“The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it.”
By Maria Popova
“The sole purpose of human existence,” Carl Jung wrote in his notebooks, “is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” In a universe devoid of purpose in the human sense, in which we are but a cosmic accident, the darkness of mere being can easily overwhelm us — and yet we go on striking the match of meaning. “However vast the darkness,” Stanley Kubrick urged in a 1968 interview, “we must supply our own light.”
Yalom has done for psychotherapy what Oliver Sacks has done for neurology, using case studies as a storytelling springboard for contemplating some of the largest and most perennial human questions. Through the stories of ten patients, he examines what the four main aspects of psychotherapy — the inevitability of death, the freedom to shape our own lives, our ultimate aloneness, and the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.
The last of the four, which Yalom considers the existential human dilemma of “a being who searches for meaning and certainty in a universe that has neither,” is both the most elusive and the most fertile, for embedded in it are the other three. He writes:
If death is inevitable, if all of our accomplishments, indeed our entire solar system, shall one day lie in ruins, if the world is contingent (that is, everything could as well have been otherwise), if human beings must construct the world and the human design within that world, then what enduring meaning can there be in life? … We are meaning-seeking creatures. Biologically, our nervous systems are organized in such a way that the brain automatically clusters incoming stimuli into configurations. Meaning also provides a sense of mastery: feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them. Even more important, meaning gives birth to values and, hence, to a code of behavior: thus the answer to why questions (Why do I live?) supplies an answer to how questions (How do I live?).
The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts — not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter.
The capacity to tolerate uncertainty is a prerequisite… The powerful temptation to achieve certainty through embracing an ideological school and a tight therapeutic system is treacherous: such belief may block the uncertain and spontaneous encounter necessary for effective therapy.
I must assume that knowing is better than not knowing, venturing than not venturing; and that magic and illusion, however rich, however alluring, ultimately weaken the human spirit.
“Our meaning of happiness is constantly shaped and reshaped by small choices we make every day.”
By Maria Popova
“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” 25-year-old George Eliot wrote in an 1844 letter to a friend. But rather than directed at a static end goal, this learning is a dynamic recalibration of our very definition of happiness as we move through different life-stages. “Human beings,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert observed a century and a half after Eliot as he contemplated our illusory understanding of happiness, “are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
The evolving conception of happiness over the human lifetime is what Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Aaker and her team study in order to help us better calibrate what we believe makes us happy to what actually makes us happy. In this animated short film for the Future of Storytelling Summit — which also gave us Margaret Atwood on how technology shapes storytelling — Aaker outlines how the primary definition of happiness shifts in five systematic stages over time: discovery during childhood and adolescence, pursuit in our mid-twenties, balance in our late twenties and early thirties, meaning in our late thirties and forties, and savoring from our fifties on. But these chapters, Aaker illustrates through her team’s studies, need not be linear or sequential — different life-experiences help us reorder and edit them.
Our meaning of happiness is constantly shaped and reshaped by small choices we make every day.
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