the Upward Spiral by Robert Quinn
The Federalist: These New Yorkers Rediscovered Meaning By Serving Their Neighbors by Emily Esfahani Smith
The Economist: Walk in your own shoes: The case for compassion, not empathy, no author
Science Daily: Where belief in free will is linked to happiness, no author
Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer and fellow Penn MAPP alum. She writes about culture, relationships, and psychology. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. A few days ago her first book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, was published. Today, she took some time to talk about her work on Mappalicious.
Emily, in your book, you propose there are four pillars of a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. I´ve already come across the first three while studying Positive Psychology, the last one seems to be a very unique angle. So what´s the story with storytelling?
When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied, according to psychologists—they feel their lives matter and have worth; they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose; and they believe their lives are coherent or comprehensible. Storytelling relates to that third prong of meaning, coherence. Storytelling is the act of taking our disparate experiences and weaving them into a whole. Rather than seeing their experiences as random or disconnected, people who feel their lives are meaningful see their experiences as part of a narrative that explains who they are and how they got to be that way. Another word for storytelling is sense-making—when we tell stories, we’re really trying to make sense of our experiences.
One of the people I interviewed for my book, for example, told me that experiencing adversity as a child ultimately made him a more compassionate person—that’s the story he tells about his adversity; that’s how he makes sense of it. But storytelling isn’t just about understanding ourselves more deeply, it’s also about understanding others. When we watch movies or read novels or listen to a friend’s story, we’re ultimately gaining more wisdom and perspective about what it means to be human.
In my day job, I´m heading a department in a multinational corporation. Therefore, I take special interest in the application of Positive Psychology in organizations. Do those four pillars you describe also apply to meaning in work – or are there additional aspects leaders should consider when thinking about their employees´ experience?
One of the most exciting trends of the last few decades has been the emergence of what I call “cultures of meaning” in institutions like corporations. Many companies are actively building cultures of meaning for their consumers and employees by relying on the four pillars of meaning.
A great example is the apparel brand Life Is Good, which sees its purpose as spreading hope and optimism around the world. It does this with its apparel, which has the words Life Is Good emblazoned on it. Many consumers have written to the company saying that its elevating message has helped them get through adversities and tragedies like cancer and losing loved ones. The leaders at Life Is Good have shared those stories with their employees, to show them that their work is making a positive impact on others. Life Is Good also has a non-profit arm that helps children facing adversities. When I spoke to several of the employees at the company—from a receptionist to a designer—they all told me that they are driven by the good that their company is doing in the world. So here, I see Life Is Good relying on the pillars of purpose and storytelling to create cultures of meaning.
It’s important for leaders to be aware of whether employees are experiencing their work as meaningful. Nothing engages or motivates employees quite like meaningful work—and research by Adam Grant suggests that doing meaningful work makes employees more productive, too (Adam´s interview on Mappalicious can be found here).
I feel my life is already pretty meaningful. I´m happily married and have two beautiful kids. Additionally, I can spend a lot of my time working on things I deeply care about and help other people. But I´m not so sure about the storytelling part. What are some steps I could take to enhance my experience of meaning in life via this pillar?
Storytelling requires reflection. I would recommend setting aside some time—maybe 15 minutes a day a few times a week—to either think or write about your life story. That may sound daunting or vague, but here are some specific things you can reflect on during that time.
1. Try dividing your life into chapters. How many chapters are there? What is the title or theme of each chapter? What makes each chapter unique? What chapters are yet to come? How many future chapters are there? What do you want the final chapter to say?
2. When you look back on your life, what were the turning points? What were the high points and the low points? How did those experiences change you? What did you learn from them? Are you still working to process them?
3. Reflect on the places in your life that played a formative role in your development—like where you grew up, perhaps, or where you went to college, or where you first met your husband or wife. While you’re thinking about these places, ask yourself: why were your experiences there so meaningful? How did they change you? What would your life have been life if you had grown up somewhere else or gone to a different school? What does it feel like being back in those places?
I’d like to add that storytelling is a pillar that takes work—sometimes we have to go over and over an experience hundreds of time before we can begin to make sense of it and understand how it fits into the broader arc of our lives. But it’s ultimately worth it, because that sense-making process brings us wisdom, resolution, and even a measure of peace.
Thank you, Emily, and best of luck with your book!
Mankind is a smart bunch. We´ve learned how to put a man on the moon, how to build skyscrapers as high as mountains, and we have access to all the knowledge in the world via small devices in our pockets made of plastic, metal, and some microchips. We can travel back and forth between the continents in a matter of hours. We´ve developed sophisticated treatments for all kinds of human ailments, helping us to become as old as some of the trees. That´s impressive and utterly admirable.
Yet, all these upsides of modern life seem to take a toll on our bodies and minds. In most Western societies, the level of obese people is growing steadily, as is the pervasiveness of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety-related conditions. Is this the price society has to pay for the comforts of the modern life? And more importantly:
Could we reverse these effects by turning to a more “primitive” lifestyle?
Here´s the thing: I´m sure, on the whole, we´re a lot smarter than our Neanderthalian ancestors. But being smart does not automatically lead to making smarter decisions. Let´s look at their way of life for a moment. Born in 1978, I´m not a contemporary witness – yet I´m an avid reader and watch a lot of documentaries. Here´s how I imagine life must have been for them:
- They lived in tribes of several larger families with close bonds between the members of their group.
- They had to toil hard in order to survive, but when their work was done (having enough food to sustain the tribe), they relaxed, played, created art, and made love.
- The men hunted in small groups, sometimes for several days in a row. When doing so, they walked or even ran a double-digit mileage per day.
- While chasing prey, they didn’t talk much. Instead, they focused on their immediate surroundings, the animals´ smells, sounds, and their tracks.
- When the hunt was successful, they returned home, shared their game with everybody, and also shared their hunting lore by the fireside.
- The women also walked long distances several time per week while searching for fruits and nuts. Some of them stayed home to take care of the tribe´s offspring. When not searching for food, they created tools, pottery, and clothing.
- Whenever possible, they all slept long, especially in winter. They also took several naps over the course of the day whenever the environment was save.
Now let’s take this narration and transfer into more modern terms. What we have here are people who…
- spend a lot of time with their friends and the ones they love (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of bonding);
- finish the equivalent of a half-marathon three or four times a week (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of intense physical exercise);
- spend most of their time in natural green environments (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of biophilia)…
- …and practice an intuitive form of mindfulness while doing so (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of staying in the present moment).
- have a clear purpose in life and work hard to reach it (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of feeling one´s life has a deeper meaning)…
- …yet, they are not workaholics. They know how to relax, taking lots of powernaps, and engage in recreational activities such as play and art (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of detaching from work and engaging in play or the arts).
Depression and anxiety as the body´s warning signs?
Compare this to what most Westerners are doing:
- We eat too much food that we don´t have to struggle for.
- We sit too much and walk too little.
- We work insane hours, yet don´t sleep and play enough.
- We spend too much time alone or among people we don´t really care about.
- We get lost in cyberspace instead of staying with what´s at hand.
- We focus too much on promoting ourselves instead of promoting the common good.
Put in simple terms, I think this is what our bodies are trying to tell us:
Hey man, you’re doing this wrong. You’re spending your time doing the wrong things, and I don’t feel safe and sound in these places you’re taking me. And where are the familiar faces that I love? But hey, I can’t explain this to you in a straight way, I don’t have words. That’s why I make you feel anxious and miserable. This is my wake-up call.
Let me close by saying that I don’t argue we should all return to an aboriginal lifestyle. I’m a city-boy all the way through. I like my work at the office, I love going out for dinner, and having a grocery store and a hospital in close proximity. But I also try to take care of myself and my body, I try to create meaning by helping people live more significant lives (e.g., via this blog…) – and ever since being married and having kids, I stay home a lot.
I guess, as ever so often, it comes down to finding the right balance.
My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent topics from (roughly) the last seven days.
New York Times: The Year of Conquering Negative Thinking by Lesley Alderman
New York Magazine: Living With Purpose Yields a Longer Life and Higher Income by Drake Baer
Guardian: From Groundhog Day to … Raging Bull? – films to inspire and uplift by Peter Bradshaw
New York Magazine: Small Things to Remember to Change Your Life for the Better by Melissa Dahl
Fast Company: How To Use Brain Science To Be Your Best Self In 2017 by Lydia Dishman
Greater Good Science Center: What Does a Compassionate Workplace Look Like? by Nir Eyal & Monica Worline
Harvard Business Review: To Recover from Failure, Try Some Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer
Psychology of Wellbeing: The Law of Diminishing Returns, Applied by Jeremy McCarthy
Fast Company: 10 Science-Backed Ways To Be More Positive In 2017 by Gwen Moran
Inc: 5 things science learned about happiness last year by Jessica Stillman
Greater Good Science Center: How to Reduce Rudeness in the Workplace by Jill Suttie
Wharton Knowledge: Why Mental Bandwidth Could Explain the Psychology Behind Poverty, no author
At the end of July, the Pokémon GO app had been downloaded more than 100 million times. These days, you see people using it literally everywhere. I’m really convinced that playing Pokémon GO has a lot of potential for are you f.cking kidding me?
Please go and get a life. If you want to go out in the park, take a good book with you. Here are some suggestions for you…
I don´t know if it´s my age (…the 40s are clearly in sight…), or the fact that I will become a father for the second time over the upcoming weeks (Yeah…!), or if it´s just in the air anyway (I believe so…) – but my mind is preoccupied with the topic of meaning and purpose at work and in life in general most of the time.
If you also would like to dig deeper into that subject-matter: Here´s a neat book list for you. Some books are brand-new (e.g., Dan Pontefract´s) or haven’t even been published yet (as in the case of Emily Esfahani Smith´s, a fellow Penn Mappster), some have been published over the last two years (e.g., Aaron Hurst´s book), some are a bit older (e.g., Rick Warren´s bestseller), and with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Viktor Frankl I´ve also included some classics. Some books are based on solid science through and through (e.g., Vic Strecher), some are more self-help style (e.g. Marsha Beck), some are scholarly books (Dik et al.), most are clearly written for the layman.
Share and enjoy!
- Martha Beck: Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live
- Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
- Bryan Dik et al.: Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace
- Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning
- Aaron Hurst: The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World
- Dan Pontefract: The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization
- Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
- Victor Strecher: Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything
- Dave & Wendy Ulrich: The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win
- Rick Warren: The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?