Making meaning in our lives


16 Aug 2017

Finding joy during the darker times will come easier if we practise finding meaning in the little things every day.

Life is what we pay attention to. We need to make moments matter, to make a choice to enjoy ourselves and savour our experiences.

When we reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives, many of us think about our family and friends. Yet we do not always invest the quality time and creative energy in the relationships that are most important to us. When we are in a good mood, life is better for us and others.

Michael Steger and Maria Sirois, presenters at the 2017 Happiness and Its Causes Conference, were interviewed recently on ABC radio program All in the Mind.

Michael Steger spoke of an exercise: If you are given a camera and have a week to take photos of people or places that are most meaningful to you, which ten pictures would you take? You have to consider what and how you will take your photos. And you have to go into your world and take a photo of your family, your pet, your garden, whatever. Then to deepen and appreciate what is meaningful, you write a description of your photographs and describe them to others.

Steger encourages us to get more of our daily experiences to enact our true purpose, to share what matters most, and to bolster others with our own sense of life’s significance. Meaning is meaningless unless there is some way of sharing, conveying and connecting through it. We need to work out ways of sharing what is meaningful for us.

We need consciously to make time to have fun. In the same way we choose to schedule work, and exercise and chores, we also have the opportunity to make it a priority to connect with those we care about. This may involve exhausting ourselves less with our work. It certainly means spending less time on devices and more time meaningfully present with people. It especially invites us to be sensitive to what is of interest to others and to develop that interest together.

Meaning comes from how we relate to and benefit others. Some people find their work gives most meaning. This is especially true when their activity makes a positive difference in the lives of others. The sense of meaning and purpose gained through volunteering is well documented.

Maria Sirois specialises in the field of resilience, about ways to cope and even flourish through challenging times. She supports children and their families facing life-threatening illness. When her younger brother died, she experienced the heartbreaking pain and had to practice what she had been preaching for years. She openly acknowledged that this can be difficult but also realised that even in the darkest moments there are moments of joy, there are moments of meaning, of humour and a deep appreciation for what is.

We often misunderstand happiness for feeling good in the moment, much of our economy is built on this idea of instant happiness. But sustaining consolation is about states of positive emotions that are life-giving and enlivening. This is about living meaningfully, of having a sense of the significance of our actions and connections. She encourages taking time to notice the strengths within you, the virtues you offer, the values you live. This helps accrue a sort of internal reservoir of appreciation. Finding joy during the darker times will come easier if we practise finding meaning in the little things every day.

We grow in resilience by learning to develop this inner capacity and perspective to live with distress. Experience and acceptance that life involves a range of our emotions allows for happiness to be fully appreciated. Sirois reminds us that we have a choice to be happier and that we need to choose joy, and to practice those things that enliven us, that bring about a sense of wonder, resourcefulness, inspiration and joy. She reminds us that to focus on ourselves intentionally in a positive way, does not detract us from the people we are responsible for or obligated to, rather it gives us much more to offer.

It is important that we nurture ourselves and take time to find balance when we are busy and overwhelmed. Take time to walk in nature, allow a moment to experience peace, embrace the joy of special relationships. Renewal gives us strength to reach out with love to others. In a world full of demands and stimuli we need the gift of regenerating silence.

In prayer, we begin to feel the interior beauty, and joy of God that refreshes our soul. It is important to rest, to break away from daily concerns, to recreate and thereby restore the energies of your body and soul. These deepen our inner freedom to love and serve. They give us strength to stand with those who are humiliated by injustice, abuse and violence.

Peter Hosking, SJ, is the Rector of St Aloysius College, Milsons Point.
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