I have to add an asterisk after that heading, just to be sure that everyone understands it’s a joke. I don’t really know the meaning of life; sorry to disappoint. Nevertheless, beyond more joy and satisfaction and reducing misery, happiness involves something bigger—a sense of purpose, of making a contribution, a belief that our lives make sense. We have lost the world humans were designed for, of structure and interconnection, where we had daily contact with nature and the sacred, where both religion and an intricate web of relationships and expectations told us who we are and why we were here. Now we’re faced with the problem of creating meaning for ourselves—a challenging task, a yawning abyss opening up suddenly at our feet, the very definition of the existential crisis. Mindlessness—consumerism, multitasking, escapist fantasies, staying busy—is a way of distracting ourselves from this need. We can stay busy until we keel over—and then, will that matter to anyone? Most of us, regardless of how busy we are, occasionally face the dark night of the soul when we wake up at 4 AM and wonder if we matter. We want to matter.
In Happy at Last I talk about six factors that contribute to a sense of meaning: self-acceptance; relations with others; autonomy, the sense that you are in control of your own life; mastery, the ability to have an impact on the world to suit your own needs; purpose, a sense of direction and goals, and personal growth, the intention to face life expecting to keep learning and adapting. There’s an exercise (reproduced as Exercise X) that will help you develop more awareness and skill about all these factors.
The new brain science has given us reason to believe that as we grow up, we build up a coherent identity by integrating two pictures of ourselves: the one that comes from the factual, logical, historical part of the brain, and the one that comes from the emotional, impressionistic, intuitive part of the brain. To the extent that these don’t agree, we’re unhappy and in conflict with ourselves, uncertain of who we are or what we want. When they agree, we feel that we know who we are, we’re in control of ourselves, and that our lives make sense. We’ll wake up tomorrow in pretty much the same mood and mindset we woke up with today, and if we don’t, we’ll understand why. We’re able to make decisions using our minds, heart, and intuition.
I most firmly believe (and there is some research to back it up) that we can heal whatever rift there is between the two parts of ourselves by learning and practicing mindfulness. By getting to the point where we see ourselves from a new perspective, one where we are able to observe the flow of our thoughts and the waves of our feelings without getting swept away. When we can do that, we can see the meaning that’s always been there in our lives, and we can make better choices that will nurture and enhance that meaning.