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What’s Your Story? Our Story Makes Our Meaning

By Trena Winans, Community Outreach & Education Director

We have all experienced ups and downs in life. Perhaps divorce, death, rejection, loneliness or other difficulties have been a part of your life. It turns out that it’s not so much that we have experienced challenge that defines us, but it is the story we tell ourselves about these events that creates meaning or despair.

According to social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, “What sets humans apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.” So how do we create meaning in our lives? Building on research into positive psychology, author Emily Esfahani Smith posits four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, transcendence and yes, storytelling. Let’s take these one by one.

A sense of belonging seems an obvious ingredient to well-being, yet it feels increasingly hard to come by in our digital world. This can be compounded by the loss of friends and family members through the course of our lives. Today one third of Americans over the age of 45 say they feel lonely. Loneliness wreaks havoc on both our psychological and physical health, so it is essential to treat it seriously. The first step is to create a positive internal dialog. If your initial impulse is to tell yourself that no one likes you because you’re boring, stupid, or old, it is critical to change the words you say in your head. Treat yourself like you would a dear friend—with compassion, love and support. Tell yourself a new story about yourself that celebrates your strengths. Then get out of your head, and your house, and begin building more and deeper connections to others.

Many of us derived our sense of purpose from our careers, but where do we find it in retirement? A sense of purpose need not be grandiose to give our lives meaning. It is a goal we continually work towards such as being helpful to others, making a difference in your community, or raising a happy family. Purpose is something we need to revisit throughout our lives. Start by asking yourself “What kind of person have I been, and am I ok with it?” If not, what would align your life more closely with your values? Use the incredible strengths you have developed and find a way to put them in service of others. Tell yourself the story of how you make the world a brighter, better place, and make it so.

Another component of meaning is the experience of awe, mystery or wonder. In other words, it is a feeling of transcendence. We can find these moments in religion, nature, the delivery room, in prayer, meditation or at a concert hall. These transient experiences are difficult, if not impossible to put into words, but the experience tends to be lasting in meaning. In a state of transcendence, our sense of self, including our worry and fear disappears, and we feel deeply connected to something greater. Importantly, when we experience transcendence, we tend to define ourselves in terms of something larger than ourselves. It changes our story to one that includes deeper meaning.

The final component of meaning is storytelling, and yet, I believe it is a crucial aspect of the three other parts as well. The stories we tell ourselves matter. They allow us to transform loss into meaning and purpose. Through a hardship, what was gained? Where is the silver lining? We can almost always find one if we try. Changing the story we tell ourselves has the power to make every goal we set easier to reach. That new exercise routine—is it a daily struggle you hate, or is it an uplifting and energizing path to a healthier, more joyful you? Did that divorce destroy your life, or did it create an opportunity to become a more open, loving and thoughtful person? Take a hard look at your stories. Do they need to be revised? Find a way to do so, and discover the meaning purpose and success the new stories create. What’s your story?