In his 2013 address to Syracuse graduates, writer George Saunders spoke to the emerging adults before him of ambition, regret, and kindness, offering this advice:
“Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.” Read More
“Big questions” can be thought of as existential questions, questions about our existence: Why am I here? What is my purpose? How should I live? What does it all mean?
Such questions are difficult and often painful, with no ready answers, and we should not be surprised that we are tempted to turn instead to that which “makes us trivial.” Saunders's short story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" offers a riveting example of a man "having just turned forty" who seems, in his diary, on the brink of grappling with mid-life existential concerns:
"Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy, stressed guy in bad car.
When will I have sufficient leisure/wealth to sit on hay bale watching moon rise, while in luxurious mansion family sleeps? At that time, will have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life, etc., etc. Have a feeling and have always had a feeling that this and other good things will happen for us!"
He is at Frost's point of two roads diverging, but, despite our hopes for him to choose differently, he soon is drawn to the well-travelled road. He makes the mistake of believing that there will be plenty of time later to "reflect deeply on meaning of life, etc."
Dr. James T. Webb, in his new book, Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, discusses twelve common ways that we — young, old, and in between — cope with questions of existence, such as imposing labels and order in an effort to exert control, numbing our mind with alcohol or drugs, and keeping “frantically busy” so as to have no time or mental space available to ponder what really matters. Many of these reactions are avoidance tactics. We will do almost anything to sidestep the discomfort of sitting with questions that have no easy or ready answers.
Webb offers several alternative, healthier coping strategies, such as reading how great thinkers and writers have dealt with similar questions (bibliotherapy), letting go of the need for control, and actively engaging in generativity — leaving a legacy for future generations. He also argues that the need to learn how to address and manage existential concerns is not reserved for the second half of life. Adolescents and young adults can also feel trapped by questions of meaning, especially idealistic teens who are slapped in the face with inevitable disillusionment and unfairness.
But what about happiness? Listening to our inner doubts and anxieties surely does not bode well for the kind of extroverted, hedonic happiness so widely touted today. Emily Esfahani Smith, in her recent Atlantic article, “Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness,” looks at a study that suggests that pleasure-driven happiness that comes at the expense of a sense of meaning may have long-term health consequences, and not in the way you might guess:
"Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers."
In other words, being happy on a superficial level may be associated with our bodies' preparing for long-term health problems. Smith concludes, "From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive."
How do we go about creating meaning in our lives? The ideas in Webb's book are an excellent place to start, especially bibliotherapy. Be sure to widen your scope of reading (and viewing) to include contemporary works, such as anime and science fiction. We shouldn't be surprised that so many of the most popular and critically acclaimed television series have at their heart existential, "big" questions of what it means to be alive, how we make sense of our pasts, and how we should live. Think of Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, and Jon Snow.
Even something as common as boredom can be a gateway to meaning. A recent study published in the journal Emotion found that the sense of meaninglessness brought on by boredom can be mitigated by nostalgia, which can bring a new understanding of our past and a new meaning to our present and future. The study's authors discuss several implications of this perspective, such as engaging in nostalgic conversation with nursing-home residents or sharing with them songs from decades past.
While we don't want to wallow in the past or get stuck in an endless loop of questions that bring us only pain, we can ask ourselves if we are going too far in the other direction, running from existential discomfort by keeping too busy or otherwise avoiding questions of meaning. We can also rethink what it means to be happy and bravely do whatever fits our own, personal sense of happiness, regardless of what others tell us, as Carey Mulligan’s character, Sally Sparrow, explains in the 2007 Dr. Who episode, "Blink":
Sally Sparrow: "I love old things. They make me feel sad."
Kathy Nightingale: "What's good about sad?"
Sally Sparrow: "It's happy for deep people."
Photo made available under a Creative Commons license by Quinn Dombrowski.