On the Origin of Meaning

When you read this sign, does it prompt something in you that says you're supposed to be reading this? Or did you kind of chuckle at the possible meanings? What meaning do you attribute to it?

Major and minor events in your life are, well, things that happen. We tend to not think as much about the less-big events, as if the bigger ones—death of a loved one, divorce, quitting your job, moving—are where the meaning comes from. It makes sense that people would do that, but let's deconstruct a bit . . .


I invite you to think about a few things here:

  1. Do YOU categorize your life into events, moments, or even chapters? Do you have some kind of narrative structure to the (re)telling of your life? What's your narrative style? Maybe you don't have one! Maybe you're not a narrativist at all, and that's just fine. Don't ever let anyone tell you that your life is a story.

  2. Do you think events or moments are ever intrinsically good or bad? Are they intrinsically meaningful? And while we're at it, if a tree falls in the forest . . .

  3. This might not seem related, but do you have daily self-care habits? Let's say you do and you try to eat well and you have good sleep hygiene and you keep your social media usage down to a minimum and you get outside to walk or otherwise exercise daily and you have solid social connections. You might not think much about these habits other than the diligence it sometimes requires to maintain them. How is that not related to the meaning in your life? All of that speaks to intention and the conscious cultivation of well-being. It might not be splashy, sexy, or dramatic, but it's meaningful activity in the service of something good. Why don't we tend to think about our daily habits when we talk about meaning or the direction of our lives?

Meaning and Direction are Verbs

You know how people say "love is a verb?" What they mean is that it's not static and it's something you do; you create it and keep it alive. It's the same for meaning and direction. You don't, one-time, find or make meaning. You don't just have direction. They are both living concepts that must be fed with attention and intention and action. They're not magic; they need cultivation. Without intention and action, they're empty; they're just words.


Now, let's flip the script on the habits from above. Let's say you love your food and your theory is that you only live once so you're going to eat whatever you want. That speaks to meaning for you; it speaks to your values. Let's say you tell me you don't exercise although you know you should, and you spend a lot of time caring for your elderly parents/grandparents or visiting them. Well, that's your priority otherwise you wouldn't be doing it. If you want to know what your priority is, look at what you're doing. Every vote for doing something is a vote against doing everything else. There are opportunity costs for everything you vote to do.


The habit of not exercising, in a vacuum, is meaningless absent context. For this particular constellation of details, perhaps an inventory of the time and times you visit/give care is in order, and maybe there's a way to carve out some time for exercise. It is, after all, self-care, and you can't pour from an empty cup. Few of us are getting stronger and faster as we age, and there's plenty of research that supports exercise—both cardiac and weight-bearing—are crucial for healthy aging. Caring for the one body you have in this lifetime shouldn't be an afterthought or a luxury. If self-care important to you, a look at how you spend your days will reveal just how important it is. Self-care isn't an intention; it's a set of behaviors. You do it.


Your Meaning and Direction

If you keep doing what you're doing today for the next year, you know what kind of person you'll be and what you'll be doing. I know, I know, it's obvious. But we don't act like it is. We don't treat our everyday practices as if they're the seeds of our future selves. In reality, it's the small things we do with regularity that create who we are. It's the way we meet life, the meaning we decide that things have, the values we embody, how we spend our money, who we spend our time with, what we watch, listen to, and otherwise consume. Who we speak to and how. These things tell the world who we are. This is our way of being.


And then when something happens to us—potentially traumatic or life-changing or not—it's what we do with that moment that dictates how it will be integrated into our lives. Will it be traumatic (see both George Bonanno and Lucy Hone for more)? Will it be life-changing? The answer is never predetermined, and we frequently don't respond the way we think we'd respond (see Nicholas Epley for more).


Research in genetics says that at least 50% of who we are comes from our DNA. Some people say the percentage is greater, but let's be conservative. The other 50% is what happens—your circumstances—plus your intentional activities (this comes from Sonja Lyubomirsky, and she revisits it here), with your circumstances being a lot less impactful than you might think (she originally said 10%). When talking about meaning, direction, and even happiness in relation to major life events or minor life events, here's the thing: It matters less what actually happens than how you meet it. It depends on what you do with it, from expressive writing about it to make meaning (see James Pennebaker for that), to seeing it as something that happened and moving forward. Not everyone needs to find meaning in everything.


The moral of the story? Cultivating a way of being that meets whatever occurs and then knows how to work with it to integrate it in a healthy way isn't something anyone else can do for you or give you. As Robert Plomin is fond of saying: Parents matter, but they don't make a difference. Education matters, but it doesn't make a difference. Life events matter, but they don't make a difference. The difference you can make comes from how you meet life and from what your habits of being and doing. We become what we practice. Who are you becoming?


Classes are underway now and the next 8-week cycle of both MBSR and Mindfulness for Financial Advisors begins in April. For information on those or having me speak at an event or on radio or a podcast, go to this page to learn more.


May ease find you.

mm