Seeking A Meaningful Life
What I read: The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2021 by Kira M. Newman, Jeremy Adam Smith, Jill Suttie, and Maryam Abdullah. Published December 16, 2021.
Through their online magazine I follow the work of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley. The GGSC was founded in 2001 and has since been scientifically exploring the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. In other words, the science of a meaningful life.
The GGSC compiles an annual analysis of what they determine are the top 10 insights into the science of a meaningful life for the year. This year’s insights were selected by experts on the GGSC staff after they solicited nominations from their network of approximately 350 researchers.
From the individual to the global, this year’s top insights look at how we can cultivate well-being on many different levels, from a few simple ways to feel better, to insights on connecting across our differences and promoting sustainability. They also offer some hints at what has helped us be resilient during the pandemic.
The first insight, that feeling uncertain makes us savor the small things in life, certainly rings true for me.
Savoring and appreciating the small things in life may be a coping response that our minds activate when we feel overwhelmed by the ambiguity of it all. Savoring pulls us out of fears and worries about a fuzzy future and into the clear, pleasurable sensations of right now.
Lockdown wasn’t horrible for me. I was lucky. I already worked from home. I live in a dense urban neighborhood that allowed me to at least regularly see other humans, even if masked and six feet apart. But the most harsh of lockdown phases definitely made me appreciate more of the little things in life than I had previously.
Daily walks. Nature. Reading books. Long phone or video chats with friends old and new. The mere fact that I woke up each day not sick or dying while amid a worldwide pandemic made me look at the world with a bit more gratitude for the simpler things it offers. I hope that sense of wonder at the commonplace doesn’t dissipate.
The next insight dovetails nicely with a lot of what I’ve been reading and thinking about lately regarding our need for rest and moving away from our obsession with work. Daydreaming, free-flowing mind-wandering, is beneficial and takes place best when we consciously create rest and break times throughout our day to give our thoughts space to connect the dots banging around in our brain.
Interestingly, daydreaming increased alpha waves in the brain’s frontal cortex, a pattern associated with divergent thinking or thinking “outside the box.” Perhaps that’s why past studies have found a connection between mind-wandering and creativity.
We know that some of the world’s most innovative scientists, artists, and other creators report that part of their daily regimen is lots of rest and periods of intentionally letting the mind wander of its own accord.
Nathaniel Drew is a video creator who sometimes parrots the daily lifestyles of notable people to see if he can learn anything about living a better life. Many of the people he emulates have rest and periods of daydreaming (random relaxed thinking) built into their daily routines. If you read about the lives of highly creative and innovative people, you’ll see similar accounts of the power of daydreaming.
Having deep, vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions with others can bond people closer as friends or foster friendships anew. This was not a surprise to me as one of GGSC’s insights, but in this polarized and siloed world in which we live, it’s especially worthy of note.
Both of these studies suggest that, while they may require some vulnerability and discomfort, the deep and difficult conversations we have with our friends could have ripple effects in our polarized world.
This one can be difficult for me when it comes to charged issues of the day such as politics, religion, racism, homophobia, and civil rights. Staying the course on a tough conversation around these topics takes work. It’s not uncommon for my internal voice to want to throw up my hands, scream into their face “how the fuck can you believe that?”, and walk away. More and more I don’t walk away. I attempt to understand. Not easy.
Difficult conversations are helpful and needed, but they do not necessarily mean I will stay deeply connected to people whose opinions reside on the opposite end of my toleration spectrum. Admittedly I’ve had to cut some people loose from my life because their entrenched views so starkly contrast with what I consider good and decent. Their presence in my life is no longer wanted. But I give it the old college try anyway before the finality of social separation.
Empathy for others is something I’ve touted for a while. I consider empathy one of the most important qualities to foster in ourselves and one of the most lacking qualities in far too many. Widespread, ubiquitous empathy could instantly change the world for the better if we could snap our fingers and make it happen. But empathy doesn’t work that way. It has to be fostered, nurtured, grown individually and within groups and cultures.
Researchers found that during a single day people have about nine opportunities to empathize and six opportunities to receive empathy. That they embraced empathy most of the time was heartening. The trick is to notice when these opportunities present themselves. We should be scouting every waking hour for such important opportunities.
More importantly, people who saw more empathy opportunities and empathized more were happier and had greater well-being. They also helped out others more after feeling empathy, even if they’d empathized with positive rather than negative feelings.
This suggests that our daily lives are filled with opportunities to practice empathy, including opportunities to share in other people’s happy moments, if we just look out for them.
Alongside empathy, compassion has helped many of us get through hard times, be it the pandemic or other life situations.
Researchers found that fear of showing or receiving compassion often led to people being more depressed, anxious, or stressed. Avoiding compassion was found to have made the psychological stresses experienced during the pandemic worse.
Social connections, or relatedness to use the term that identifies one of the three cornerstones of happiness in Self-Determination Theory, makes people more resilient. Empathy within those social connections creates pathways to remaining open to others and caring for their well-being as much as for our own.
Zoom meetings. I’ve used Zoom as my company’s default meeting platform since long before the pandemic, but when the virus’s wrath peaked and we were on lockdown I more or less lived on Zoom. Zoom fatigue was a daily reality. The ramifications of depression, anxiety, and tiredness from too much videoconferencing seems like an obvious fact.
The article points out many of the problems researchers began to identify as the cause of Zoom fatigue. The company for which I work thankfully takes Zoom fatigue seriously and overtly encourages the elimination of too many meetings and this has helped coworkers and myself considerably.
Another thing that happened when Zoom meetings began was the slow moving away from having the camera turned on. Often people attending our meetings reported far more comfort meeting with the camera off than on. Off became our default. We still use the camera selectively since seeing another’s face has upsides, but the downsides are real too as this article points out.
But the main problem, it seems, is the camera. It’s not just constantly being looked at; it’s also that you can see yourself. “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly—so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback—you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy,” says Stanford University communication professor Jeremy Bailenson.
The solution is pretty simple: Turn off the cameras, both ways, at least from time to time. A study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology in August put that technique to the test with 103 employees—and it did indeed seem to help reduce Zoom fatigue.
Throughout the pandemic I’ve been one of those people massively frustrated by those who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks when asked, I’ve read enough research and perspectives to realize not everything can be deduced entirely to someone’s political affiliation or level of education, even if those factors might indeed play a part. So the concept of intellectual humility jumped out as something I could hang onto to remain engaged with others around this frustrating issue.
In short, intellectual humility simply means we know we can be wrong, that we’re not perfect and neither are our opinions. People with higher levels of intellectual humility are more likely to fact check a dubious headline or article or otherwise look for verifiable sources of information. Despite one’s education or political affiliation, if the person practices intellectual humility they are more likely to believe science and do things like readily get a COVID-19 vaccination.
The more intellectual humility we encourage in ourselves and others, the more likely we can blunt the negative impact of rampant misinformation and lockstep cultist behaviors.
There’s not much we can do about people’s education or politics as the pandemic rages on—but we can act now to help each other cultivate intellectual humility when learning about COVID-19.
Art can transform us. I’ve known this most of my life having been strongly influenced by certain books, movies, plays, and other works of art. That power stretches into the realm of politics and social change. While the article uses research conducted on audience members viewing plays that highlighted issues of economic and social inequality, I instinctually contend that the results would be the same for exposure to any sort of message-laden art form. I read another study elsewhere that the reading of novels also allows what the article alludes to as “narrative transportation.” When we’re deeply involved in a story, our level of empathy increases for groups depicted in the story and can change our mind in profound ways.
But the study’s most scientifically important finding might be that the behavioral changes seemed related to how much audience members experienced “narrative transportation”—meaning that the more they were caught up in the story and emotions of the characters, the more likely they were to think and behave more prosocially after the play.
There are countless reasons why ethnic studies classes benefit students. Learning the stories of people of color and other marginalized groups allows students to “learn about how diverse communities shaped the United States.” But there’s an added bonus! Such classes help students succeed in school.
The students who took the ethnic studies class as freshmen had strong and lasting gains—they were more likely to come to school, pass more classes, graduate from high school, and enroll in college. The researchers don’t know exactly why, but the course may promote students’ sense of school belonging, affirm their sense of personal adequacy and self-worth, and support their identity development.
Finally, the article points out that countries that consume in more sustainable ways are happier overall. This bodes well for environmental and climate change efforts going forward.
Tied closely together with living sustainably, expressing gratitude packs its own happiness benefit punch as well. Practicing gratitude could encourage us all to responsibly share our limited resources. Happiness and sustainability can co-exist quite nicely and in fact feed into each other’s success.
I hope these ideas help you lead a better and more meaningful life in the coming year. Perhaps reflecting on the concepts outlined in the article as we all enter 2022 can help us all live better lives.
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