By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 58 and this week I’m talking about meaning. I’ll be discussing what meaning is, why it’s important for good mental health, and how to find greater meaning in your life every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- The question of ‘what is meaning?’ has been asked, in some way or another, by every single person throughout history.
- Regardless of your background or what country you live in, we’re all seeking some kind of meaning, some purpose, for all of this stuff that we call life.
- If you look at most belief systems you’ll see that there are a lot of common elements, and so how you find meaning is less important than finding real, deep, fundamental meaning for ourselves.
- Meaning matters, because it gives you something to work for and a reason for putting one foot in front of the other.
- The very essence of meaning is to be able to live life in a way that involves healthy choices for every aspect of your health — physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional and financial.
Hello and welcome to Episode 58, and thanks so much for joining me! This week’s topic is all about improving your emotional health, so let’s get talking…
Just a quick 30-second announcement before I start: I’m opening up a limited number of coaching spots for early 2021 so if you would like to work with me you can visit letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching to find out more.
I’m also offering online seminars for businesses looking to promote good mental health and wellbeing; you can find out more at jeremygodwin.com.au/speaking.
I also have a HUGE announcement about this show coming in next week’s episode, so make sure you catch that as well! OK, now on with our talk about meaning and mental health…
Now I don’t want to get all existential and philosophical here (which is going to be tough to avoid when we’re talking about meaning), but usually I start these episodes with a broad introduction however today I’m going to begin by asking you a question and I’d like you to reflect on it for a few seconds before I continue. The question is:
You see, this is a question that, in one way or another, has been asked by every single one of us on this planet along with every single person who has ever lived throughout the history of history. You only need to take a look at artefacts from civilisations young and old to see recurring questions and theories about who we are and what we’re doing here; you can see it time and time again in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Babylon, Mesoamerica (including the Mayan civilisation and others), Indigenous Australia and so on. The idea of ‘meaning’ has become so ingrained in our individual identity — from our religion to our political and philosophical beliefs — that it can seem almost impossible to seperate one from the other; but the idea of meaning is universal. Regardless of your background or what country you live in, I truly believe that we’re all seeking some kind of meaning, some purpose, for all of this stuff that we call life. Some of us are raised with specific belief systems while others choose to seek until they find what feels right to them, but regardless the result is the same: looking for something that helps to make all of this make sense.
What is meaning?
‘Meaning’ can be defined as the significance or purpose of something, and when it comes to mental health there are lots of different ways to look at it but for the purposes of this conversation I’m focusing on the whole “what are we doing here?” and “what’s the meaning of life?” definition of the word.
Back in Episode 50 (Choice) I talked briefly about Dr Viktor Frankl, who developed the notion of logotherapy which is based on the idea that the main thing that drives each of us is to find a sense of meaning in our life. There are, of course, many different approaches in psychology and so this school of thought may not be for everyone but for me I find it brings together a lot of the different aspects of mental health that I talk about (for example, Frankl considered depression to be something that happened psychologically, physiologically and spiritually, rather than just one aspect or the other… and I do talk a lot in this program about how things are interconnected).
Funnily enough, in mathematics and statistics the word ‘mean’ refers to the middle (at least it does in English), and I find that interesting because a lot of what I talk about in this program involves finding balance in all things and looking for the middle path in order to avoid excess of any kind (because too much or too little can lead to extreme behaviour and mental health issues). We tend to pay way more attention to the extremes of behaviour than we do the middle ground, where most of us exist; just look at politics and the news in general, where it tends to be the extreme right and the extreme left that dominate so much of the conversation, when the bulk of people fall closer to the centre in terms of their beliefs.
I think that if you look at most belief systems you’ll see that there are a lot of common elements, and I talk about many of them throughout my work: do no harm to yourself or to others, be kind to yourself and to others, and give more than you take from yourself and from others. I also talk a lot about the goal of life being to become the best version of yourself possible, and for me that’s about as close to true meaning as I have managed to get throughout my 44 years on this planet — and I think it’s a pretty good goal to be working towards.
We are all here to find true meaning. That’s about finding real, deep, fundamental meaning for ourselves (in terms of being the best version of ourselves, through doing no harm/being kind/giving more than we take) and then using that to help others in a positive and meaningful way — regardless of whether that’s one person or one hundred or one million… it doesn’t matter; it’s still helping and it’s still being part of something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to be a martyr to do that; for example, I put my work out there for free each week but I also have bills to pay so I offer additional services and products that can add even more value and, of course, which help to earn me an income, and that’s totally fine. For me the difference is about how I balance the need to make money versus doing work that feels meaningful, and it takes a lot of effort to find that balance (but it certainly helps if you see money as a means to an end rather than a reason for living!).
The other thing I want to say here is that ‘helping people’ absolutely needs to be done with their permission; this is not about forcing your beliefs onto others. You may have found something meaningful to structure your life around, but it might not be the same fit for others so please be respectful that we each have our own beliefs and there is no right or wrong.
The mechanics of how you find that sense of meaning in your life are completely irrelevant — many people get so hung up on this belief system or that religion, but none of that matters; it’s just different ways of finding meaning and if you arrive at the same point (being the best you, and doing no harm etc.) then you’re there.
Why is meaning so important for good mental health?
Put simply, meaning matters because it gives you something to work for and a reason for putting one foot in front of the other. If things feel meaningless, then it’s going to be pretty hard to find the motivation to even get up in the morning let alone to keep yourself moving forward in life.
I mentioned the field of logotherapy earlier, which is all about living a meaningful life, and there’s a quote by Dr Frankl that I think sums up why meaning is so important;
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”Dr Viktor Frankl
Now bear in mind that these words came from a man who survived unimaginable atrocities in the concentration camps during World War II and who lost most of his family (including his wife), and yet Dr Frankl was able to make the connection between having meaning and being able to deal with difficult (and even horrific) situations. If you haven’t already read his book Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946 and still considered to be one of the most important books of the 20th century, then I highly recommend it — and I realise that the title is gender-biased, however we need to recognise that that was how we humans referred to ourselves, as ‘mankind’, until quite recently… it’s important not to cancel things just because they’re from a different time (regardless of whether that’s right or wrong — personally, I choose to be as respectful as possible with my language because I know first-hand what it feels like to be discriminated against or excluded as a minority).
Anyway back the book… yes the subject matter is confronting because he talks about his experiences during the Holocaust (a dark chapter in history that we must never forget), but it also helps you to see how the human spirit can prevail when we’re able to find meaning in every moment of living, regardless of difficulties. And more importantly, it’s about being able to recognise that the idea of ‘meaning’ can be found in each individual moment rather than being some lofty goal that we must spend our entire lives searching for; meaning is found in every single moment (and, by the way, so is happiness). It’s a by-product of choice (which I talked about in Episode 50); you can find meaning by choosing to experience meaning (and I’ll come back to that in more detail in a few minutes). There’s another quote from Dr Frankl that I’d like to share here:
“What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”Dr Viktor Frankl
It’s also worthwhile to note that when Frankl talks about the positive effects of meaning, he notes that there are many things which take us away from meaning including: being focused on affluence, materialism and hedonism… in other words, money, stuff and having fun above all else (which, to be quite blunt, are the things that far too many people are focused on and which cause the greatest suffering in the world). These things take our focus away from being part of the wider world and turn our attention inwards towards our own wants and desires, and when that happens we can find ourselves falling into habits that are selfish, narcissistic, vain and destructive. The very essence of meaning is to be able to live life in a way that involves healthy choices for every aspect of your health — physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional and financial.
Meaning is essential for good mental health because it gives you a raison d’être, which is the French term for ‘purpose’ and it translates literally as ‘reason to be’. We all need to a reason to be, otherwise we can wind up feeling lost or distracting ourselves with unhealthy lifestyle choices that serve to take us further and further away from becoming the best version of ourselves possible.
So how do you find greater meaning in your life every day? Let’s get into the how-to part of this episode…
How to find greater meaning every day
As I often tend to do, these are more of a collection of things to think about and consider rather than a step-by-step instruction guide. Let’s start with…
Be clear on what meaning means to you. Like I said before it’s going to be different for each of us (you know, that whole individuality thing all over again) and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to meaning. What feels meaningful for me is not necessarily going to feel that way to you. So, take some time to reflect and be clear on what ‘meaning’ really means to you.
If you’re struggling to find meaning, identify what is blocking you and address those things. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever listened to this podcast that I’m going to encourage you to dig deep if you’re finding there is stuff that’s blocking you or holding you back, because that usually means that there is something much deeper and more fundamental going on which has not been confronted and dealt with. Sometimes you need to sit and reflect so you can find out what’s underneath the surface and identify any baggage you might need to deal with, then actually deal with it (and I explored baggage in-depth in Episode 7, so I recommend you check that out). I’ve talked before about how one of the side effects of my first couple of years of depression and anxiety was that it left me in a total financial mess (and I had to declare bankruptcy), however I was in that mess because I was spending money faster than I could make it. Why? Because I was miserable and trying to use money to find fleeting moments of happiness (news flash: it didn’t work). And once I dug a bit deeper into that in therapy it became clear to me that growing up poor had a lot to do with that, and also on the very rare occasion I saw my father after my parents divorced he would often give me a small amount of money so as a child money became a substitute for love which caused a whole range of issues as an adult (which I’ve been able to un-learn over time, with a lot of hard work). My point is that just responding to what you see on the surface isn’t going to help you to deal with the stuff that needs to be dealt with, and if that sounds confronting or frightening well… it is, and you will quite likely find it helpful to work through it with a professional.
Find things that work for you and help support your sense of having meaning in your life. Some of the most important aspects of meaning include having strong spiritual beliefs, clear goals, positive values and beliefs, belonging to groups with like-minded individuals, and feeling dedicated to a cause; for example, when people come together in groups or in like-minded ways, they can achieve great things (the challenge is to know when what you’re involved in is constructive versus destructive, because we continue to see a lot of destructiveness going on in the world and it’s important that we avoid getting involved in stuff that’s damaging to ourselves and to others). As always, if you ensure that you do no harm, are kind and give more than you take (and if you leave other people to just get on with their lives) then I think you’re on the right path.
Focus on what is within your control. I talked extensively about control back in Episode 48, so check that out for more on the subject, however let me remind you (as I often do) that all you can control are your words, actions and feelings (including what you do with your feelings). I have found that if you try to find your sense of meaning in external things that are beyond your control, you can actually find yourself drifting further and further away from true meaning.
Know that happiness and meaning are a choice, not goals to be chased. You can choose to be happy and find meaning in almost any circumstance; even the shitty stuff that inevitably happens in life is an opportunity for you to make positive changes or even to find small moments of joy and purpose in the everyday. In the words of Dr Frankl:
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater.”Dr Viktor Frankl
Know that things don’t have to happen for a reason for you to find meaning in them. One thing that gets thrown around a lot, especially in the self-help world, is the idea of ‘things happening for a reason’ and it’s often used as a way of explaining away horrible events and situations. I used to think this way because it helped me to see a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of my depression, and who knows? Maybe it’s true. But as time has gone on what I’ve come to see is that the meaning is to be found more in our response and what we learn rather than the situation itself. Things don’t specifically happen to us; they happen, and it’s up to us to work through how we respond and what we learn. You can choose to find meaning and use negative or upsetting events as a catalyst to grow as a human being — when it comes to what you do next, the choice is always yours.
Choose to do what you can to contribute to creating a better world. You don’t have to be a celebrity or have millions of followers to change the world — each of us can choose to find and create meaning in our lives through every single thing we do, no matter how insignificant it may seem. In the car this morning I was talking to my partner (who is a teacher) about how the school is very focused on reinforcing the basics of please and thank you with students, which might seem minor but has a huge effect on the way they behave with teachers and towards one another, and so if any of you are parents then every time you set and enforce a behavioural expectation or boundary with your children, you’re actually doing incredibly important work because you’re helping to shape them into considerate and thoughtful adults who do no harm, are kind, and give more than they take… and if that isn’t purpose and meaning in action then I may as well just give up my work now! Each time you connect with a stranger you’re engaging in a little moment of meaning, because you’re sending a subconscious message that there is good in the world and we’re all in this humanity thing together. I know that sounds really aspirational and a bit kumbaya, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true! You can contribute to a better world through every single thing that you do and every interaction that you have with other people.
You can find whatever meaning works for you but let me say this: a life without meaning is a life without a point. For many of us we don’t often spend a lot of time, especially when we’re younger, really thinking about this stuff. That means that we can find ourselves getting caught up in all the things that we as a society have created over the years to keep ourselves occupied; we need to look this stuff directly in the eye because it helps to drive our need for finding true meaning.
Further to that, know that what you believe is less important than finding something to believe in. If you want me to be more specific than that, then here goes: I believe that finding meaning involves coming to both realise and fully embrace the need for your life to be about more than just you individually, because fundamentally we are all interconnected in this great big tapestry of life and it’s virtually impossible to live without having some kind of impact on others, no matter how big or how small that might be. You are one, and you are many, because your words and actions will have either a direct or an indirect influence on what happens in the wider world.
And so here is my final how-to for this episode: find meaning. Whatever that looks and feels like will be completely up to you, and there is no right or wrong answer. But do make the conscious effort to find meaning and to keep on finding it every day, because that is how you grow and evolve as a person.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to meaning and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: having meaning is what makes life feel meaningful, and I have to believe that deep down each of us on this planet is simply trying to find some sense of meaning, of purpose, to help us make sense of all of the confusion and chaos of life. The most wonderful thing about finding meaning is that you can find it in every moment of every day simply by choosing to find meaning; you don’t have to go looking for it, because it’s already within you and all around you. To paraphrase Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, you’ve always had the power… you just have to learn it for yourself.
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. It seems only fitting that this week’s quote should be another one by Dr Viktor Frankl, and it is:
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”Dr Viktor Frankl
Next week’s episode will be the final one for 2020 and it will be called Looking Back, Looking Forward. I’ll be talking about some of the biggest lessons for all of us from 2020, some of the most important things that you should consider in terms of your mental health and your overall wellbeing as you’re easing your way into 2021, and I’ll be answering a number of questions submitted by listeners like yourself in my first ever Ask Me Anything segment. Plus, I’ll be making a huge announcement about something new that is coming in late January which I am ridiculously excited about! I can’t say more than that just yet but I would definitely encourage you to WATCH this space! (wink wink!)
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 28 December in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia; the evening of Sunday 27 December in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 27 December in the US, Canada, Central America and South America.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list find out about new stuff at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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