#1 search for meaning
In his seminal work: Man’s Search For Meaning, concentration camp survivor Dr Viktor Frankl outlined the most important thing we can do to survive. As he watched many people around him murdered, starved, beaten to death, and arbitrarily shot- he found that the most important thing was to find meaning. It was, after all, in his observations, not the physically strongest who necessarily survived, it was those who found or had meaning.
The existential angst people suffer when they can see no meaning can be compelling, it is where we see life as ultimately futile and meaningless Indeed, I seem to remember reading a quote on the side of a coffee cup from philosopher Kurt Vonnegut:
‘we are here on earth to fart around and don’t let anyone tell you different’
So maybe the problem is that Vonnegut has a pretty good argument, and yet it is the last place we really want to go. If there is no meaning, we must find one or else it is a path to despair and desolation, better instead to create meaning. So, here’s what I want you to do, I want you to create meaning if you have none or else identify what your meaning is. Maybe you’ll decide you want to be a good person- and this is your meaning; it doesn’t matter right now if no one else sees it (someone will eventually) but you will have a purpose. Your purpose might be to just do the best you can under the circumstances you face, your meaning can be your job but could also be your role as a parent, friend, or sports person.
So, meaning is important for psychological health, and subsequently when people either have a) no discernible meaning or b) spend a lot of their time doing something which to them feels meaningless there is trouble. So, thinking about occupation (which may or may not be the same thing as a job) is a great starting point. What do you spend your time doing? And how fulfilling is this thing you do? Naturally if you fill a large chunk of your day carrying out an activity which fills you with satisfaction and a sense of achieving some purpose, it will be better for your physical and psychological health than doing the opposite. This is not a throwaway statement the observed cortisol (stress hormone) levels of people unfulfilled in their work are higher than those who are fulfilled and the same goes for rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
#2 Make meaningful contact with other people
How are we lonelier than ever in a world full of people?
I recently read someone’s comment that stated where pornography is a (poor) substitute for sex, contact on our phones is a poor substitute for actual human contact. There is a sort of Freson of excitement, in online contact, the feeling that accompanies a light up shown on a brain/PET scan but does not match real-life contact. We need contact with other humans who have meaning to us and that we have meaning for- we are surrounded by lots of humans, more than ever in fact, but they are mostly/nearly all not relevant or connected to us, that’s how we manage to feel lonely in a city full of people…
In his excellent book, Lost connections, Johann Hari makes the point that we are tribe animals, evolved from millennia of living in tribes. The screen, the ubiquitous screen, I pad, phone, TV can fill our lives now with vicarious connections to people, ideas and experiences but these are lukewarm, half-hearted experiences from a sort of digital spirit world, we no longer need to be there seeing the sights, feeling the earth beneath our feet, tasting the taste, we can get bigger, better, clearer, ever more immersive, screens to do the job for us. I like a good TV, don’t get me wrong, but at the expense of real living? Being with people, having experiences…
#3 Move in nature
Then we have sitting all day and being encased in concrete and again studies from decades ago tell us about ‘biophilia’ literally a love of living things but in essence the notion that we grew up on the savanna in Africa and were connected to the outdoors, to trees, grass, rivers- no wonder we like it every time we leave the concrete and go back, it is our ancient connections calling to us... The same can be said of movement, physical movement, it is what we are made to do, to move, hence again the reason the body releases endorphins and encephalins and we often feel good when we do it.
3) Move if you are not currently moving (even better, be near grass, trees and wildlife when you do it) 2) re-connect, strengthen your connections, in person not by text! 1) What is your meaning? really think about this one, is it the garden? Your job? Your role in the community, what are you here to do?
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
Hari, J. (2019). Lost connections: Why you're depressed and how to find hope. Bloomsbury Publishing.