As people argue about politics, healthcare and the portrayal of stories in the news, what one thing can we do to restore a bit of sanity in our lives?
Turn off the news?
Perhaps. Sometimes that’s not a bad idea. Research does show that recurring negative stories (on TV or engaging in repeated negative discourse with friends) can have a deleterious effect on our mental and physical health—even on our relationships. For instance, get into any heated debates about politically charged news topics lately?
Interestingly, the topic of news does touch on the solution.
One of the current debates about news outlets is who to trust. Is news real or fake? What does the coverage of certain topics really mean? Are there hidden agendas where people are purposefully influenced to think a certain way?
The answer behind these questions touches upon a fundamental aspect of human evolution that, as current research reveals, separates man from the animal kingdom. Simply put, man seeks meaning.
The human drive to find meaning is an essential aspect of health and happiness.
Pause and think about a life devoid of meaning for a moment. Notice that reasons for falling in love, choosing dream careers, or preferring certain colors and smells represent experiences that are richer because of the meaning associated with them.
As previously mentioned, sometimes meaning can be negative like when it’s associated with having a negative visceral reaction to some news outlets or politicians.
There’s even meaning about meaning when you consider the story about the Native American grandfather who tells his grandson that he has two wolves inside of him fighting against each other, where one thrives on negativity, resentment and hatred while the other is nourished from positivity, forgiveness and love. His meaningful lesson is that whichever wolf you feed is the one that wins the battle, with the implication being that it is better to feed the positive wolf.
The positive versus negative warning for living can be found throughout stories across cultures and time along with the generational series blockbuster, Star Wars. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” Yoda warns Anakin.
The simplest of explanations is often the golden rule in science, so there may be some meaningful truth in the light versus dark, positive versus negative guideline for living.
Yet, I want to go one step further than just suggesting that people remain positive, for it isn’t easy to be positive when life is serving up a cold dish of tragedy on a daily basis.
When you have been diagnosed with a fatal disease; or when you are going through a tumultuous divorce and have lost precious time with your children; or when you have been laid off from a career right before you were going to retire; or when a beloved has lost their life from the most tragic circumstances; or other endless pain-filled situations—focusing on the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel is the last thing you probably want to hear.
I’m not going to tell you to do that. If you have and/or are going through hardships, my heart aches for you and I send you deepest caring thoughts. It is awful. Not fair. Not fun. I hope you have people and support around to you to help you through the hard times.
To return to meaning, the fact that we experience pain from these events reveals that, like an emotional barometer, we have placed some sort of meaning that elicits certain feelings. Things would not hurt if they didn’t hold meaning for us. If life, love, health, and security didn’t mean something. Perhaps that’s why Buddhist’s first Noble Truth is, “Life is suffering.”
While Buddhism suggests non-attachment to reduce suffering, other philosophical and spiritual schools of thought along with many psychological theories (like Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy and his metamorphic account of his experience at Auschwitz concentration camp in his renowned book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”) purport that finding the deeper meaning within an emotionally-laden experience is essential to bringing the happier feelings of joy, purpose, gratitude, and the experience of growth.
Like Frankl, there are endless accounts of survivors of great tragedies that have found a greater meaning from the loss in their life. Cross-culturally stories can be found of people describing how they attained a heightened state of grace and ethereal type of gratitude for the things that matter in life. It is as if the tragedy and loss invisibly prioritized how one attributes meaning to life’s experiences.
For some, the higher meaning is a Spiritual faith. There is a belief that something more powerful exists that is sustaining and guiding them. For others, there is a lesson in asking what a deadly cancer diagnosis means. Sometimes it serves as a wake-up call to pursue a more meaningful life dream to spend more quality time with cherished loved ones.
The question — “What can I learn from this experience?” — has served to catapult people out of the most grief-stricken emotional states and ultimately into a place of greater happiness and health.
Perhaps that is why Socrates said, “Wisdom begins with wonder.”
If something is bothering you right now (big or small), try asking that question and seeing where the meaning takes you. Perhaps it will take you through a magical treasure hunt or just reinforce your current stance—yet you will have explored and done one of the biggest things you could do for yourself—listening.