Happiness Habit #5: “Dear Diary…”: Journaling for Meaning


Posted on : August 23, 2012

What is the meaning of life?  It’s one of the eternal questions, along with “Is there a God?” and “What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

Obviously you won’t find a universal answer to this question in this blog post today (alas…).  Only you can determine what holds meaning for you.  But I can tell you one thing: research shows that finding your answer to “What is the meaning of MY life?” can significantly increase your happiness.

Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology field, in his book, Flourish, elevates meaning as one of the five central pillars of well-being, as one of the essential paths to a flourishing, thriving life.  He defines meaning as ‘belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self’.

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, has adapted the benefits of all the research on meaning into a simple daily habit that you can use to tap into this happiness source.  He calls it Lifestreaming.

How to Do It

For 21 days in a row, write about one meaningful moment you experienced over the past 24 hours and include every detail you can remember.  The goal is for your brain to visualize and re-experience the meaningful moment.  Try to recall as many details as you can (i.e. what someone said to you, where you were, what you were thinking, etc.)

These can be work-related, “I felt great about being organized for the meeting.  By putting out an agenda ahead of time, we were able to stay focused on outlining the action plan.” Or from your personal life: “By reaching out to that new parent at the school, I could see she felt more welcome.”   They can be big things, “If I hadn’t spoken up, the team would have gone down a terrible path and wasted more than a month!”  or small things, “I know that giving my kids a hug when they get home from school helps them feel loved.”

Of course, meaning is completely your own.  It’s about what you perceive as bigger than yourself.  What matters in this exercise is that you see yourself making a positive difference towards creating the world you want to live in.

“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Periodically during the 21 days, go back and read your entries.  Then record how you see your “meaning moments” link together.  If there are gaps in meaning in your life, reflect on how you can connect some of those moments of meaning to the parts that seem less meaningful (like meetings or emails).  Ultimately your trajectory of meaning should branch out into other domains of your life.

The Benefits

  • Seeing yourself as part of something bigger (however YOU define ”bigger”) has huge benefits in terms of your happiness.
  • It only requires one meaningful experience for your brain to judge a day as a meaningful one.
  • Your brain measures time by the nodes of meaning it feels.  Without meaning, time can seem to pass by very quickly.
  • Having a purely task-based mindset lowers the meaning we find in our lives and raises stress.
  • By doing this as a daily practice, your brain starts to connect the dots between meaningful moments each day and puts them into a broader context.  You start to see more of your life as contributing to something bigger.

My Experience

I have not done this habit as a formal writing practice.  I chose instead to regularly pause during my day to reflect on the meaning of what I’m doing.  After a good run with work – an hour drafting a blog post, preparing for one of my talks, or after meeting with a coaching client — I purposefully spend several minutes appreciating that I’m doing something to make the world a better place.  By spending that time, I’m helping increase someone’s happiness and helping them live a better life.

When I became a happiness coach, I thought this meaning would come of its own accord.  That by doing something that I thought was meaningful, I’d automatically feel the goodness of it.   But that wasn’t the case.  When I’m not consciously looking for that meaning, I simply get caught up in my never-ending to-do list.  It’s an “Okay, that’s done.  What’s next?” mentality.  This exercise gave me a few minutes to slow down each day and connect my actions with why I’m doing the things I do.

Your Challenge

Try it.  For the next 21 days, take a moment each day to write down a meaningful moment.  Then connect the dots between them.  See if some of the smaller, more mundane tasks you do each day either gain more importance, or recede in your consciousness, overshadowed by the moments that mean something

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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