In my research into meaning in work, I found out that meaning is created at a particular intersection of life, best captured by Aristotle:
Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.
Meaning is generated firstly by introspection. We need to become aware of our unique skills and strengths (and in particular to consider which of these we have developed to please others and which we develop because we choose to). Self awareness has been the golden currency of careers advisors for many years, and rightly so. But it is not enough by itself.
The Needs of the World
Meaning (unlike happiness) cannot be developed in isloation. It can only be developed by considering how our particular constellation of strengths fits the context in which we find ourselves. (This is why incidentally meaning has such a special relationships with contextual behavioural sciences, like ACT).
Just as we can only understand the true meaning of a word by seeing it in a sentence, so we can only really understand our lives by seeing them in the context of the world around us. That means thinking deeply about what the world needs from us, and how our unique talents can meet this need.
After finishing my research I met the fantastic Roman Krznaric at the School of Life. His premise is that if the 20th century was the age of introspection, so the 21st century must become the age of outrospection. I would agree. Our fascination with our own happiness and fulfilment is doomed unless we pay attention to the context in which we live. And at the heart of outrospection lies empathy, so I urge you to make a cup of tea and to listen to Roman identify the 6 habits of highly empathic people:
One of the most pathological things human beings can do is to attempt to avoid or change our thoughts and feelings. Yet, today, it seems everyone wants happiness. These days, if we’re not happy, we tend to think there’s something wrong with us.
But thinking we should be happy is not just a myth but a trap. Happiness, being an emotion, cannot reliably be controlled. By pursuing happiness as an objective, we are far more likely to favour actions with a short term result, and which favours self over other. Many of the actions required to generate meaning will be rejected.
This means that by pursuing happiness as an objective, we’re actually setting ourselves up to be unhappy. We mistake feeling good for living well.
The Bear and The Blueberry Bush
Imagine 1000s of years ago one of your ancestors on the savannah plains sees something in the distance. Is it a bear or a blueberry bush?
The optimist may have seen a blueberry bush and had a great time munching blueberries. But equally, the optimist was more likely to be attacked by a bear…and not pass on their genes.
Our ancestors were (by definition) survivors…and the ones who saw the bear.
It’s part of the human condition to experience many different emotions. Most of these emotions (two thirds of all human emotions) ‘see the bear’. Our minds evolved to warn us of dangers and give us worst case scenarios…and it will never stop, no matter what we do.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that if we try to chase happiness too much all that happens is we start to feel anxious when we don’t find it. The irony is this makes us feel even worse. We become anxious about anxiety. We start looking for ways to feel better. In the process, we can lose sight of what really matters to us in life – meaning, contribution and connection.
Paradoxically, it’s only by letting go of the struggle for happiness that we can ever begin to truly find it.
A while ago I wrote about Ken Robinson’s excellent video about finding and connecting with your passion. I love it, but there are a number of problems with his viewpoint from the perspective of career psychology and transition.
”Doing what you love’ implies that you really can love your work.
Whilst this may be true, the definition of ‘loving’ needs to be held lightly. Emotions can’t really be controlled. You’ll need willingness for this journey, because….
The flipside of what we really value is what we really fear.
For example if I value counselling people, I will fear the consequences of failing to help them. Following a passion often comes with higher states of anxiety and fear. In my experience it can also come with higher states of uncertainty. ‘Is this really my passion’?
Your passion does not always translate into a career.
As Seth Godin once argued, maybe some things are best left as hobbies. For example, my early talent was in sport, but I could never make it professionally and turning that passion into something sport-related is not going to meet the other criteria I have for a job. A passion is one element of many that needs to be considered.
Passion is learned
It’s rare for us to have a truly natural, God-given talent or passion. More often, the things for which we have a ‘natural’ capacity are in fact learned. If they are learned, then unless we have already learned them we will not know what they are. Therefore, searching for your passions is misleading – we should be creating passion.
Passion is contextual
The things we love are loved for many different reasons, and for those in difficult jobs the things they love are loved because they are a release from their troubles. Very often, ‘what we love’ is simple behavioural reinforcement of the relief we experience when not working. That’s why so many of us want to run B&Bs or cafes.
Exploring passion is a fantastic exercise. But if we cling too rigidly to the idea of passion, then we risk getting stuck right where we are.
What’s the answer?
We need to hold all thoughts – what we love, what we’re like, what we need to do to succeed – lightly. Thoughts can help us and imprison us. Far better to focus on identifying broad, valued directions to move towards, and developing a willingness to keep moving towards these.
Following your passion means bargaining with life that you will feel passionate about something. When we do not feel passionate about something it means we have lost our way. In contrast, following our values is a moment to moment choice, that is available to you right now.
In ACT, we try to undermine efforts to control our emotional or mental experience in exchange for focusing on valued directions and actions.
That means, we try to rebalance peoples’ focus on what they think and feel more towards what they actually do with their hands and feet.
I say rebalance because there’s nothing wrong with mental experience. It’s just that, humans being humans, we tend to experience more and more of life indirectly, or mindlessly, and this has the effect of robbing us of vitality and purpose. And in the workplace, it tends to mean repeating the same old routine, even when that routine is ineffective.
Trouble is, ACT is counter-cultural. The culture says you do not need to feel bad, ever. The culture says you can feel good if only you try harder, think better…or make the right choices.
If you doubt me, take a look at this:
I caught a moment of happiness today. It crept up on me. It was just a moment where the silent, snowy beauty of the world outside coincided with writing Christmas cards to my clients inside in the warm, with Clarence sitting on my lap. I was thinking about my clients, their bravery and warmth, and then my own journey, and my nerves and anxiety about the future. All this came into the present moment and it was all OK.
I felt happy, but not as I would have defined happiness before. I’m learning to appreciate moments for what they are, not compare them to some imagined standard of perfection. Is this just age?
Maybe, or perhaps I am just beginning to understand Professor Kelly Wilson’s work on ambiguity. The extraordinary power of appreciating the moment just as it is. This means accepting discomfort, embracing imperfection, being willing to appreciate the extraordinary range of emotions available for a rich and full life.
This would all have seemed like rubbish to me only 3 or 4 short years ago. And I wonder what I would have made of this poem, then, when it has such vast power to move me, now:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
To explore strengths, I often use the VIA signature strengths test, and it’s worth noting that of course ‘VIA’ stands for values in action. So are strengths the same as values?
I bet you can hardly wait…
Values are defined by Harris (2009) as chosen life directions. I like this. Simple.
Peterson (2007) described signature strengths as:
It’s the difference between having a marriage which is based on feelings of love, or based on a choice to love someone.
In an interview with Jeremy Paxman:
Spent the last 2 days in a workshop with Steve Hayes, creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
To say the least, it is challenging. A common experience to nearly everyone is to feel lost and confused. And yet. ACT is taking off . Something resonates.
For me, it is clear. ACT appeals to head and heart.
The appeal to the heart is that human pain is inevitable and normal. Even useful. This is a relief from the cutlural assumption that we can and should be happier. I know, deep down, that emotional control doesn’t work, but having a way of renegotating my relationship to those thoughts helps a lot. Seeing the context of thoughts change allows me to live a more meaningful life – it’s the thorn in the service of the rose. This is why, in my view, ACT represents the future of positive psychology.
And then the head. ACT has a growing body evidence to suggest it works in everything from chronic pain to workplace stress. From anxiety and depression to OCD. That’s important, but perhaps even more important is that it is based on a clear theoretical premise, so there’s has an explanation not just that something works but why. Having a theory-based intervention allows us to predict mdeiators (or mechanisms) of change, so we begin to understand the process of why something works as well as the simple fact that it works. That’s what Relational Frame Theory brings.
It’s a huge challenge to sit in a Steve Hayes workshop when I have a business to run. I panic when I think of the time I’ve spent training (over 5 years now). But each time I learn a little more and my head and heart tell me that this is what being a psychologist is truly about.
When I was in my 20s and early 30s I dedicated my life (outside of work) to the pursuit of what you might call happiness. I was the life and soul of the party (transl. got very drunk indeed), went on fantastic holidays, bought nice things and generally lived a great life.
And slowly I grew depressed.
In 2003 I read a book called Authentic Happiness in which Martin Seligman explained how there were three different types of happiness.
The Pleasant life
Consisting of having as many positive emotions as frequently as possible.
The Engaged life
Achieved by knowing your highest strengths and using these as often as possible.
The Meaningful life
Consisting of using your highest strengths in the service of something that you believe in.
I intrinsically knew that this was true. Overall life satisfaction is not just a function of pleasure, it is a function of engagement and meaning.
|On holiday, even my famous koala impressions brought only superficial happiness.|
But I think that ‘happiness’ is most often interpreted as the pleasant life – in other words maximising the number of positive thoughts and emotions one has in any given day. Society certainly points us this way. Dare I say it, so does Martin Seligman. The trouble is this is a very poor strategy for pursuing meaning, and it was meaning that I lacked. That’s why, for me at least, happiness is a trap.
Meaning involves taking a stand, following your values and quite often, change. But in turn these things bring anxiety, doubt and worry. In my case, I had to relinquish the pursuit of the pleasant life (or happiness) to pursue meaning. It was that stark.
There’s nothing wrong with having a pleasant life, and I am quite sure some of Seligman’s techniques can work to increase our ‘happiness thermostats’ from their set point. But now I think, why bother? I’ve realised you can’t have the good without the bad (see Ryan and Deci, 2001) and if you have happy thoughts as a goal you compromise the pursuit of a meaningful life.
I think you have to be prepared to let go of happiness in order to find it.
So, does it work? Does letting go of happiness and pursuing meaning paradoxically bring happiness? Well, the honest answer is no, not for me. My levels of stress and anxiety have gone through the roof since pursuing meaning. I am not happier, at least in the way I have been programmed to understand the term ‘happiness’.
But my struggle for meaning has brought a certain amount of compassion towards myself, too, and this affords me more strength to be compassionate to others. I am more grounded and stable than I was before and I feel far more purposeful. And slowly I’m feeling a certain amount of pride in what I’m trying to do. I even cry during My Way. All of this brings a form of happiness, but not as I would have defined it before.
As I write, shafts of sunlight escape the cloud and bathe the room with light. For a few moments I am typing with sunshine on my back. Happiness feels like that. Temporary, welcome, but out of my control.