How do we access meaning during difficult times, and during life as we usually know it? In this video, Caroline Kohles, Senior Director of Health and Wellness at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, speaks with WBI faculty member Michael Steger, an expert on meaning in life. Their conversation was part of the Lunch and Learn series, a partnership between Wholebeing Institute and the JCC Manhattan.
Mike discusses the paths to finding meaning, shares the three main meaning-related themes that tend to emerge after adversity, and explains why happiness isn’t necessarily his cup of tea.
Highlights from the Conversation
Mike: Thank you so much for having me. When you decide that what you want to do with your life is is more or less just think about puzzling questions, the chance to turn that time spent puzzling into something that hopefully is helpful for some folks—an opportunity to try to make a difference—is hugely precious to me. So I’m really thankful for your time and I’ll try to make it worthwhile—I’ll try to share everything I know and not to dump too much at once, so that there’s at least a couple different things you can try out, starting today, if only just to think about what you’re already doing.
Caroline: First, how would a scientist or a researcher define meaning?
Mike: That’s a great question. I’m gonna go as far back as as makes sense so if you go back to Gilgamesh … I do like to talk about Gilgamesh but we don’t have to go quite that far. So if we go back to the 1930s as psychology was beginning to be an applied discipline of its own, rising out of philosophy and neuroscience and psychiatry, the most influential place to to do that, to form that discipline, was in Vienna where there was a circle of very, very famous folks—Freud, Adler, and in this case, who I would like to talk about is Victor Frankl. Victor Frankl was living in Vienna in the ’30s as a practicing physician, seeing clients and developing this model in his imind of what we’re really all about. And what we’re really all about in
Victor Frankl’s work is a will to meaning, whereas Adler, who was actually the first psychologist I know of to use the phrase meaning and to say meaning is important, would focus on social power, social place, and Freud would talk about trying to balance the cravings, the inner id, and the quest for pleasure, Frankl said “No, no, no, what we’re really all about as humans is we’re actually spiritual beings, and we’re about meaning.” Oddly enough, at the time Frankl was very influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche as were, of course, really horrible folks that we all know of that were also gaining power in Austria and Germany in the 1930s. Frankl lost his entire family; he was in prison in four different concentration camps and he went into this thinking in the words of Nietzsche, “He who has a why can survive anyhow,” which is really all about, if you have something you’re living for, you can live through anything. And then the Nazis come to power and then the Holocaust occurs and then he’s separated from his family. I like to look at my class sometimes and say, “Does anyone have a tattoo or like something written in, you know, Japanese kanji that you don’t really know what it means but that’s like your motto in life? Now imagine putting that to the absolute worst test that we’ve seen.” So we have this man who’s asked to really put his beliefs to the test in the most horrible way. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the first half is about what he sees in the concentration camps as people are being treated cruelly, deprived of food, deprived of heat, worked and abused, and sometimes just senselessly killed right on the spot … and some people lived and some people didn’t. And Frankl saw that people who had something to live for after all of this, who had turned their suffering or found meaning in suffering, somehow got through it and that became the foundation of what meaning is all about, so when we contrast meaning in life to something like life satisfaction, positive emotions, gratitude, things like that. We can’t ever forget that the story of meaning in life, the story of what we strive for in humanity, was born and tested in just the worst suffering, right? So taking that inspiration forward into an era in the 2000s where scientific psychology is the parlance, it was important for me to figure out how can we scientifically test meaning in life, just the way that we test all the other things in psychology? We can’t actually see most of what we study in psychology so meaning is not different, right? How do we figure this out? And so the biggest switch that we turn in doing this is shifting the focus from what is the meaning of life, right? Like in Douglas Adams’s Life, the Universe and Everything, the answer is 42 … So what is the point of any of this, all these sorts of things … Let’s just leave that aside that it’s not possible to get empirical evidence for, you know?
So let’s just focus instead on what does life mean to a person at a time. So, in that case, every person’s life is rich with data, every person’s life is rich with insight and in fact all of our existence as a species and as cultures around the world, whether we’ve heard their voices or not, is equally valid and rich in data and insight into what it means to struggle with the idea of what is the meaning of my life? So that’s the backdrop; it’s a little bit long, it’s quite grim, but it’s ultimately inspirational. Frankl spent 40-plus years lecturing around the world on how we should embrace the search for meaning and that we can do it in ways that utilize our innate instinct for creativity and that utilize our innate craving for relating to each other and making connections and ultimately when everything else is taken down or taken away from us, we still can find meaning in the way in which we approach and embrace suffering. So, the paths to meaning are all about how we build in our own minds the sense that our personal existence is sensible, it’s coherent. So there’s three building blocks of meaning, and the first is coherence: Can I make sense of what’s going on? Do I know who I am? Do I understand the mechanics of the world and how to pull those levers in a way that makes life feel predictable and consistent. The second is a sense of purpose, right? So am I striving for something important in my lifetime? Do I have goals that are long term and worthy? And, you know, we all have a limited and unpredictable amount of time on this planet. Do I have something I want to give that time to that drives me and motivates me? And then there is a sense of significance. Is this worthwhile? Does my life have inherent value? Do I matter in any sort of way? So that’s really where we picked it up: Those are the pieces of meaning in life and they seem to be holding pretty well at this point.
Caroline: Can you talk a little bit more about coherence so that people can understand what that is? And I also wonder, Barbara Fredrickson [in her JCC talk] was talking about how fear and hope are sort of partnered, and are you suggesting that meaning and suffering are sort of partnered, too, and that we search for meaning when we’re suffering? Or can we search for meaning just as an endeavor?
Mike: This is a really great question. I’ll start with the second part there. So as a grad student, I was a little bit of a late bloomer. I started my PhD program when I was 30, and I already had this idea of what I wanted to study, and when everyone said you can’t study this, it’s not scientific, I was like, I’m a grown person now, I’m okay with studying something stupid. So, you know, I was like, there’s this meaning-ness but there’s also the search for meaning, and Frankl didn’t say what we need is to have meaning. Frankl said that what makes us special is to desire and to seek after meaning. So I thought the search for meaning was really where it was at, you know? I knew that I recognized myself in this. Always asking the irritating “why” questions and I always come up with weird counterfactuals and these sorts of things. So there is a variation across people on how much we search for meaning. Some of us are always thinking about this sort of stuff; we run across a podcast or across an article that talks about meaning or what is it really all about, and we’re like, Okay i’m right there. Others of us, that’s very uninteresting to us—it’s not where we groove, we don’t groove in questioning everything. Maybe we groove in refining the craft of a particular way of living, right? So this is the answer, this is the path, and I’m gonna get as good at this as I can and so there’s different ends of that spectrum and with different consequences.
A lot of people who search for meaning are actually pretty miserable and pretty anxious. So if the search for meaning means I haven’t found an answer yet, that’s a really difficult spot to be in. If the search for meaning means that life is a never-ending quest or a journey, that’s actually a pretty good spot to be in. So there’s both the search for meaning—our active processing to expand or establish or even augment some sense that my life is meaningful—and there’s that sense that life is meaningful as well. And so where suffering can come into play is that one of the most natural things to wonder when something horrible happens is why. Why me or why that person? Why didn’t anyone stop it? Why is so-and-so getting away without any consequences from this? You know, like, I can’t be okay with what’s happening right now, I just can’t let myself, I’m just gonna like gnaw away and oftentimes that sensation is often triggered during suffering, right, because something happened that just blows everything that we thought we knew, and that’s sort of where it links to coherence, right? So coherence is … think of it as our mental model for how everything works—like, if you’re going to create like a Sims life or like some online virtual thing, you would have certain rules and little cars do this and the little people go to work or they eat and like no one bursts into flames spontaneously or whatever it is … like our life has rules and it has what we’re supposed to be doing in order to get from point A to point B and we forget how much of that stuff we take for granted, you know? I just was trying to think of what it would take for me, just me, who’s incompetent of almost everything in the world to invent a zipper, like if I had to start from scratch and like cause zippers to exist, I use them every day and I wouldn’t even have any idea … There’s a billion of those examples of the little things that we’ve just managed to stack one on top of the other to make life predictable and consistent and help ourselves successfully navigate that—when everything shuts down, all those rules are gone, right? It feels like the earth just jolted 20 feet in a random direction and you’re like, wow, I don’t really know how that happened, right? There’s no stores open, I can’t hug my friends anymore, whatever it is that we’re going through right now. The world is upside down now. So that’s when we start wondering what is going on? Why can this happen? What does this mean? I’ve been wrong all along. So it really kind of attacks our meaning system, this like master meaning system, this mental model for how the world works when it stops working that way, and then we face all sorts of choices.
For some of us, we’re struggling a lot, for some of us, we’re really suffering on a daily basis, minute to minute, maybe. I have an interesting statistic: The billionaires in the world, their wealth has increased 10 percent since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s interesting, right? So they might not be suffering quite as much as the rest of us but it’s different nonetheless. So you ask the question in a sense, like, what is the relationship between suffering and meaning. I think most of the time for most people, we just rest on what we take to be given. The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom talked about the fact that we have givens in life, like we have to automate some of this stuff, like whether it’s zippers or what’s going to happen if I turn the light switch, or you know, is the F train coming … whatever it might be, right? So all these sorts of things we automate and that’s really critical, right, that we have that in place and some of us, like me, are like well, I still want to know, what if? Right? I’m always what if-ing everything, and is this really what it’s all about, like those sorts of questions. So folks like me, maybe because we’re extra neurotic or maybe because we’re just like super open-minded and curious, we’re kind of already always in that spot of like, well, is this really a safe assumption to have? But most people seem to be content and actually flourish when they just get to count on things, they get to take things as given. And so when suffering happens, then they’re like, well, what do I do now?
Caroline: Can you clarify how growth mindset fits into this because if meaning and coherence is kind of what designing or deciding for oneself or even it’s so different in different cultures, what is automated or what I’m going to live by or what I stand for? Then, is that kind of a fixed mindset? How do you have that and also have a growth mindset, or are you, in essence, saying that’s what we need at this time?
Mike: I can’t think or point to any research that links growth and fixed mindset to a sense of meaning in life. What I can say though is that if we go back a couple thousand years to ancient Greece, this notion of dichotomization really took root, right? So in a sense this very black and white thinking. So in Western thought, we’re treated to keep opposites quite separate, so it’s like keys—like would you look for your keys if you knew where they were? Like that doesn’t make any sense in that mind frame, right? So a lot of people are like, why would I look for meaning if I already have it? I know where it is, so why look for it? A lot of other ways of looking at life, particularly in more collectivistic cultures, tend to be more dialectical, which is where everything fits together all at the same time. My first PhD student was from South Korea and she had constant conversations about this, like can you tell me why search for meaning and experiencing meaning are different again? This is in a sense Western Thought 101. You don’t look for something you have, but she’s like, well how can you have it if you’re not looking for it, right? So I think that’s more of how I orient towards things, that if we don’t open up that black box of how do I know, how did I come to believe the things I believe? What are the things I believe about myself that help me flourish? What are the things about myself that are harmful to me in the long run? What are the implicit rules I think are in operation in the world at all times? If we never open that box up and get used to those processes then we find ourselves with no tools when everything gets shaken up for us. So I really do think like, for me, it makes sense to always be thinking of meaning in life as an open-ended question as this journey but I think for everyone there are going to be times when meaning and purpose become questions where you were used to them being answers. I think that’s what starts to happen in times like these.
Caroline: Beautiful. Carl Jung said that “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Do you agree that meaning has to be intrinsic?
Mike: Yeah, I think I would. Let’s talk about what it means to have meaning and why we should care. So if you’re someone like me—I think I mentioned this before, I’m pretty neurotic, I think I’m a pretty good complainer, I’m pretty good at that, you know? I could get better at complaining, I think sometimes I’m not as creative as I should be about my complaining, but you know, that’s sort of me. I don’t think very much about happiness. I was reflecting on this and I think like the whole idea of happiness, I’m just not sure it’s for me, you know? Like being jolly is a mysterious and kind of nerve-wracking experience. So for me, it’s quite natural to introspect and to question what’s been handed to me, right? So if someone says you have to do these sorts of rituals and you have to believe these sorts of things, I’m like, is this really true, you know? Help me understand how this is true and what is going to happen if that’s not true and if I’m persuaded then I try really hard to internalize things.
I think the greatest theory within positive psychology is self-determination theory by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci and, in a sense, it’s both a psychological needs theory, like we need a few things for us to be happy, but it’s also a theory of how motivation occurs and there’s a process that we all go through where things that are just completely external to us become internalized. We eat broccoli and we learn to enjoy it and feel wonderful about that process; that doesn’t mean it’s because someone else thought of it, it can’t ever become ours. But it has to eventually become ours if it’s going to be meaningful. Now we can, in a sense, it’s like Wile E. Coyote off the cliff, right? Looks down, falls. Extrinsic meaning is going to function like that. If you never have to look down and see whether you’re on a tightrope that someone else built for you, you’ll be fine. Like people who believe in or have a strong sense of meaning, they flourish. They’re happier, they’ve got better relationships, they’re sick less often, they live longer, they live like seven years longer, right? So it’s a big thing. To me, composed the way I am, I always want that to be very, very intrinsic. Very true to who I am, very authentic. When that gets tested, that’s the type of enduring meaning that will get us through the suffering. That’s the type of meaning that Frankl had, right? It wasn’t like some sloganeering thing. It wasn’t a Hallmark card. It wasn’t a motto, you know? It wasn’t something like that. It wasn’t what I’ve always thought to do. It was like, yeah, I’ve earned this because I’ve created it. I’ve turned it into my own. I see why it works for me. And so that’s the process of going in and out. I think I referred to in the phrase by Jung, right, that we want to know what’s in us and we want to bring it out into the world and we bring it back in again. We dream, we test, you know? We try, we strive. We fail, we falter. We’re like, was this actually the thing I wanted to do? So I think that’s another really interesting process of going inside and outside of ourselves.
Caroline: It also sounds like the infinity sign, right? And then that’s a way that we connect, right, that we’re gonna connect the outside with the inside that we’re gonna go out but we’re gonna resource in. I read an article on shattered illusion theory, which sounds very similar to what you said about coherence.
Mike: Yeah, so that’s Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s work, shattered illusions. I think she began her work in the late ’70s, early 80s, maybe a little bit later than that, and it is true that some of the injury we experience during trauma is the loss and the disruption of what we took as our givens, right? What we really felt was true. So she talked about, we live in assumptive worlds, this is a basic. If you’re familiar with Albert Ellis’s work, Aaron Beck’s work on cognitive therapy, this idea that we have core beliefs, that we have assumptions about the world, we have to operate out that sort of stuff. What Ronnie Janoff-Bulman was saying is that this is when it gets hard, when that stuff gets crushed like, I live my life and it’s supposed to be like this: Good things happen to good people, bad people are punished in the end, if I try hard, I’ll feel good about those efforts, people are nice, whatever … We all have beliefs, right? And when something happens, someone we trust hurts us, we have a choice. Are we going to say that everything I lived for and believed in up till now was wrong and I need to rebuild a whole model of how the world works? Or can I figure out a way to work with this event such that it actually fits with the model? And this is where a lot of attention goes. So all this stuff about the pandemic is a time to reconnect with your family, to learn new ways of communication, to figure out all this personal growth stuff and learn French and every other language that you ever want to learn, all that sort of stuff, is about reframing the difficulty so that it fits with what you already wanted to do and that’s a little bit easier of a job than to figure out, oh everything I ever trusted about the world is wrong, let’s start from scratch and rebuild my assumptive world. So it’s very consistent with the coherence part of meaning, right? When the world is no longer predictable, when the rules stop working, when you put everything into your 401k and then you see it lose 30 percent in a week, right? So all these sorts of like, well, they said if i just followed the rules, everything worked out fine. Even something that doesn’t directly affect us immediately can shake us up like that on the cognitive coherence level.
Caroline: I understand that you have sort of a meaning in life questionnaire? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Mike: It’s a little bit like the Cosmo quizzes of the ’80s but you know it’s essentially like a really straightforward, psychometrically sound instrument and that’s for the basis for psychology, at least the way I was trained, that the very first step for understanding psychology and how human behavior works is to get data and we need a good tool to get good data. So the quest there was just to create a short easy to use meaning in life questionnaire. It assesses presence of meaning, so I feel like my life is full of meaning and purpose, and search for meaning. You know, I am always on the lookout to understand better my meaning in life. I’m constantly searching for meaning and to get this dynamic where we have some people who have tons of meaning and aren’t searching at all, like I’ve got this figured out, trust me, right? And actually most people that we’ve surveyed over the years fit into that quadrant, like things are going fine. I don’t know if that’s true right now; it seems unlikely that everyone feels so secure. But, you know, life’s pretty meaningful already. And then you have folks who are like, I see no point in being here, I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I’ve got the strong need. And then finally there’s people who don’t seem to care much one way the other, so …
Caroline: And what about the folks in that category that, you know, I’m searching for it but I don’t seem to find it. What can help them at this time in your research? Is there anything, any interventions or anything that can help them?
Mike: This is a problem that Frankl also addressed and actually, John Stuart Mill addressed it. If you call this by the name of happiness as well, like you can’t actually become happy by trying to become happy and you can’t find meaning by putting all your effort into finding meaning. I mean, if you could it would have worked already. Let’s just say that. So for folks who can become happier and live a meaningful life just by concentrating really hard and thinking about it all the time, it’s already happened for them. So what do you do? In a sense you have to just abdicate the pressure on that question and get into the important things about living. So when Frankl talked about that we can live a meaningful life and we can find meaning through creating, that’s really about self-expression. So get to know who you are. Find ways that express that and bring something new into the world. In Frankl’s view—I don’t necessarily share this—there was like a meaning or a purpose sort of out there floating in existence for each of us, so we could try to think our way to it or we could start expressing ourselves, who we are uniquely and authentically, and where we gain energy from those expressions is a good clue to what we’re supposed to do with our lives. It’s similar with relating, like just start connecting with people—this is actually very current advice for depression, right? I mean, if you’re feeling depressed, get out of your own head and start thinking about what the world looks like for another person, how you can engage positively with that, and of course, suffering, right? So what is your attitude towards suffering? I mean, the most fundamental attitude towards suffering that we can take is this has to be worth it, right? It has to be worth it. Whatever is going to be on the other side of it, I’m going to make it worth whatever I’m going through right now. So really, it’s like, let’s get back to basics about what it is to engage with life in an authentic way and part of that is going to be the cognitive side, right? Like, who am I? What am I really all about? And how do we find that out? We find that out by trying to express ourselves. We find out by interacting with other people.
The second piece of purpose is, where does my motivation lie? Where does the me that needs to move the world and myself somewhere? Like where does that want to point to, and the only way we can find it is by trying to do stuff and recognizing it will fail and it’ll suck but we’ll keep trying and that tells us something about ourselves and the path that we can forge in the world around us. And then finally the significance piece: is my life worthwhile? Do I matter? Do I have ways of contributing? Do I have ways of making a positive impact beyond myself? Can I really step out of my own skin? There’s such a tyranny of right here, right now, right me, right? Like the meat puppets we live in want stuff right now, and then you know we’re just hitched to that sometimes. Like, I want this and now I want that and this is flashing at me now and why does this person I’ve never heard of who’s famous get this, and I don’t even get anything, right? So to be able to step out of that and say, okay, in the big picture what’s important to me and how can I just be okay with whether someone ever notices that or not? Like those are some of the pieces.
So the one thing that everyone can do today if they want to is, this is a little intervention we’ve used in my research lab and I use it, when I get enough time with folks, is to just assemble for yourself kind of like a meaning scrap album. I call it a meaning safari. This is probably a little bit bold but essentially I want you to go and take a week and start today with the first photo. You can just use your phone or if you’ve got really cool equipment, you can use your really cool equipment, but take a photo of something that expresses how you understand meaning in life or your life to be meaningful right now. It can be a photo of a person, a pet, a view, it can be a photo of another photo, it can be a photo of a souvenir, it can be a photo of a blanket that your grandmother gave you, whatever it is. Take your photo and just let that photo answer for you the question, What makes my life meaningful? And then over the course of a week, take, I don’t know, seven more photos, nine more photos, no more than a dozen photos, and make sure that the last photo you take is on the last day of that week and then find someone to share it with and tell a story about each of those photos. Those are like artifacts for you now. This does two things: One, it shows you that in your life there has been meaning, and that there’s still threads to that meaning with you right now, even if you can’t be with those people and you can’t go to those places, and then two, you’re sort of like endowing those items with the magic of meaning. Next time you see it, you’re gonna say, oh that’s that meaningful thing now. That’s not just the mug or that’s not just the rock, I can’t remember where that rock came from, oh that rock came from a really important place to me. So you’re populating your environment with vibrant reminders of life’s meaning as well, and you don’t have to think about how the universe came to be and what happens to us when we die and, you know, how much does a soul weigh or whatever. We don’t even have to think about that stuff—just take a picture.
Caroline: It sounds almost like you’re talking about savoring, looking at something and savoring that moment and letting yourself have that. What you’re attracted to, what you’re drawn to, and then capturing that and then taking that in and letting yourself be affected by it.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. So savoring is actually really close to my heart. You know I don’t strike a lot of people who get to know me very well as a super happy person and I think you know I’m happy enough. Even my kids are like, why aren’t you happier, Dad? You’re like this happiness expert. I’m like, I’m not a happiness expert but you should have seen me before, right? I was just like this jerk and I was a jerk to myself and a jerk to other people, and I just felt like the world was not worth it. The whole world—just take it or leave it, right? And I had to open myself up to the possibility of what if that’s not true, right? If the world sucks, then I don’t have to do anything. Nothing is asked of me. Suffering happens, well, of course the world sucks. People are mean to me, of course the world sucks. I don’t have to change, right? But once you open yourself to the idea that the world is actually beautiful, that the world has majesty in it, and there’s awe-inspiring events and people and places, suddenly you have a responsibility both to yourself and to the world around you to open yourself up to that. So there’s a vulnerability to savoring I think that oftentimes is overlooked, because a lot of people talk about it are pretty mentally balanced and pretty healthy and well-functioning and that hasn’t always been me. For me, the thing that led me to whatever degree of happiness that I have has been noticing and appreciating those little moments, those little pieces of beauty. Call it divinity, call it transcendence, whatever it is. The thing that happens that makes you feel like there’s really something out there, isn’t there? So that was really important to me.
Caroline: It seems to me that there are people that just go about their business, right? And there are people that feel intensely and then there are people that sort of reason and think about it. How does this theory of creating meaning relate to brain science or has it been studied? I think of Daniel Siegel’s work and how he studies the brain and different aspects of the brain and different ways that we function, whether we’re more neocortical or whether we’re more action-oriented or whether we’re more feeling and I wondered if that has been studied at all, if the way that your brain operates affects your search for meaning.
Mike: I’m trying to debate about how to answer this. First of all, there’s one problem that we have with a lot of this research. So when we take a look at the research on functional imaging of the brain, which is where we get most excited, the thing lights up. You know, it’s oversimplification of course, but when we’re engaged in what kinds of tasks, which part of our brain seems to up-regulate its activity relative to another part of the brain, and you know, we can see what happens when people are in easier to achieve states or easier to control states. So positive emotion has a huge head start on meaning in life because it’s pretty easy, it turns out, to put people in a positive mood relative to a neutral or a negative mood. If I want to put you in a negative mood, I show you a video of a finger amputation surgery or something like that, or I show you a pile of garbage or something like that. And it puts us in a negative mood. If I want to put you in a neutral mood, I just show you like something very bland. If I want to put you in a positive mood, I should show you penguins, right? I don’t know if Barbara Frederickson mentioned that, but that’s one of the stimulus she uses. And we know that positive emotions are very powerful. If I want to make you self-conscious, there’s ways to do that because they’re kind of like little bites. How do I make you, in 30 seconds or less—because MRI time is very expensive—have your life be more meaningful when, in a sense, to have a meaningful life you have to talk about the way that you live, right? So you have to change a lot of things, so we don’t have a quick, snappy, meaning-focused intervention. So when we see research a lot of times, we see the things that increase meaning are things like positive emotions; when we’re in a good mood, life feels more meaningful. So we can’t test it right now. So when people will do it, they’ll see the kind of typical stuff though, so that there isn’t really a part of the brain that’s going to turn off meaning.
But I think a lot of the parts of the brain that get in the way of self-regulation, for example, those are occurring very pre-frontally; it was like you know, ventral medial, prefrontal cortex, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex. Part of it is the front of the very neocortex, part of it is the front of the limbic system, but it’s really like painful stuff and that’s turning off things like the amygdala and it’s really downplaying the things that are emotionally pressing to us. So we’re highly emotional and particularly in negative states, it can be really hard to jump out of that and see the meaning, because I think why things like positive emotions, savoring, other interventions like gratitude, even nostalgia, I think those can be really helpful tools for meaning-making, because they pop us out of the negative, constricted focus, in a sense, reptile brain system operations and let us do our magic up front where we can really work with abstractions—like, what’s this all about.
Caroline: Beautiful. It’s almost like that’s the antidote to the limbic hijack.
Mike: Yeah, well, we only have two systems, right? We’ve got the limbic system in charge, we’ve got the prefrontal system in charge. I want to talk about how to use these three parts of meaning, right? Because we’re in a pretty terrible time. I won’t claim that I’m doing particularly great, you know, like I’m an introvert so parts of this are really easy for me and parts are really, you know, the other parts are hard, right? Just like generating motivation, energy, to keep doing things. Like you see the financial situation get worse and worse and worse all the time in your own life and you see your neighborhood, your neighbors are struggling, you hear about family members and I’m 975 miles away from my 80-year-old parents and all this sort of stuff, right? So I can’t claim to be doing great but that’s never been my thing. I am never like, hey, everything’s perfect in my life, just do what I do, you know? So I’m just like, we just keep trying, right? And so when things are struggling I do think that we can use those levers of meaning, those gears if you will, or building blocks of meaning to focus our work, focus some of the work we need to do, and we know that most people find some way in which they feel like they’ve grown even through adversity. Maya Angelou had an amazing collection called Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. Like that’s the magic we’re talking about. Would we want to go through a horrible time again? Never. But can we pull something of value out of that? Absolutely. That’s the ordinary magic, we seem to be really good at that. Now if we want to have meaning be the thing that we pull out of it, we need to learn how to use our meaning muscles or levers or whatever it is.
So if we just take a a real quick look at what it means to use coherence during the pandemic, so the first thing is to diagnose, right? Like, detect what of your beliefs about the world or yourself, your assumptions, your givens, what’s been broken? What’s been damaged? Has it been the loss of a friend? Has it been the loss of a job? Has it been, you know, has it been the idea that life will kind of continue on and I’ll be able to get through all this. That’s like, start with that. Like you have to know how you’ve been hurt in order to be able to rebuild and it’s a scary thing, right? So for me, let’s say that one of the things is, I thought I had a certain value to the world and, you know, that’s probably not true, right? So even with my low self-esteem or whatever it might be, I was able to still overestimate how much the world would miss me if suddenly it couldn’t get ahold of me, right? So you know all of us can confront whatever that might be, and then that changes the next piece, which is purpose, right? So to diagnose what’s going on with purpose, like what were the goals we had? I was going to start taking my first trips, my first work trips. Previously, in a previous life, I was very fortunate to go quite a lot of places and meet people and spend time with them and give talks and workshops and facilitate transformations, and I was gonna start bringing my kids one at a time with me. So I was gonna go on my first solo trip with my son to Mexico City, I was gonna go on my first solo trip with my daughter to Vienna, I was gonna go on a trip with my brother to Chongqing, China, and I was just gonna start doing these things. That’s a very luxurious thing to have to give up, I definitely get it, but it does no good for me to feel bad about how bad I feel about some of this sort of stuff. Those were goals that I had. They were organizing a lot of my attention, a lot of my motivation, I was very motivated to figure out how my daughter could have an amazing time in Vienna. Were we gonna visit Frankl’s home? Was she gonna practice her German? Was I gonna massacre my German? Whatever it is, right? You know, so those things that you wanted to do, you plan to do, if they were really important to you they had a lot of subsidiary goals. They’re to get to where you really want to go. The more powerful purpose you have, the more activities you direct, the more that becomes your priority, and when that stuff gets blocked that’s another shattering that occurs when we’re suffering. So what goals did you have that all of a sudden, everything is taking a big hammer to? And then finally the significance, like in some ways we might all feel much more small and helpless and powerless and we might be missing those little random connections, those moments of recognition when we see someone and even if it’s just a neighbor at the mailbox and they’re like, oh my gosh, another person exists and recognizes me, I haven’t seen anyone in a million years, right? Those little moments that just pull us out of our sense that we matter that like we get it, like I have value, that this is all significant. So we have to recognize those injuries and then just reflect on some questions and find little steps.
You want to find a little step to understanding how your sense of coherence has been ruptured or your assumptions have been shattered and how to rebuild that. Start journaling a little bit, right? Or start having conversations, open-hearted conversations, about what is the world going to look like? Or what did this reveal about the world and what would we need to do in order to build a better world after this? If it’s about purpose, how can you refashion some of those goals? A big part of me wanting to go to Mexico City with my son, for example, was we haven’t traveled together, you know? And he’s gonna go off to college sometime and is he going to want to spend his breaks with me traveling. Well, I mean, if I emotionally force him probably, you know, but would he freely choose that or would you rather go surfing or something? So how can I get those connections or whatever it was I had hoped to do with my son in those contexts. Can I find other ways to accomplish that and to secure some future moment like that for me and him? Or with my daughter and I? Or with my brother and I, right? So how can we find versions that get us to the dream and the aspiration we wanted to express with our goals even if those specific goals have been blocked. And then finally significance, you know, as far as I might feel about myself about budget and salary cuts at the university and lost travel and lost income from workshops, and keynotes, and things like that, I mean gosh what a corrective this sort of experience is. Where I get to reach out and I get to meet folks. Like, I get to be a part of this and that makes maybe not me personally feel significant but definitely makes the universe feel a little bit like a nicer place.
Caroline: It strikes me that what you’re talking about is going deeper and asking the question, Why did I want to do this, why is this important to me, and how can I get that sensation or do that at this time? We have some, which is, what I love to do as a health and wellness expert—it’s like okay, why do I care about this, why is this important to me, and how can I create a different situation? For me personally, we were going to go on a second honeymoon to New Zealand in July. That’s not happening. But we did camp when we were on our first honeymoon and we’re remodeling our kitchen, so I said, Honey, I think we’re just camping now. And, you know, we’re in our house in the country and we’re not in New York City so we sort of replaced that and said let’s look at this time as that time. And I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about a little bit.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, I really always want people to go deeper but that’s a big pain in the butt sometimes, to always have to really think about it. So I’m trying to read like smart-person books a lot of the time and at the same time, I’m just like I also just want to watch the stupid comedy, right? Like, you know, so I really want people to, I don’t want people to think the only message about meaning in life is that it’s essentially like you’re flogging yourself and like kneeling on lumber and like eating gravel and it’s like this horrible, sort of miserable fate—like, that’s not the point. The point is to know that you’ve got the tools to work through things when it’s just not enough, you’re not living enough to feel inspired, you’re not feeling robust enough to get through hard times. I want you to know that there are tools out there that probably are deep inside your brain that you have to start working on. But also then jump out and do something light, do something fun. Take a photo, you know. Make a tea with a friend, have a virtual happy hour, whatever it is. Like there’s a lot of permission to enjoy life, there’s no point in having a life that’s just a drudgery, you know what I mean, and then trying to find the drudgery meaningful. You can find a champagne cocktail at sunset with someone you love meaningful, too. Why not?
Caroline: Why is the search for meaning being understood as something negative, related to distress? It could be that search for meaning is due to one’s intrinsic motivation to understand things in a better way, which may be fulfilling.
Mike: We live in a society that says you have to always have the right answer, you have to always be confident and sure of yourself, and it’s like we’re trying to hold our breath through life a lot of times and we’re not allowed to show weakness, we’re not allowed to show puzzlement, we’re not allowed to feel uncertain, we’re certainly not allowed to feel awesome about being uncertain and confused, and now at the end of these projects we have to shift our attention so fast to other things as well. So I think it’s it’s our natural state to be okay with “i don’t know.” Like I don’t know what happens to souls afterward or if they exist or whether my kids are going to come to my own funeral—whatever it might be, right? So I think there’s also some unknown that we should be fine with that. So I’m totally in agreement with the sentiment and the insight behind that question. But the data did not back it up in Western cultures for the most part.
Caroline: Can you summarize how we find meaning in the suffering of the pandemic?
Mike: When people find something good, when they find growth after adversity, they tend to find three themes. The first theme is a different appreciation of the self. A very common one is, I never knew I was strong enough to get through something like this. So, what have you done since the pandemic started that teaches you new lessons about your capacity to give and to grow even under terrible circumstances? That’s one possibility. The second theme is other people—renewed appreciation for other people. One of the biggest gifts we can give to people is to let ourselves be helped. So most people don’t get through hard times on their own, even if you’re raised as an extremely independent-minded person in rural Minnesota where you don’t even touch the other people. You need other people, right? And let them help you. It’s actually a bigger gift to them than it will be to you, but it’s also critical for you. And then finally, perspective is one of the biggest things, so change in perspective. I’ve been thinking a lot about how do we let ourselves have a world like this, where this can happen and we knew about it, and we send all of our attention to unimportant things. So how can we really, really, really, really, this time for real, how can we make sure that we keep thinking about what really matters and not just drift back into the treadmill, the rat race, like scramble to the top and all the other things that distract us from what matters. So I think those three things are ways that we can use our meaning-making system, which wants to make sense of everything that’s going on, to steer us towards the three most common outcomes when people report growth.