Christmas Day Reflections: Meaning in Our Lives

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Today is Christmas. For me, this is a time for secular reflection. Following is chopped and edited version of a talk I gave earlier this year to NAMI San Diego. The theme involves living a life of meaning ...


    I find my depressions very useful - especially when I’m not having one. Through my depressions I have learned to find meaning in my life. And a life with meaning is a much happier life than a life without meaning, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.


    Of all things, I got a much better insight into this through the work I have done here at NAMI San Diego.


    Let’s connect values to a life of meaning to happiness. I really don’t know too much about happiness. I haven’t experienced it much, and - I suspect - neither have you. We’re really not built to be happy. Happiness is not well-suited to survival. Depression is much better suited. I experience a lot of all that, and - well here I am - a depressive realist, able to see the world as it is and adapt.

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    But yes, a bit more happiness in my life would be good. So where can we find people who practice happiness?


    That is the question.


    In May 2009 I joined the board of NAMI San Diego. I was a bit hesitant. I had had a very bad experience with a mental health board I was on back east. These were miserable people who made the lives of everyone around them miserable, including my own. That was the last thing I wanted. But I was a glutton for punishment and I signed on.


    Funny thing about NAMI San Diego. Talk to almost any staff person or volunteer or board member and you will encounter an individual with personal experiences that would tear your heart out. That’s what living with mental illness does to us. Consumer or family member or both, we have been through hell and through hell again. 


    So - by any standard, NAMI San Diego should be the most miserable place on earth. But that is not the case. Far from it. What is going on?


    So, I decided to check out this thing called happiness. As it turns out, I had already written some articles on the topic, so I didn’t have far to look. One of them focused on a study which tracked the lives of a group of Harvard men over a period of six decades. 


    The man who kept this particular study going for four of those decades, George Vaillant, noticed that those he categorized as “happy-well” were those who adapted in healthy ways to their surroundings. One of these healthy adaptations included altruism - service. Service to others.


    But wait, happiness is not as simple as all that. One of the things that Dr Vaillant also found out was that positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. We’re setting ourselves up for rejection and heartbreak. Perhaps, then, it takes a brave individual to be happy. Perhaps happiness does not elude us so much as we elude happiness.


    The Dalai Lama, in “The Art of Happiness,” says, in essence that we're unhappy because we excel at all the stupid people tricks. We're attached to our own idiotic desires and fears and anxieties. We can't let go.


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    The way to get over this - out of ourselves - is by paying attention to others. We signal a willingness to put their needs before ours. We cultivate loving kindness. Next thing we're establishing connections and intimacies. Next thing, we're not as absorbed in our own destructive thoughts and feelings. Next thing we're not alone. Next thing, maybe, there are periods in our life where we are experiencing happiness.


    I’m not there yet. I’m still working on it.


    Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, talks about virtues and character strengths. Virtues such as wisdom and courage are universal, Character strengths differ from individual to individual. The trick is to figure out our signature strengths and then constantly use them. This, says Dr Seligman, is the key to a good life. Thus, you "recraft your job to deploy your strengths and virtues." This not only makes work more enjoyable, but may transform routine work into a calling.


    Think of those you look up to. Do they have a calling?


    Maybe this is why those of us at NAMI San Diego can so relate. As I mentioned before, by rights we should be the most miserable people on earth. But you know, when I listen to the staff and volunteers, I hear a lot of stories in common.


    People tend to first come to NAMI in a state of need. They are often desperate. They feel alone and isolated. Then - they may find themselves in a Family-to-Family class. Or a Peer-to-Peer. Or one of our many other programs. They get something out of the experience.


    And something seems to happen - they want to give back. They volunteer for NAMI. Suddenly, their life has meaning. They have a calling. It doesn’t stop there. If I’m not mistaken, most of our staff started out as volunteers.


    Really, if you look at this nonlinearly, there is no separation between staff, volunteers, and the people we serve.


    I’m not going to pretend we are all happy and that our lives are going great, but I can tell you this much - when I walk into NAMI I’m with people I want to be around. 


    Commitment, service to others - funny how we’re drawn to people with meaning in their lives. A life of meaning - what a difference.




    To our community here at HealthCentral, tis the season for reflection and rededication. Thank you, all, for your support in our shared and continuing quest for meaning. 

Published On: December 25, 2011