The need for meaningfulness in life is a well-known axiom among highly sensitive people. As individuals who embody a broader range of potential behaviors and who naturally think in terms of complexity we often ponder whether we are spending our lives as well as we should, but the following article by Amy Morin, author of What Mentally Strong People Don’t Do (original post at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201605/is-the-one-question-you-have-ask-yourself), piqued my curiosity about the “one” question we should ask of ourselves.
Below is the article followed by my additional comments.
“After spending his entire career working his way up the corporate ladder, 48-year-old Andy finally reached the top. But almost as soon as he reached the pinnacle, he told his wife he wanted to quit.
Worried that he was having some sort of mental health problem, she told him to go to therapy before he made any major life changes. He happily agreed to do so. When he came into my office, he explained that he’d worked his entire life while thinking that a powerful job and a big salary would make him feel successful. But now that he had everything he had thought he wanted, he realized he was wrong.
He wanted to work for a nonprofit organization that helped at-risk youth. He thought putting his skills to use helping other people would be more rewarding—and more valuable—than what he had been doing.
Andy wasn’t experiencing any mental health problems. In fact, he was probably healthier than he’d ever been. He’d settled on his own definition of success and for the first time ever, he was going to live according to his values.
The Messages You Get About Success Every Day
If you don’t define success for yourself, other people will define it for you. Much like Andy, many people spend their whole lives working toward someone else’s definition of success.
Every day you’re bombarded with messages about what success means to others: The messages your parents sent you about success might still echo in your head. Advertisements telling you that successful people drive certain cars or use certain products might convince you that you’re not good enough until you have earned the money to obtain such things. Your social-media newsfeeds are filled with articles that tell you what successful people do. And your Facebook friends are showing you how successful they believe they are.
Unless you consciously create your own definition, these messages will shape how you evaluate yourself.
The Question That Defines What Success Means To You
To gain perspective on what is really important to you, ask yourself this question:
When I’m 100 years old and I look back over my life, what would make me think my time was well spent?
Will you feel like you spent your time wisely if you earned enough money to leave your family a large inheritance? Will you be happy with your life if you helped a lot of people along the way? Will you feel fulfilled if you explored all corners of the earth?
The answer to that question will give you your definition of success. Once you know what it is, write it down. Writing it down—or typing it on your smartphone—will help clarify your definition of a “life well lived.” Keep that definition with you, because there will be times you’ll want to refer back to it.
It’s easier to make tough decisions when you have a clear definition of success. Tempted to take a new job with longer hours? See how that fits with your definition. Considering a move to a new city? See if it aligns with your definition.
One of the 13 things mentally strong people don’t do is resent other people’s success. But when you don’t know your personal definition of success, it’s harder to avoid feelings of envy and resentment.
Don’t let other people’s lifestyles blur your definition of success. Perhaps your neighbor has a beautiful new car. Or a Facebook friend has lots of time to travel. It’s easy to think these people have a better life than you do.
Whenever you notice a twinge of resentment, read over your definition of success. Remind yourself that everyone has a unique journey, and that wishing your life were like someone else’s is like comparing apples and oranges.
Besides, every minute you spend resenting someone who seems to “have it all,” is another minute you aren’t working on your own goals. Keep your eyes on your own definition of success and you’ll fill your time with the things that matter most to you.”
The photo at the top of this article is one you might recognize, one Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and originator of logotherapy espousing the view that what people lack in life is a sense of inherent meaning along with personal responsibility for their own happiness. Frankl was no pie in the sky philosopher or academic with no basis in real-world experience. During World War 2 Frankl was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, along with his parents, wife, brother, and sister. Viktor and his sister, Stella, were the only two survivors. Frankl endured hard labor at the hands of the Nazi’s for many months and observed that in such conditions there are only two types of people: those who are decent and those who are unprincipled. The decent people suffer, but do not yield their dignity. The unprincipled yield their dignity to alleviate their situation, even if that means they become oppressors themselves. The ones who fared the best were those people who were able to find meaning, even in suffering.
Viktor Frankl forged a form of psychotherapy (logotherapy, also known as the third Viennese school of psychotherapy) based in existentialism singling out a crisis of meaning as the most significant existential threat to personal happiness. He is quoted as saying “What is to give light must endure burning.” Why is this important to HSPs? We sensitive people typically endure a great deal of societal mistreatment for not conforming to normative behaviors. Each of us is unique in that we have idiosyncrasies that mark us as somehow “different.” Some HSPs are very sensitive to noise levels and take great pains to avoid situations and circumstances that may be intolerable. Other HSPs feel the energy of a crowd as overwhelming and retreat to the margins out of self-preservation. Still other HSPs love being in the crowd, but tire of it before others and need to withdraw and recharge in quiet. One might note these behaviors in any human being, but for HSPs more so.
In a society that demands conformity to be less than conforming is to be thought of as antisocial, deficient, or deviant in some way. In essence, to be different is to be nonconforming to a view of reality as seen through the lens of an arbitrarily contrived culturally specific set of worldviews, norms of behavior, and belief systems. To subscribe to a view of success as extrinsic to the individual means we seek the outward manifestations of success (as defined by the local culture) even if we feel inside that that view of success is hollow and empty. In Morin’s view it is when we attain culturally-imbued notions of success that we realize its inherent meaninglessness and begin to reevaluate what success means personally defined (irrespective of culture).
Morin stated “If you don’t define success for yourself, other people will define it for you.” Each of our cultures, no matter where we are in the world, already defines success. Moreover each culture has built into it methods and means to transmit that notion quite effectively whether it be through the school system, religion, or group affiliations. Let’s call these “cultural persuaders,” and spend a moment examining the depth and breadth of their influence.
Each society’s mechanisms for transmitting its accumulated “wisdom” are embedded in institutions that disseminate what the society believes to be most useful, true, and just. As old knowledge this wisdom is viewed as extremely valuable and of utmost importance to be transmitted (taught) to children and reinforced in adults throughout life. The pressures to conform in any society may be extremely strong with positive affirmations for holding close to the beliefs and negative sanctions for questioning or suggesting any alternatives.
Having the courage to break with society and decide for oneself the set of beliefs one should hold requires the willingness and ability to withstand often intense criticism as the new views/beliefs are communicated to others. More conforming members will meet new views with negative sanctions (ie., “we’ve ALWAYS done things this way, YOU aren’t qualified to change them!” “You’re a fool for following your own path!” or ” So what if you don’t believe it, I do!”). They may also isolate the individual, which in a more communal society would be most severe to the individual. In a more individualistic society (like the US) one might be met with apathy, disdain, or simple indifference. In those cases when everyone seeks to do something different your choice to be different doesn’t necessarily register as a threat to society, but it does raise the issue of similar non-support from friends, relatives, co-workers. The pressure to conform to group norms are immense and few people truly can make that break, unless it’s of such significance in their lives to outweigh the risks of group disdain. For non-conforming types who have few group affiliations the pressures are less with more room for the person to decide on a highly unique, individualized life path.
I’ve long been an existentialist owing to a predilection for deep thinking and reflection perhaps emboldened by may father’s passing when I was 15. Life, to me, has always been more about being a visitor here for a finite time than setting up camp for 500 years. There are, however, problems that come with having such an orientation. Namely, that society is set up for those who are most willing and able to ignore the existential reality of life and instead spend decades chasing their arbitrary (and exploitative) “dream.” That being said, it certainly is easier to ponder meaningfulness and purpose in life once we are no longer on a scarcity footing. To a certain extent we all must conform to the extent necessary to enable our day to day survival. Beyond that, if we get to that point, we perhaps may face the types of questions raised by Morin, namely: “When I’m 100 years old and I look back over my life, what would make me think my time was well spent?”
I submit that meaningfulness is time specific and changeable as we age. What matters to each of us is directly proportional to where we are in life. As a male at 49 years old my perspective is quite different than someone who is 19, 29, 39, or 69. In my book Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career I wrote about the strong need for meaningfulness we HSPs seek in our careers and in our lives. For us, even if we are on a scarcity footing (primarily focused on obtaining the basics of life) there is still a strong pull toward meaning. I suggest that instead of the question being looking back when we are 100, it should be looking back ten years from where we are right now. Thus, for me, it would be looking back at 59. Projecting ourselves ahead by a decade is far easier than looking ahead 50 years or more and more realistic because we can each take steps that may result in real improvements in our lives appropriate for that decade of life. I’m dubious about the utility of projecting out to 100 years old and thinking in grand, swooping terms about regrets. Yes, I would love to do many things in life that I may not, but the reality is we all have certain obligations and responsibilities we must fulfill. We also are not in life as a joy ride where all our dreams and fantasies can become a reality. As delightful as it might be to have no regrets in life for what we didn’t do by 100 the nature of life is suffering and at best we each try to go through life experiencing key aspects we deem most desirable. I do think it is necessary to indulge ourselves from time to time in travel, experiences, and activities that allow us to grow, develop, and provide contrast to our lives. The Amish allow their adolescents a period of “rumspringen,” or time to run free trusting that exposure to the outside world will prove the utility of their worldviews from which their young adults will return wizened and more worldly. I suggest a certain chaos, disorder, randomness, and messiness to life already exists even if we don’t wish to admit it and we all need a time of rumspringen from time to time.
One way we can embrace the messiness of life is to view life itself as a creative act. Highly sensitive people are creative (beyond merely producing an end product) in the sense of crafting unique lives with deeply personal meaning in every facet of life. Viewing life as an inherently creative act opens up the possibilities for what it might be. Much as the artist envisions what that blank canvas might be the individual sketches out a rough idea in the mind and through many permutations may arrive at something unique and enduring. If not it’s always possible to scrape the whole mess off of the canvas and begin again. The best paintings are those with failed paintings underneath that peek through. Similarly, the best lives are those that have been reinvented many times over and show the layers of effort, countless trails and errors, and the burn marks from Frankl’s fire of the soul.
The making of meaning must, however, go beyond what the “mentally strong” do and include those times when we feel mentally weak, down, and broken. It is a perpetual mistake on the part of Western society to overemphasize strength as avoiding chaos, pain, and suffering. Indeed it is in those trying times when we find our characters forged the most, when our steel is hardened and we emerge twisted and distorted from the experience. The most beautiful trees are those that cling to the harshest cliff sides where the least water falls, where the forces of nature have twisted and convoluted their trunks. Though we may seek a perfect world where bad things do not happen the nature of life is just that unpredictable and arbitrarily cruel. Finding meaning in the totality of our lives, regardless of circumstance or opportunity, is perhaps the best exercise of personal agency and that comes closest to embodiment of true complexity, the kind of complexity people who are deeply reflective, empathetic, and personally conscientious demand of themselves.
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and the forthcoming book: Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.