By Trena Winans and Marilyn Brooks
Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.
Perhaps you’ve heard that saying. We have all had events in our lives that have been unexpected; things we didn’t anticipate; things that didn’t fit “the plan.” Death of a loved one. Divorce. Job loss. Illness. That doesn’t mean the plan is destroyed. It means that we have to take charge of our own story and determine how these events will impact the rest of our narrative. After all, we want to be the authors of our own life stories.
According to social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, “What sets humans apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.” So how do we create meaning in our lives? Author Emily Esfahani Smith posits 4 pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling.
A sense of belonging is essential to our well-being, but it can be hard to come by in the kaleidoscope of life experience. Today, 1/3 of Americans over the age of 45 say they feel lonely. Loneliness wreaks havoc on our psychological and physical health, so it is essential to treat it seriously. The first step is to create a positive internal dialog. Treat yourself like you would a dear friend- with compassion, love and support. Celebrate your strengths. Then get out of your head and your house, and begin building more and deeper connections.
Many of us derive a sense of purpose from our careers, but where do we find it outside our workplace? A sense of purpose need not be grandiose to be meaningful; we cannot all be a Mother Teresa. It can be a series of small steps toward a goal such as being helpful to others, making a difference in the community, or raising a happy family. Use your strengths and put them in service of others. Write yourself the story of how you can make your world a brighter, better place, and make it so.
Another component of meaning is the experience of awe, mystery, or transcendence. We can find these moments in nature, prayer, meditation or even at a concert hall. These transient experiences are difficult to put into words, but the experience tends to be lasting. In a state of transcendence, worry and fear disappear and we feel deeply connected to something greater. Importantly, it helps us define ourselves in terms of something larger than ourselves, lending deeper meaning to our lives.
Which brings us to storytelling. Our stories can allow us to find meaning and purpose even in loss. Revisiting our story gives us the power to make every goal we set easier to reach. That new exercise routine: is it a daily struggle you hate, or is it an uplifting and energizing path to a healthier, more joyful you? Did that divorce destroy your life or did it create an opportunity to become a more open, loving, and thoughtful person? Take a look at your story. Does it need to be revised? Do so, and discover the meaning, purpose and success new stories can create.
What’s your story?
About the Authors
Trena Winans and Marilyn Brooks are two of over 120 local residents who earned a certificate in the science of wellbeing. Trena is the Director of Education and Outreach at Senior Services – Midland County Council on Aging. Marilyn is a retired Educator. This year the Midland Area Wellbeing Coalition continues to provide a series of monthly articles with practical ways to increase wellbeing. Visit midlandareawellbeing.org for more information.