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Finding (and Retaining) Meaning in Life

By   Shlomo Maital

 

The October issue of Monitor on Psychology (APA) has a fine article by Tori Deangelis,  “In search of meaning”.   In it she makes several key points:

  • Almost every problem that’s brought into therapy …is implicitly about the meaning of life. This is from Dr. Clara Hill, a psychology professor and author of Meaning in Life (2018).
  • Psychologists George and Park agree that “people believe their lives are meaningful when three aspects are in place: they feel their lives make sense and have continuity, they are directed and motivated by meaningful goals, and they believe their existence matters to others.

 

         Sense, continuity, goals, value for others…   these components are similar to those that guide startup entrepreneurs.   ‘Make meaning, not money’, is the principle taught by startup expert Guy Kawasaki. Turns out – this is also the recipe for a meaningful life.   Make sense – there is a reason I am alive and I need to find it, matching my passions and skills.   Continuity – I am part of work that began before me and will continue after me. Goals – meaningful ambitious aspirations. Value for others – my life has meaning, and creates value, for others.

               A number of approaches to “meaning therapy” have proven effective. Logotherapy was developed by Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Nazi death camps and later made his survival technique into a therapeutic method, based on 3 things: kindness or creative work, truth and beauty, and facing life’s difficulties with courage.

         Another approach is story-telling. Shape your life as a story – tell your own story, looking back – and build your own story, looking forward in time. A research finding shows: Those who frame their lives as a journey find more meaning than those who see their lives in a linear, steps-to-a-goal fashion.

     Other research simplifies meaning into two key parts:   close personal connections and purposeful work. Problem is, many challenging jobs, as in high-tech, take a heavy toll on family life and family connections.   In one of my Coursera courses on entrepreneurship, given together with a former very senior high-tech executive, the first of 10 key lessons taught to students is: Take care of your family.   Purposeful work can end up losing meaning if you end up without those around you whom you love and who love you.

   The article ends on a positive note, quoting a wise psychologist: While meaning is a profound human experience, it is in the end based on ordinary, attainable things.

     But, I would add, to find meaning – you have to be aware that it is important and must be sought.

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Why Capitalism is (Not) Committing Suicide

By Shlomo  Maital

Brooks

    David Brooks has another superb column in the weekend new York Times.  Titled:  The Ambition Explosion, he quotes work by sociologist Daniel Bell, who wrote in 1976 that “capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.”

    Add to that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate wealth, corrupting democracy with it, and you have two huge reasons for its demise.  Right?

    Perhaps not.   My wife and I are returning home today from a long trip, which included mainland China.  There, I found highly ambitious young people, full of aspiration and amibition,  some working as waiters while studying, and one,  who started a vending machine business while working one of seven jobs and studying for his B.A.   “For instance” is not a proof, as the Yiddish saying goes, but it sure convinced us.

    Brooks cites what he thinks is the real Achilles Heel of capitalism – not the lack of ambition, or even wealth concentration, but the lack of real meaning!  

        “The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.”

      In the end, the ‘toys’ you buy with great wealth – like Lamborghini’s, we saw a dealership for them in Hong Kong and it was active and profitable —  do not in themselves provide meaning or satisfaction or fulfilment.  So what does?  Some try philanthropy.  Others, social entrepreneurship. 

      Make meaning, not money, counsels Guy Kawasaki, serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and Macintosh guru.  For young people  —    at the start of your career, define your legacy and your life goals, goals that will at the latter end of your life give you satisfaction and make your life meaningful.  THAT will make your boundless talent and ambition focused and directed toward a worthy goal.   It will also keep capitalism from committing suicide through sheer boredom.   Listen to what Brooks counsels: “Capitalist ambition is an energizing gale force. If there’s not an equally fervent counterculture to direct it, the wind uproots the tender foliage that makes life sweet.“ 

Find Meaning – Even Kids Seek It

By Shlomo Maital

meaning

Writing in the New York Times’ Sunday magazine (Oct. 19 issue), KONIKA BANERJEE (Yale grad student in psychology) and   PAUL BLOOM (Yale psychology professor) make a powerful, simple point.  It is a basic fundamental human drive, to seek meaning – to find meaning in the events that happen to us, right from early childhood.

   In research to be published in the leading journal Child Development, the scholars found that: “even young children show a bias to believe that life events happen for a reason — to “send a sign” or “to teach a lesson.” This belief exists regardless of how much exposure the children have had to religion at home, and even if they’ve had none at all.”     Other studies confirm that our search for meaning is independent of religious belief.   Atheists, too, need to find meaning.”

   The researchers caution us that this desperate search for meaning – the belief that there is order and purpose in the world, that it is not ‘aleatoric’ (random) – can lead us into error:

   “But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design.”

   Sometimes, life is indeed random. Take the stock market, for instance. A lot of its movements are random. But ‘experts’ always find an explanation, mostly wrong.

   In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl showed how finding meaning in the most desperate context (in his case, a concentration camp) can keep us alive.   I often quote Apple guru and VC Guy Kawasaki, who counsels entrepreneurs to “Make meaning, not money”.   In other words: Create value in the world, and the money will probably follow.

   People who have serious illnesses, for instance, often seek (and find) meaning in their suffering. They emerge from the illness resilient, strong and hopeful.   Meaning creates hope. And hope creates strength, often beyond what we could previously imagine.

   So, continue to seek meaning. Find meaning in your life, in your relationships, in your startup. And frankly, it doesn’t matter that much if you’re right or wrong about your theory.   And recall the two scholars’ last line — finding meaning does not mean you become passive. The opposite – we MAKE meaning by our actions:

“ … the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.” 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2019
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