Meaning trumps happiness

A grandfather holding his baby grandson outdoors

At the beginning of the digital revolution media people often opined that “content is king.” We believed that content would prevail over technology and that the expanding electronic pipes pushing content into our homes, offices and schools signaled a boom for writers and artists.

It didn’t turn out that way.  Technology over content won. Today Apple is the first company to be valued at $1-trillion and the ever present Amazon, which started by selling books, now hawks soups to nuts by invading every corner of the retail space. The content creators haven’t done nearly as well as the technologists or mega online retailers.  In my world of writers and journalists, the price for original content has gone down. Most writers are making significantly less income than they did before the digital experience exploded.

Like you, I spend less time in shopping malls or retail districts than ever before, and more time online. Last month both my cell phone bill and my home Internet usage topped my byte limit so I was charged extra, along with receiving daily intrusions from the provider to upgrade to more expensive packages. It costs me much more to get the content onto the screen than it does for the content itself.

Let’s say I read three books a month, downloading them on Kindle. That comes to less than $40.00 per month, while my Internet, cable and phone bill for the month adds up to $240.00, plus another $75.00 per month for my mobile. If I borrowed the same books from the library, cut everything but basic cable TV, unplugged my landline — while keeping the Internet– the bill would be under $150.

All this leads me to question what I’m paying for and what matters most to me. For most retirees and the semi-retired, every dollar counts so it’s important to appraise what’s meaningful in life when spending your savings, or more importantly your time.

Think about it. We can budget our monthly spending. We can calculate how much money we’ll need to live comfortably in retirement. The financial pages are chock full of advice on how to stretch a dollar, invest successfully, and scores of other strategies to manage money. But there’s precious little on how to manage time once retired and how precious that time is.

In her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness, Canadian-born Emily Esfahani Smith, writes about her field of positive psychology. Positive psychology focuses on the brighter aspects of life rather than the dark side of the spectrum such as depression and anxiety.

What Esfahani Smith discovered when writing her book is that we exist in a culture obsessed with happiness, where more is better and the directionless pursuit of personal happiness can actually make us more anxious, lonely or depressed, as in buying more stuff or the belief that embarking on a luxury vacation can make you happy for the long term.

Her equation for a good life is to find purpose and not the grandiose purpose that is often championed. Instead the pathways to purpose are people finding fulfillment in whatever they do well. “Small acts of purpose connect you to something beyond yourself,” she suggests. In her book, meaning is more important than happiness.

Many of us on the brink of retirement search for something huge or flashy in which to invest our time, or at the other end of the pendulum, we find ourselves bored or directionless after retiring. The Power of Meaning argues that relationships, ordinary tasks and hobbies, can provide great meaning if we adopt “a service mind set” that emphasizes helping friends, family or colleagues.

“We all have a unique cocktail of talents,” says Esfahani Smith. “If we cultivate these talents and put them out to the world it is like putting the best of you out there to the benefit of others,” she remarks on the Retirement Conversation podcast.

One of the best ways to understand your talents and to find meaning in them is to engage in storytelling. Not the kinds we usually watch on television or at the movies, or even the stories in books, but the actual stories we tell ourselves about how we became the person we are today.

In our minds, each of us carries a narrative of our lives. It’s our story. As you get to know someone it’s the stories they tell that define them. If it’s a negative story, one that is holding them back, it can push people away rather than bring them closer. Yet we are capable of changing the narrative of our lives in a way that gives meaning to us, and others, and brings people closer to us in a positive way.

How wonderful it is to meet someone and become instantly engaged in their fascinating narrative. It’s enriching and is the foundation of relationships between individuals and with community.

Esfahani argues that belonging is the most important aspect of a meaningful life and not just with those closest to us, but also with the various communities open to us, be they neighbourhood, religious, political or artistic.

Yesterday I met for coffee with members of my writers’ circle in a small un-air conditioned café in Kensington Market in Toronto. I began feeling anxious about driving through heavy traffic into the city from my home in Oakville. I was also concerned that my husband and I had plans to meet friends for dinner in Hamilton and I didn’t want to be late. On the other hand, I didn’t wish to miss the opportunity to see my writer-friends. We hadn’t met for months.

As soon as I set eyes on the small group of five sipping coffee in this bohemian café, I could feel my anxieties slip away. These are the people I met at a University of Toronto creative writing class three years ago. The class ended after eight weeks, but we continued to meet, without the instructor. Recently, one of our members moved to New York City and we’ve been finding it difficult to get together without his binding influence. Yet when I saw them together, the people who did so much to guide me through the process of writing of my novel, all the positive feelings of being in the same room with them rushed to my mind. Any anxiety I felt melted away.

By the time we were ready to leave, I’d invited the group home for dinner next month. Instead of worrying about fixing dinner for eight people, I immediately began thinking about what I could prepare for them. Anticipation of the conversation we’d have changed my entire attitude for that day and into the next.

Instead of procrastinating about working on my next book, I began to think positively about it. What would the members of the group have to say about my first few pages? I’m eager to hear their critique and I can’t wait to read what they’re writing.

It’s not about the number of books we read or the brilliant dramas on Netflix that we watch. It’s not even about the fact that everyone in this group has a book under their belt. It’s about meaning and belonging, the connections and shared ideas that no amount of technology can ever replace. It’s about the content of our lives.

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