My time spent in the happiness of pursuit — the journey not the destination — has slowly transitioned towards the creation of meaning. We often conflate meaning with happiness. We hope that if we find happiness, we’ll also find meaning, but they aren’t the same.
Happiness derives from the influence we have in directing our lives towards a desired outcome. If you want to be a famous writer but feel that luck is how you find an agent and that your sales bend to the whims of market forces, then that feeling of powerlessness to make things better will leave you unhappy. On the other hand, if you feel that you have the power to build a loyal fan base that will stand behind your work then that sense of control over your destiny makes you happy.
Meaning is a feeling of connection you have to what you do. If you want to be a famous writer, what would make all those hours in front of the blank page worth it? If you never got published, would the time spent still be meaningful?
Two Psychological Approaches to Meaning
When I look back at the events in my life, my mind organizes all the random happenings and circumstances into a cohesive narrative that becomes story of my life. That takes past sufferings and triumphs and creates a narrative about how I got from there to here. That story takes a hopeful interpretation of present circumstances to compel me into my imagined future.
Somewhere in that story, using my Ne (Extroverted Intuition), a pattern emerges. Theme of the story is meaning. This is the narrative psychology approach to meaning introduced by psychologist Theodore Sarbin.
Another approach to meaning comes from neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl, who wrote the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, detailing his years in the concentration camps. His premise was that finding meaning is the primary driving force of our lives. Frankl wrote, “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” He developed Logotherapy as a means of helping patients find meaning to the suffering they have with their current circumstances.
Finding Meaning Without Looking
Two years ago, I was watching a YouTube video of Simon Sinek’s discussion on millennials in the workplace. He caught my interest so I watched dozens of his lectures and presentations. Somewhere in those videos, he briefly mentioned what he thought were three worthwhile things we could do with our time.
Something clicked. In life, I think meaning can be found in three things:
1. Emotions you want to feel
2. Challenges you want to accept
3. Experiences that engage you
Emotions You Want to Feel
Having positive emotion is different than avoiding negative ones. Feeling connected is different than not feeling lonely. You can go out with friends to feel less lonely, but that’s not the same as creating connection. Emotions you want to feel is moving towards positive emotion, not avoiding negative ones.
Challenges You Want To Accept
Doing anything requires doing it poorly at first. The challenge is to get better. Talking to that person you like will be awkward the first time. Hopefully the next time, you feel less uncomfortable. Maybe you want to travel the world, but you have bills and debt. The challenge could be figuring out how to save money and finding deals while still paying your bills.
Whatever it is that excites you, is that a challenge you currently want to accept for your life?
Experiences That Engage You
Studies show that experiences provide more happiness than things. Engaging experiences are events or occurrences that capture our attention and imagination. That concert that you barely remember because you posted it to social media probably wasn’t that engaging. Experience that engage are the ones that bring you of past regrets and future hopes into the present.
Not Knowing Your Purpose
Most self-help books tell you to find your passion or purpose, followed by detailing methodologies to help set and achieve goals.
What if you don’t know your passion or purpose? Our minds are subject to dynamic inconsistency where our preference at one point in time is inconsistent with our preference at another point in time. For example:
(a) Which do you prefer, to be given 500 dollars today or 505 dollars tomorrow?
(b) Which do you prefer, to be given 500 dollars 365 days from now or 505 dollars 366 days from now?
Logically, the difference between $500 and $505 is waiting one extra day. However, most people choose $500 today and $505 in 366 days. We give more value to “now”. That money that we were going to put into savings is worth more now because of the concert tickets we want so we’ll start that savings plan next month. That dessert in front of us is worth then those future cheesecakes we tell ourselves that we won’t eat tomorrow. This temporal discounting makes it difficult to want to plan for tomorrow.
For INFPs, our Ne shows us so many possibilities and Fi (Introverted Feeling) inspires us to do whatever feels right at that moment. This makes finding purpose a messy process of trial-and-error. We lose interest and with every false start that moves us into the next thing, we wonder if the thing that captivates us now will be meaningful a few years from now. Focusing on the three essentials to meaning can help guide us to a lasting purpose.
The Essentials in Practice
As INFPs, doing things and sticking with it requires using our Fi cognitive function. Fi is value focused so that’s always the starting point.
1. Start with values
Clarifying values requires both Ne and Si. Ne (Extroverted Sensing) is idealistic. It’s pattern seeking so it compares our current lives with an ideal future and says, these are the values to get me there. However, if the INFP continually loses interest and moves to the next thing, they start to question if those were really their values if they can’t stick to anything.
Si (Introverted Sensing) balances out Ne. Ne makes interested in lots of things can cause for lack of focus. Si looks at the past and says, here’s what we’ve done in the past that that’s been personally fulfilling. Ask yourself, is there anything that I’ve always done because it feels as part of who I am? It’s the common values behind those activities that have always been with us, that help define our top 4 values. For me, they are:
4. Creative Self-Expression
2. Have 3 Go-To Activities that’s independent of other people
Those activities have to align with your values. Those values move your forward even when you don’t see immediate results.
My current 3 are:
– Nutrition and fitness (growth, freedom)
– Writing and developing my blog (growth, connection, creative self-expression)
– Studying the MBTI (growth, freedom, connection, creative self-expression)
The activities should have low Initiation Energy. They quick to start immediately. If you have to think about doing something, you end up making excuses and losing motivation after five seconds.
My dumbbells, exercise bands and bench are two feet away. I don’t have to motivate myself to get dressed and drive anywhere. My current blog research and post is on my desktop so I don’t go looking for them and get distracted. My MBTI Manual and notes are on my desk in front of me, bookmarked to the last place so I don’t to figure out what I was doing before.
Overcoming high Initiation Energy requires willpower. Willpower is finite and can be exhausted like a muscle. If I had to motivate myself to get dressed and drive to the gym every day, I probably wouldn’t be exercising. When I have everything I need in front of me, I don’t have to think about it before I do it. Eventually those things become habits.
These activities should be independent of other people. I don’t need a ride anywhere to work out. I don’t need approval from someone in order to write. Happiness is about your level of influence in shaping your life. Start with those things that you have full control over.
These activities should be challenges you want to accept. For me nutrition and fitness isn’t about losing some weight. It’s the challenge of understand how my body works and figuring out how to live a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t fall back into bad habits. Growing a blog challenges me to share my pragmatic approaches to living in a meaningful way.
These things should be part of how you want to express your life the world.
3. Pick one daily no excuses activity
Self-esteem is built one completion at a time. We like people who are true to their word. We like ourselves if we do what we say we’ll do.
It has to be the same activity every day. Out of those three, I chose nutrition and fitness because it’s the easiest to do daily. Sometimes I’m tired from the day and my brain doesn’t have the capacity to write or study. However, I can exercise for 20 minutes. That’s 3 sets of 3 exercises. Sometimes it’s body weight exercises. Sometimes it’s a yoga video on YouTube.
When someone keeps their word, it reflects a level of caring and value that this other person has for you. Each day, I complete my exercise is just one way I show myself that I do care about my life and myself.
4. Focus on regularity not routine
Regularity is consistency at predictable intervals. It’s not creating an inflexible schedule. I research my articles once every two weeks and writing takes two to three days. If I focus on routinely publishing exactly every two weeks, it can feel too constricting when there’s already so me that we have to do in our lives. Routines can turn into ruts. Instead, I want regularity – posting twice a month.
Use Ne (Extroverted Intuition) to find ways to introduce new elements. I change up my exercises every few weeks. I mixing reading and studying MBTI related books and practicing one-on-one interpretation with other people.
5. Look for a meaningful way
Having Go-To Activities is a starting point. The object is find a meaningful way for the every day things that take up large portion of our lives. This could be anything from that spring cleaning that hasn’t been done in years to daily homework that you don’t feel enthused about.
What emotions do I want to feel?
I’m currently clearing and purging my house. I have things I no longer use or need that take up physical and mental space. I figure out the the positive emotions from this project.
A feeling of peace – I feel calmer when my space doesn’t feel crowded by things.
Convenience – It’s frustrating when I have piles and I can’t find things I need at that moment.
What’s the challenge I want?
Cleaning up and putting stuff away isn’t meaningful. Charging with my Te (Extroverted Thinking ) and grinding away at the disorder would be a challenge but it’s not a meaningful challenge. Entropy happens and things get messy again.
If you can’t figure out why you should do something, you start at your top four values. For me, it was framing the cleaning and purging with my value of Creative Self-Expression? I believe in simplicity and pragmatism. If I were to express that in my life, what would I need to throw out and what would I re-arrange in order to express those ideals through the space I inhabit? That’s much more interesting.
How can this experience be engaging?
How do I make this more than cleaning up some rooms? Again, focus on values. Growth works in my situation. I must be holding onto stuff for a reason. Is it because of Sunk Cost Fallacy? Is there some meaning I’ve attached that no longer resonates? What does that say about me and how does this affect my life? Making this a process of better understanding myself is engaging.
A Meaningful Life
Brene Brown, a researcher on connection and vulnerability wrote:
“We seem to measure the value of people’s contributions (and sometimes their entire lives) by their level of public recognition. In other words, worth is measured by fame and fortune. Our culture is quick to dismiss quiet, ordinary, hardworking men and women. In many instances, we equate ordinary with boring or, even more dangerous, ordinary has become synonymous with meaningless.”
I think this attitude leads to unhappiness where everyone hopes that their life could be as exciting as the one they present on social media.
Lives consist of ordinary moments in aggregate. Meaning is a practice of small moments. A million small moments add up to a life less ordinary when we look back at the story of our lives.