Meaning in Our Lives: Our Number One Recovery Tool
The Life-Saving Power of Purpose, reads the latest blog post of my good friend Therese Borchard on Everyday Health.
Since the end of 2008, with the collapse of the financial markets, “persistent, loud, and maddening” death thoughts have haunted Therese. Nothing worked - not meds, not supplements, not meditation, not therapy, not rigorous physical exercise.
Then, five years into it, by the Severn River in Annapolis, she gave up. With that came a few moments of peace. Shortly after, she came across Holocaust survivor’s Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation …
Through her books and blogging, Therese has been a great hope to many, but a year ago she decided to take her efforts to a new level by launching a new Facebook support group, Group Beyond Blue, new online community, Project Beyond Blue, and a nonprofit corporation, Beyond Blue Foundation.
According to Therese:
Dr Frankl’s “logotherapy” is based on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose. If we devote our time and energy toward finding and pursuing the ultimate meaning of our life, we are able to transcend our suffering. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel it. However, the meaning holds our hurt in a context that gives us peace.
Therese’s post struck a major chord with me. This induced me to pull out a piece I had written on my blog, Knowledge is Necessity, four years ago. At the time, I was planning on giving a talk to our local NAMI in San Diego. I was then serving on their board, and had been involved in the selection of 18 Awardees over three years.
What do all these people have in common? I wondered. What qualities did they possess that the rest of us found so uplifting?
It turns out I didn’t have to think too hard. It came down to two things: Commitment and dedication to serving others.
Following is a massively edited version of what I delivered in my talk …
Now 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.
But yes, a bit more happiness in my life would be good. So where can we find people who practice happiness?
Funny thing. Talk to almost any staff person or volunteer or board member at NAMI 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 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 a number of pieces on the topic. My first one focused on a study which tracked the lives of a group of Harvard men over a period of six decades.
The author of the study, George Vaillant, noticed that that the people 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.
Then, there is the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness.
The Dalai Lama’s message is simple: 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.
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.
Says Martin Seligman, who founded “positive psychology,” we may recraft our jobs to deploy our strengths and virtues. This not only makes work more enjoyable, but may transform routine work into a calling.
Serving others - altruism, putting others first.
Commitment - the courage to change things, to take risks and not just settle for good enough.
Fold our strengths and virtues into it, and suddenly we are talking about a life with meaning. Maybe that is what happiness really is. Funny how we’re drawn to people with meaning in their lives.
A life of meaning. What a difference …
According to Therese: “I am a big believer in … pouring your heart into a mission that can become your life purpose.”
She still gets her death thoughts, though they are not nearly so persistent. Obviously, she says, she’s not cured. But, she concludes, “I know that something changed on that May morning I cried next to the Severn River. I discovered my WHY.”
Therese is one of my all-time favorite people. Check out her latest post and follow the links to her other projects.
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.