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The Most Powerful Force That Will Change Everything in Your Life

Apr 22, 2020

Unlike other tragedies that impact an entire nation or world, you may not remember exactly where you were the first time you heard about coronavirus and this global pandemic. However, it has affected all of us.

Millions of people throughout the United States and billions around the world are grappling with stress, anxiety, worry, and doubt because of it. I’m hearing firsthand from so many who have reached out. You can feel the vulnerability in people and it’s heart breaking. 

  • What is this virus?
  • How long will this last?
  • Will it affect me?
  • Will I die?
  • What about my family?
  • How can I stay safe?
  • What’s going to happen next fall, winter, or spring if they don’t have a vaccine for it yet?

On top of those innate concerns and fears is a new economic reality that’s impacting all of us. This global pandemic has brought every economy in the world to a grinding halt.

Travel is almost nonexistent. Tourism is shot. Businesses are shuttered. And what makes it more challenging are the unending questions, especially, “When will this end?” 

Opportunities in Crises

People handle and respond to crises differently. Some may become overwhelmed by stress and anxiety and effectively shut down. Others don’t ignore the tragedy or what is happening, but they see hope.

They seek out and discover purpose. Meaning. Opportunity.

"If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking."
— Steve Jobs

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once coined the term, ‘tragic optimism,’ and it refers to one’s ability to maintain some semblance of hope and even find meaning in life, no matter the circumstances.

During this difficult trial for millions of Americans and people around the world, it can feel devastating. That’s especially true if you’re out of work, anxiously waiting for an unemployment check to arrive, counting on the stimulus from the federal government, but looking ahead and wondering how you will ever pick up the pieces.

For many people, even an adjusted, increased unemployment benefit weekly for 16 weeks isn’t going to be enough to help them cover their basic living expenses. A person earning $60,000 a year might squeeze by on it, but what is the future going to hold?

Will they be able to return to work? Or will their business completely shift and alter their model or be unable to recover from this?

When you consider 78% of people were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic, you have to wonder how much worse it is or can be. 

It’s stressful. This adversity is real. Yet, it can provide an opportunity for growth. In the New York Times column, On Coronavirus Lockdown? Look for Meaning, Not Happiness, Emily Esfahani Smith writes, “It’s not the adversity itself that leads to growth. It’s how people respond to it.”

"Life is an accomplishment and each moment has a meaning and you must use it." — Jeanne Moreau 

How Will You Respond?

Do you know what your meaning in life is?

This is a question I ask many of my clients. I even pose it to friends, family, and people I meet while out, at the store, waiting in line at the checkout, or grabbing a bite to eat. Yes, I’m that guy! 

So many of us go through life assuming we have meaning, but it’s not clear. There is no clarity to it so when these crises strike, we’re thrown for a loop.

Many of us bind up our meaning in materialism and other factors external to who we are. The bigger the house, the better we feel. The nicer the car, the more accomplished we present ourselves. The type of job we have, the school our children attend, the vacations we get to enjoy, the posts we put up on social media, and so much more are all superficial and yet that is where so many of us get stuck. And we end up believing that’s our meaning.

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When you lack purpose in life, when you don’t have a clear idea of your meaning, your purpose, it becomes easier to get lost in things that really don’t provide genuine value.

It’s okay to feel distressed. We all experience that when some type of calamity strikes. Unfortunately, for many of us it can lead to feelings of depression, prolonged anxiety, and even despair.

In that New York Times article, it was noted that actually only a small percentage of the people who experience trauma develop ‘full-blown’ post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A majority people actually emerge from these crises with stronger relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and even a newfound sense of purpose.

The question here isn’t how you respond. We all respond in many similar ways … initially.

The question is how will you respond (in the coming weeks and months)?

Viktor Frankl said about tragic optimism, that it is “the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.” Psychologists refer to this as “benefit finding.”

These are general concepts and terms that all point to meaning.

When you have meaning, you have purpose. When you have purpose, adversity becomes opportunity rather than an act to despair.

Rats in a Cage

Years ago, Professor Bruce Alexander stumbled upon a finding that revolutionized the way addiction is treated.

He had rats in a cage and fed them heroin induced water. The rats would consume the heroine, become addicted, and very quickly would die as a result.

However, Mr. Alexander wanted to know if the environment had anything to do with it, so he created what many referred to as a Disneyland for rats, which he called Rat Park.

He theorized that the rats were choosing the water infused with heroin because they were in a small, cramped cage and it was a horrible place with no escape. No hope. No meaning. The rats viewed the heroin induced water as offering some kind of escape.

In this Rat Park, he put in tunnels they could explore, added different cheeses they could choose from, toys to play with, and wheels to run on. He even introduced other rats for socialization. That included rats of the opposite sex!

He also provided them a choice between regular water and water induced with heroin.

Professor Alexander wanted to know if addiction to heroin was chemical or something that could be treated by simply changing one’s environment…an environment with meaning. 

What he discovered was that almost every single time the rats in this Rat Park would shun the water induced with heroin. Even rats that had been thoroughly addicted to heroin previously, once introduced to this new environment, would almost always turn to the water.  It was a mind blowing discovery that has had an immense impact on many who have suffered from addiction. 

That supports what the United States military found when servicemen were returning home from the Vietnam War. It turned out that over 20 percent of the servicemen (2.7 million serving in uniform) during that war had become addicted to heroin over there.

Part of the reason for that was not just because it was readily available, but because while infantrymen serving in the Pacific Theater saw an average of 40 days of combat over a four-year period, men in Vietnam where enduring 240 days of combat each year.

The conditions during the Vietnam War were horrific. All war is horrific, but in comparison to other wartimes, for the servicemen, it felt like a hopeless environment. A cramped cage with nothing but heroin induced water.

Yet, over 95 percent of those soldiers who returned home (who had been addicted to heroin over there) eliminated their addiction, almost overnight. Why?

Their environment. Their environment gave them meaning. In an instant they had regained their purpose. People who have meaning, who understand their meaning in life, have purpose and that is the most powerful force to keep in mind.

"Man: a being in search of meaning." — Plato

How to Find Your Meaning During These Times

First, don’t mistake the notion of finding meaning for being happy. As Emily Smith writes, “When people search for meaning, though, they often do not feel happy.”

The things that give us meaning and purpose are not always easy. In fact, they can be stressful. They often require effort.

Yet, when we’re pursuing things that give us meaning or support our meaning, it reduces the risk of depression, depressive symptoms, or negative moods.

You feel inspired, rejuvenated, and lifted up.

With social media, the Internet, and other outlets, people are creating groups to help others. They are organizing food drives, encouraging artistic efforts to thank health care workers and other first responders, creating masks, supporting fundraisers, and are even feeling more connected to their family, friends, and community.

None of this means that it’s good to have a global pandemic. Crises are not welcome by anyone, but they are inevitable.

They are a part of life.

It’s how we respond to them that can pave the way for more hopeful optimism in the future.

When we think of “tragic optimism,” it’s not about making the best of a bad situation per se; it’s about looking at our life and determining, “Are we living it in a way that’s truly supporting our meaning, our purpose?”

Focus on the Meaning in the Your Life

Imagine you were to wake up each morning focused exclusively on your purpose, and what was deeply meaningful to you.

You might ask yourself before taking on any task, “Does this bring me closer to or push me further away from what’s deeply meaningful?”

In time, the more you see things leading you further away from your genuine, true meaning in life, the more likely you will feel depressed, anxious, and even frustrated.

On the flip side, the more you see things leading you closer to your meaning and purpose in life, the more you will feel fulfilled, uplifted, and hopeful.

What I find fascinating, is difficult challenges provide us amazing opportunities to attach meaning to them. Whether it’s your mundane job, a rude boss, or a difficult relationship, you can transform negative emotions and experiences into it a deep sense of appreciation for those same things. When you attach meaning to them, it’s a powerful launching pad to overcome great difficulties.

It certainly has been that way for me, and it is incredibly liberating.

This can even have a tremendous impact on your physical well-being.  Think of those people who are committed to exercise and proper diet.  Why do they do it and how do they stay so committed?  Simply put, they have attached what’s deeply meaningful to them to their personal health, well-being and physical appearance. That’s the difference between those that dread exercising and those that look forward to it.  When you can attach meaning to those things you loathe, you can suddenly find yourself with an entirely different mindset and renewed appreciation for those activities. 

Everything we do either brings us closer to or leads us further away from our purpose in life.

Even though none of us wanted this situation, this global pandemic and an entire economy grinding to a halt, this is the new reality, at least for now.

Now is the time to look inward. Take an honest assessment about your life. Dig deep to determine what your meaning is. You may discover that what you thought was your meaning isn’t.

Perhaps it was somebody else’s meaning for you or their definition of what your life should look like or be.

Right now is a wonderful opportunity — whether you’re considered an essential employee or have been furloughed or laid off — to take some time and rediscover yourself.

A simple yet effective strategy to uncover what’s deeply meaningful to you is write down those things in your life that are meaningful to you.  Another way is to write down those things that you are grateful for.  Start at a high level and include things like God, health, children, financial situation, job, education, etc.  Then look at each one and drill down deep by asking yourself repeatedly “why”.  The Holy Grail in the Midst of Crisis

For example, if children was first on your list, ask yourself “why”.  When you answer that question, ask it again, and again, and again. 

I suggest you slow think each one of these over many days and process your answers.  Walk away and return to it later and in a different environment.  The deeper you go the more revealing and life changing this exercise will be.  One person told me, she knew she got to the core when she started crying.  That’s how emotional and rewarding this can be for you. Not only did she realize what was meaningful to her, it completely changed her entire outlook on everything she had been doing in her life. 

When you get through your list and are able to drill down deep on each one, you may find a commonality or a resemblance amongst all of them that will lead you to full understand your overall meaning in life. 

You may find that even in the midst of this virus and economic collapse, you may see your problems in the rearview mirror and suddenly begin to feel more optimistic, more hopeful, and more energized than ever before. 

Even if the economy continues to stumble and slip, having a clear focus on meaning for your life can ripple throughout every other aspect of who you are, your family, your friends, and the lives you touch each and every day.

Just remember the power this had on those addiction examples I mentioned earlier.  This can be the most powerful force you will ever experience. 

So here’s to discovering your true meaning and living a life of purpose in the midst of trials. 

And as I always say, your financial destiny is not a matter of chance it’s a matter of choice.  And it’s never too late to start your journey to financial freedom and peace of mind. 

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