I was honored to appear recently on HuffPost Live to discuss Frank Schaeffer's recent HuffPost blog, "The Real Biological Clock Question Is Bigger Than Asking 'When to Have a Child?'" The focus of Frank's blog was deeper than deciding when (or if) to have kids; rather, he called us to examine the ways in which we foster meaningful connection in our lives. Ultimately, the question becomes, when is it OK to pursue a life that matters?
"There are no classes for this stuff," Russell Bishop, my co-panelist on the show, suggested, and we tend to send kids off on the wrong foot in life by asking them early on, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The muddled message we then send is that our meaning in life comes from the work we do. While that may be true for some people, it's certainly not the case for many.
Here are five ways to begin crafting more meaningful connections and lives:
Be clear when it comes to "purpose." My friend, Carin Rockind, defines purpose as "the active way in which we uniquely impact the world." Help your kids hone in on this as early as possible by noting the activities they find most rewarding and the activities they crave or are drawn to. Adults should be thinking about this too.
Create your own blend of drive and meaning. When I finished law school, I was driven to develop my career and make some money. As my career progressed, I focused solely on work to the exclusion of my relationships, and I burned out. It was almost too late before I realized that I had to pull back on my drive and increase my focus on meaning. I notice this same pattern in many of my high-achieving friends and coaching clients -- at some point you'll hit the wall if you forget to build in connection and meaning along the way.
Understand the cost of materialism. Human beings are notoriously bad at predicting how much happiness that new car, iPhone, or big house will bring. With all of the modern conveniences we have, our happiness must be off the charts, right? Wrong. Our average happiness score is a 7.2 out of 10 today, down from 7.5 in 1940 (2). Not only does materialism not bring us happiness or meaning, it's a strong predictor of unhappiness. One study looked at the attitudes of 12,000 freshman in college, then measured their life-satisfaction at the age of 37. Those who had expressed materialistic aspirations as freshman were less satisfied with their lives two decades later (3). The "stuff" has its place; just know that the "stuff" isn't going to lead to a meaningful life long-term.
Don't let the good news pass you by. Research shows that how you respond to a person's good news is as important for the health of your relationships as how you respond to bad news. This applies to both professional and personal relationships, and given how busy you are, I bet you're missing many opportunities at work and at home to capitalize on others' good news. The goal is to respond in an active, constructive way by asking questions and showing a genuine interest in the sharer of the news. Killing the conversation by offering a terse response or hijacking the conversation by making it about you are quick ways to weaken the relationship (1).
Minimize false connectors. I was having breakfast at a restaurant with my husband a few weeks ago, and we were seated next to a family of five. Both mom and dad were on their cell phones during most of the meal while their three small kids just sat there trying to occupy themselves. While Facebook, Twitter, and our cell phones help us connect to the world, they are not actually ways to meaningfully connect to other people. What troubles me is that the number of people who say there is no one with whom to discuss important matters has nearly tripled over the past 30 years (4). We are the most connected-disconnected people on the planet, and that has to change if we are to craft meaningful connections and lives.
Dr. Chris Peterson once summed up all of the research in positive psychology by saying, "Other people matter." His point was that people require strong connections with others in order to have a happy and meaningful life. When it comes to pursuing a life that matters, the clock is ticking. It's never too early or too late to do something about it.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is an internationally-published writer and travels the globe as a stress and resilience expert. She has trained over a thousand professionals on how to manage their stress by building a set of specific skills designed to increase personal resilience and prevent burnout. Paula is available for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching - contact her at email@example.com or visit her website at www.pauladavislaack.com.
** Thank you to Frank Schaeffer for inspiring the title for this article.
1. Gable, S.L., Gonzaga, G.C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904-917.
2. Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Group.
3. Nickerson, C., Schwartz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing in on the dark side of the American dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Sciences, 14, 531-536.
4. Wagner, R., & Harter, J.K. (2006). 12: The elements of great managing. New York: Gallup Press.
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