We’ve been doing a series of blog posts on how to cultivate more meaning in everyday life, because it is the single most powerful way to experience a surge of connection – to yourself, your life, your purpose and others. Cultivating meaning, like cultivating more authentic connection, is a practice that’s easily controlled with a little attention and intention. Our focus is seeking, enhancing, and embracing opportunities for meaning in your life. When we experience life as more meaningful, we experience our lives as richer, more rewarding and fulfilling. We feel happier, more connected and more aligned.
In other posts, we discussed how to take stock and honestly assess the amount of meaning in your life today, how to minimize or delete meaningless activities from your routine, and how to find meaning where there seems to be none. In this post, we will focus on another favorite practice of mine that ups the meaning factor in your life in just a few minutes: amplifying your experience in activities that you already find meaningful.
I love this practice because it reminds us how to savor and cherish specific things in our lives that we already love. I always feel slightly overwhelmed and frustrated when wisdom teachers or authors speak about the benefits of being generally grateful, or more positive…simply because it’s not realistic to stay grateful for everything, all day every day.
A more achievable and reasonable approach I like is to catch small moments of meaning with a butterfly net as they happen, and then admire them from every angle. Use every positive thought you have to amplify the experience, savoring it with your mind and heart. Then bask in the warm afterglow of what you’ve just transformed into a deeply meaningful life encounter.
Nothing makes us feel more alive, more warm-hearted, and more filled with joy, than when we have just had a deeply meaningful experience. Think of the warmth that washes over you as you listen to a loving voicemail from a friend, or watch your child perform in the school play, or read a heartfelt handwritten card.
Amplifying pre-existing meaning is incredibly easy to do, since we have the wind at our backs. We’re focusing on a situation that is already at least somewhat meaningful to us. Enhancing meaning is not about artificially inserting meaning that is unwarranted…it’s about becoming more alert to the miracles and beauty already unfolding before our eyes. It’s about countering our natural human tendency of taking the good in our lives for granted.
Our brains process so much stimuli all day long, they necessarily edit out a lot of non-salient information in order to cope. Unfortunately, the good stuff is a lot of what gets cut from our attention, and we gloss over encounters that have the potential to rock our world, if we would only lean in and open up to the moment.
Even if you can only amplify one meaningful encounter a day, that’s a lot… and it will have a noticeable impact. Not only will you find yourself paying attention to meaning in a new way, but you will feel empowered to influence your experience of meaning even more.
Here are two of my favorite ways to crank up the meaning that you can start experimenting with today:
Cultivating Love Bursts
This is one of my favorite exercises because it’s so rewarding. As you are interacting with others throughout the day, take a moment to pause, step back and see the beauty in that person in front of you. Let yourself revisit and feel all that you love or admire about them.
One of the first days I was experimenting with this technique, I happened to be having lunch with my dad. As he spoke, I remember stopping to consider how lucky I was that he was still so young, vibrant and healthy, able to be an active part of my life still and an active grandparent to my kids…how amazing it was to think that he created me, how nice it was to be sharing stories and concern for each other’s welfare as adults, and how much he makes me laugh and is truly the funniest person I know. In that moment, my heart grew twice as big and I felt a burst of love for him, and appreciation of this priceless ordinary moment we were having: a lunch date that would normally be an unremarkable positive blip became an unforgettable moment of profound and deep meaning.
This practice is powerfully effective and surprisingly easy to do. It doesn’t matter if you actually love the person you do this with, or not. I’ve successfully used the technique with a school teacher of my son’s during a parent-teacher conference. As I was listening to her, I contemplated how much I adored her for caring so much about my child, and how endearing her insights about him were. I let myself feel how profound it was that this woman and I shared a concern and care for the well-being and educational experience of this little boy together, what a kind dear, capable earnest teacher she is, and how special it was to share this moment in time with her. It felt like a small miracle that I was sitting there even having that conversation, when I was never sure I would have kids in the first place.
In just a few short seconds of flashing through these many different areas of awareness, I was able to whip up a huge heart-burst towards this teacher, to the point where it felt like a “pinch me, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be experiencing this” kind of moment, and I got full-blown goose bumps. In contrast to all the other parent-teacher conferences I’ve had, that one stood out as the most meaningful by far, and the memory of it still feeds me to this day.
Another benefit of this practice is noticing how the other person responds to you, as you internally direct your feelings of love to them. Your eyes will sparkle more, you will smile more warmly, your body language will be open and loving – in short, it can cast a magical spell over the interaction. Your loving attention becomes contagious, as mirror neurons in the other person begin receiving your signal and responding in kind.
This practice takes you one step beyond simply being present-focused, by intentionally heightening your close connection, appreciation, and recognition of the meaning in your activities. You choose the life you are living, and in this practice you are choosing to find it rewarding and fulfilling on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis. Your connected moments of reverie also tend to build on themselves, and the more you practice this, the more easily and often they come, until eventually it’s a reflexive habit.
Write It Up
Journaling is an incredibly immediate way to amplify and deepen any experience you have, and several studies have been done on the effectiveness of journaling in this regard. Our lab recently studied the impact of journaling about one’s experiences of self-connection, versus journaling generically about the day’s activities. Consistent with the prior studies, we found that the people who journaled about moments they felt connected to themselves actually came away feeling (and continued to feel) more connected to themselves than the non-specific journaling group did.
There are many processes at play when we journal that contribute to deepening awareness, learning, memory, and clarity. If you already like to journal, then this is an easy tool for cultivating meaning. If you aren’t a journaler, the power of this approach may make you a convert.
Start by creating a list of all the things in your life that bring you meaning. Try to be as expansive, diverse, broad and inclusive in your categories as possible. In my list, for example, I had things like my photographs, my paintings, laughing with friends, helping my kids with homework, etc. Dedicate a couple of pages in your journal to this list because even though you may not come up with much at first, it’s likely that more and more things will occur to you later on. I like to keep my list and jot things down on my phone so that I don’t have to rely on memory, and can keep “capturing” those butterflies as they occur to me.
What’s helpful about this exercise is that you end up with a nice long list of the things you care about the most. This really helps you to get to know yourself better, and even without making any overt effort, reminds you to steer your ship more in the direction of these things.
The second way to use journaling to amplify meaningful experiences is an evening journaling session. At the end of each day, take five minutes to reflect and write about what was most meaningful to you that day. You tend to re-live the experience as you remember it, complete with the chemical reactions in your body. The release of oxytocin you get from experiencing something positive, for example, increases the likelihood that your brain with start to re-wire and be more inclined towards noticing and experiencing (and re-experiencing) meaning. After just a few days about journaling about meaning, you will be amazed at how your brain becomes more attuned to notice, pause, and more deeply savor and relive meaningful encounters in your life – doubling your emotional and physiological reward.
This journaling exercise is very similar in feel and content to a gratitude journal, which is another powerfully beneficial habit. My meaning journal ultimately morphed into a gratitude journal that I found to be such a positive and rewarding way to end my day that I have kept it going for three years straight, recording the most meaningful encounters of my day. Today, my journal is a gorgeous leather-bound piece of art that includes famous quotes from my kids, memorable interactions with people, beautiful moments I noticed or things I am proud of myself for. It has turned into a golden bible filled with precious and priceless moments of my life – my most prized possession. I hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to live a long life, because I love to imagine how gratifying it would be to re-live these cherished, beautiful moments that would otherwise fade away.
My friends and I used to joke and say to each other, “If I die, find my journal and burn it….” Like many people, we used journals to vent our negativity. Now, my journal of beauty and meaning makes me want to tell them, “If I die, find my journal and let everyone I love read it.”