The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

Coffee, Community, and the Quest for Meaning

What a coffeeshop can teach us about meaning in life

imageOne Friday evening in January, I went to the lone, independently owned coffeeshop on my side of town to do a few hours of work.  I liked this coffeeshop and had gotten to know the owners and a couple of the baristas. The place appealed to me because it was passionately focused on community (like hosting "stitch 'n' bitch" meetings, support groups for new mothers, and incorporating a children's play area).  It didn't hurt that it serves an interesting selection of good craft-brewed beers from Fort Collins, Colorado (where I live) and around the world.  Let's just say I like flexibility in my beverage options!

On this particular winter evening, I was looking forward to having a nice cup of coffee, then sampling a local stout that had been aged in a used bourbon barrel from a distillery near Frankfort, KY.  When I got there, though, I found out that the coffeeshop was going out of business.  Even though I had stopped in only once every couple of weeks, I'd grown really attached to both the place itself and also to the notion that a place like that could exist, serving coffee and serving its community.

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What happened next was an inspiring blend of old-fashioned community building and new-fangled social media use.  Along the way, I realized I was participating one of the key elements of meaningful living - the power of connecting with something larger than yourself.

imageWhen I saw the sign, I asked the owner about what was going on, and expressed my regret that this unique business was another victim of the recession.  She said that business had bottomed out over the winter holiday break and that they were under water with debt obligations.  She told me she simply wanted to let people know as soon as possible, and hoped that she could stay open long enough to be able to pay off what she owed her suppliers (who were almost exclusively small, locally owned businesses, too). 

We commiserated for a bit, and I upgraded from my usual, regular-old dark roast coffee to something mocha-y, and made the ultimate sacrifice by staying long enough to have two beers.  I went home and shared the news with my partner.  we resolved to enjoy our dying haunt as much as possible, and to funnel our paltry discretionary dollars to this fallen champion for local businesspeople.

Then an amazing thing happened.

Within hours of the going-out-of-business notice going up, calls to arms raced across facebook, myspace, and twitter. People began to rally.  When I brought the kiddos and my wife to the coffeeshop for breakfast burritos and a cuppa joe, the place was packed.  What was going on?!?  The rats weren't fleeing the sinking ship - but was this a case of the vultures circling, like the booming business Circuit City did as it died?

Surprisingly, no!  Instead, the coffeeshop was full of people offering up items for a silent auction, angel investors poring over the books to see where things went awry, and employees not only willing to forego searching for other jobs, but willing to auction off their boxers, tighty-whities, and lacy thongs for a few dollars more! (who said panty raids were anachronistic!)image

I found myself recruiting buddies and colleagues to have "meetings" at this moribund coffeeshop, shrugging off my suspicions that I was a Hari Krishna in prof's clothing.  I spent three months of my coffee budget in the "final" week of this place, happily standing around reading articles  while throngs of supporters flocked to the tables (don't ask why I need a coffee budget).

And, in the end, this community resource was saved.

It was a rush.  Everyone was exhausted from the exhilaration.  The coffeeshop recuperated and reorganized for a few days.  Ultimately, the business model wasn't working, and a new one was developed incorporating some structural changes and the involvement some of the angel investors.  One thing didn't need changing at all.  Every employee came back. 

I used to see a few of them around town, working second jobs at other places - they had options.   Yet, they all worked long hours, uncertain about whether their job would be there in a week - much less a month.  They stayed.  It was clear to me that this minimum wage job was more than a paycheck to these folks.  Their work had meaning, they felt a part of something bigger than themselves, they felt their labor mattered. 

And, ultimately, their toil mattered!  Inspired by their leader's passionate vision, their amazing attitudes pulled this one, small coffeeshop through its greatest challenge. 

The desire of this coffeeshop to create a sense of community in this fairly sterile corner of town created a community. We all felt it; we were all ready to fight for this place.

When we devote our energy to sustaining and advancing something that is bigger than ourselves, we stretch the boundaries of our identities, we achieve some degree of self-transcendence.  The value of embracing the causes of things beyond our own skin has been declared from Old Testament times through to Martin Seligman's call for a 'positive psychology.'  Research has consistently supported these ideas - the power of connecting to and caring about something greater than ourselves. image


How can we claim our lives have meaning unless they touch the lives of others, unless they bring in stray threads of someone's experience?  The most amazing thing to me was that I saw the dry and dusty stacks of institutionally bound research articles suddenly spring to life!  I "knew" that expanding my sense of self to give home to the worries, dreams, and aspirations of far-flung people made me a better person, and would deepen my life's meaning - but seeing it happen was another thing altogether.


So, here I sit at this coffeeshop - a place resurrected by the hopes of a community of people who refused to let their watering hole 'go gently into that good night' - mulling over the extraordinary unfolding of our desire for meaning...right before my very eyes.

© 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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