The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

The Recession and Me(aning), Part 2: Making Meaning Even if You're Not Making Money

Strategies for weathering unemployment and economic stress

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We all have that friend who is never fazed by anything.  "Hey Chip, sorry to hear about that eagle flying away with your new puppy."  "Oh, that's OK, I know that Bowser would feel proud being part of the circle of life."  "Hey Chip, sorry to hear about that freak lightening strike - I can't believe it only hit your signed jersey that Walter Payton wore in the Super Bowl."  "Oh, that's OK, it didn't really match any of my Crocs anyway."  "Hey Chip, sorry to hear you lost your job."  "Oh, that's OK, it gives me more time to write my memoirs."  These people drive us crazy.  Their response to set-backs seems insane at best, and designed to torment us at worst.  Perhaps some part of us wishes we could be so laissez-faire, but wouldn't we be missing some crucial piece of living if we didn't have to overcome hardship?

Yes.  From my point of view, meaningful living means both dealing with the difficulties life throws at us and enjoying life's profound pleasures.  For example, it seems to me that death is what makes love so vital, and so frightening (http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-meaning-in-life/200902/...).

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In my previous column on this topic, I talked about research that confirms what many of us know: losing your job can be difficult, even devastating.  Many of us, 11.6 million in the United States alone (according to the February report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and many, many more millions around the world, are unemployed.  This means that many of us are facing the serious psychological challenges that often come hand-in-hand with losing a job.  Untold millions more of us are faced with the challenge of salary cuts, the necessity of taking on additional jobs, or that sickening sense of waiting to see if our job will be spared.

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All of these scenarios are stressful.  Stress is our reaction to warnings that we need to change.  Hans Selye and other stress researchers propsed that we have a general alarm system that alerts us to when there's a threat nearby that we need to account for.  As ancient hominids, we were probably most concerned by large, hungry beasts.  Times ain't that easy anymore.  When a giant hyena loomed around the bend, we only had to run like crazy for a little while until we escaped (or didn't).  Now, the stress from threats like unemployment or toxic relationships can last for months, and our bodily responses can sap our vigor and health.

Coping is a key link between stress and both health and well-being.  One of the most desirable outcomes from a stressful time is the feeling that not only have you survived, but you have thrived.  Many psychologists believe that people grow through their stressful circumstances by making meaning from them. 

Everything we experience is susceptible to our interpretations.  Our annoying friend, Chip, may have a frustratingly optimistic interpretation of everything, but that doesn't mean that the "right" interpretation is that eagles hate Chip, Zeus hates Walter Payton, or that Chip is worthless because he lost his job.  That would be ridiculous, too.  Yet, I suspect that more of us are more likely to make the "anti-Chip" interpretation than we are to adopt Chip's rosy view.  Why is that?  Does it matter?

I'm not confident there's a solid answer to the first question, but the answer to the second one is "YES!"  People who would typically see being laid off as meaning that they're worthless or horrible at their job, that the world holds no opportunities for them, or that they're doomed to a life of eating ramen noodle packets are much more likely to be depressed.  People who blame themselves appear more likely to sufffer from anxiety and persistent worry after a stressful event like uunemployment.  People who make a positive meaning from the event are happier and better off in the long run (in some studies, they even live longer!).  Making meaning from unemployment doesn't mean we have to burst with glee at the prospects of all that free time.  There are highly reasonable, positive meanings that people can make.  Here are some examples:

  • it DOES give you a chance to take a step back and evaluate what the most satisfying and meaningful career would be for you;
  • it DOES give you a chance to build up your training or education;
  • it DOES give you a chance to spend more time with your family;
  • it DOES help you realize what's important in life (maybe that's even work, but it can also be the support and love of friends and family);
  • it DOES give you proof that you can survive such times. 

One study of unemployed people showed that people who were engaged in creative expression or were able to achieve a sense of collective purpose through their political and volunteer activities actually felt that their period of unemployment was a good thing.  No one gets to decide what unemployment will mean to you.  Except you.  As Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

If you looked at that list and thought, "hey, I can see that," then you might not need to read further.  If you thought it was a crock, here are some coping strategies that are associated with meaning-making:

  • look at your unemployment from all angles, what are the hidden opportunities?
  • look for evidence that you have been effective in the past - don't allow yourself the easy, but dangerous, thought that you 'can't do anything'
  • be active - if the problem is that you need a job, then start looking for a job; even if it's not successful right away, it demonstrates that you're doing what you can and not 'worthless'
  • accept the numbers - the equivalent of the populations of New York City and LA combined are out of work, and more are losing their jobs everyday; NO ONE is finding work easily...this means it's not your fault
  • reach out and support someone - helping other people is a tangible way to show our value to ourselves, and make someone else's life easier
  • accept help from others - hey, you wouldn't want to deny anyone else the chance to show their value, would you?
  • put it in perspective - think about what really matters in life, the challenges have you already overcome, the connections you have made, the example you set for others (perhaps your children), the moments you feel a part of something greater than an individual life.  These are the important things.  When you get working again, they will still be there and they deserve your spirit, your appreciation, and your investment

Nietzsche had another saying, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."  If you have created, discovered, invested, and fostered meaning in your life, momentary - even severe - set-backs take their proper place in your life. You can take perspective and see that these challenges fit into the greater story of your life, and that your story intertwines with the stories of the people you love.  Your life can be bigger than the set-backs, your story can be bigger than your life.

I'm interested in hearing about your experiences with both working and unemployment.  Please go to my webpage (http://michael.f.steger.googlepages.com/home) and look for the section that says "Participate in Research" for a link to a quick survey.

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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