One of the most important skills in our quest to infuse more meaning and joy into your life is being able to make meaning – especially in activities we don’t see as meaningful.
Our brains are primed to notice and remember negativity – things we don’t like or want to do – while barely registering the positive. This is called the negativity bias, which evolved as an adaptive mechanism to protect ourselves from threats in the environment. Because of this bias, we have to make a special effort to get our brains to notice, register and savor the good. It’s the same with meaning. All too often, we assume activities and tasks (like cleaning, cooking, commuting, responding to emails) are meaningless. It’s not that these are inherently negative activities, but because most people view them as necessary evils, they don’t obviously offer a chance at a meaningful experience. They seem totally devoid of value in the bigger picture.
But as with so many things in life, perspective is everything. Here are two techniques that can help you transform your meaning deserts into rich sources of fulfillment.
Try the Opposite Emotion
This classic cognitive behavioral technique is very effective at reframing your most banal, least enjoyed activities. Here’s how it works.
We assume that you (like most people) ordinarily wash dishes on auto-pilot, and maybe even a little begrudgingly. Now, interrupt that emotion and line of thinking by pushing yourself to feel the opposite…grateful, proud, fulfilled. Force yourself to think of reasons that it is a privilege and a pleasure to be washing the dishes.
You have dishes to wash, unlike many people in the world. There was enough food to serve your family, unlike many more people in the world. You are personally contributing to your family’s well-being by cleaning up the home you are lucky enough to live in. You have indoor plumbing and a functioning sink, and don’t have to carry dishes to the river to wash outside, at the mercy of the elements.
Come up with as many reasons as you can. Don’t worry if it feels at first that you’re faking it. Expand your mind as much as possible, looking for every reason that this is a worthy task. You might surprise yourself how easy it turns out to be once you get going.
Take Snapshots of Meaning
This was one of the most profound meaning-hunting expeditions I have ever done. It started as a photo experiment to try and photograph things throughout my day, my house, and my life that moved my needle in any way. I was craving a way to capture and collect meaning clues that was easier and more immediate than journaling. I was also tired of the normal criteria I use to take pictures (i.e., it needs to be worthy of a photograph), and excited for permission to photograph nonsensical and mundane things that would only make sense to me. I decided to use my son’s Polaroid camera for immediate gratification…there’s something so satisfying about the way it spits out little pictures on demand.
The activity felt like an Easter egg hunt. At first, I walked around my house looking for things I loved, with just one question in mind: does this person, place or thing feel meaningful to me? At first I took photos of the usual suspects — my family, the animals in our house. But then something interesting started to happen, and my photos expanded into richer and more subtle territory.
I took a photo of the hammock I love to lie in, a favorite meal I made for the kids, a thank you card my TEDx Youth kids made for me, and a picture of a picture of me holding my sister as a baby that stirs deep feelings of love. I photographed the flowers growing in the garden, the kids’ clubhouse in the backyard, the kale I love to grow and eat, the plant in my office. My kids sitting on the kitchen floor watching the pizza dough rise in the oven right before their eyes, the chapter book we are obsessively reading together, my favorite coffee cup, the friendly receptionist at my co-working space who makes me smile every day….
The rapid acceleration of my awareness of meaning was incredible. At the start, I felt awkward in this experiment. I worried about wasting expensive Polaroid film, taking stupid pictures of things that would seem meaningless to others…I had all kinds of small resistances, and was convinced I wouldn’t be able to think of anything meaningful, and/or that I’d quickly run out of subjects. But a half day into the project, suddenly I was on fire…I was noticing things that held deep meaning for me everywhere.
My favorite tree in the front yard. The remnants of a family board game from the prior night. The stuffed animals on my son’s bed. A sweet reminder note my partner left on my computer. The empty bottle of wine we enjoyed while comparing notes about our day.
When I looked at the collection of photos I had amassed, I was amazed at my emotional response to them. What had seemed like unworthy objects of photography had coalesced into a beautiful collage of my life – a small treasure chest of cherished moments and beloved encounters that would normally be forgotten, but were now memorialized to be savored again and again.
I pasted these photos into a notebook. Every time I look at them I’m amazed how profoundly they captured the essence of who I am, what matters to me, and where I derive my greatest sources of meaning. This quirky photo essay was created in just one day of looking under rocks for meaning. And it grew from being something I was not sure I would bother to keep when I was done, to one of the few objects in my house I would absolutely grab in a fire.
Try these tips out yourself, and let us know how it goes! Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.