Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

But instead of talking, Julie was binge-watching British children’s television. It was hypnotically soothing. She stared numbly at the screen, then as the credits rolled and the music played, she said, “Jeremy’s been sleeping on the couch for a week. I have no idea what might happen next.” Amelia’s jaw dropped, but Julie quickly added, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

They watched another fourteen-minute episode in silence. The credits ran. The TV went dark and silent and a message appeared on the screen, asking Julie if she was still watching.

     “Don’t judge me!” she yelled at the TV, and she clicked yes.

A third hypnotically soothing episode, and then Julie said, “I had food poisoning once. Bad. Like, sitting on the toilet with a trash can on my lap bad, you know?”

Wincing a little, Amelia said, “And this feels like that?”

Julie shook her head. “It’s so much worse. Because with food poisoning you know why it’s happening. You can accept it, because you know why.”

That’s the power of meaning. We can tolerate any suffering, if we know why.

And not knowing why is, itself, a profound type of suffering.

“I wrote a list,” Julie said, handing Amelia a piece of paper covered in writing.

It was a list of questions, including, Is this worth it? Do I want it to be worth it? Should it be worth it? How can I respect myself, if I give up? How can I respect myself, if I can’t let go? What kind of person am I? What is love? What matters?

“Let’s watch another episode.” She clicked the remote control at the TV and the colorful, singsong critters moved around the screen.

“I’d like to know the answer to some of these questions,” Amelia interrupted. She looked at the paper and read, “What matters?”

How to answer that question is the subject of this chapter.

* * *

Every Disney heroine has an “I Want” song, in which they explain what’s missing in their lives. Moana feels called by the ocean. Tiana is “Almost There,” saving money to start her own restaurant. Belle wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” The tradition goes all the way back to Snow White, singing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” You can chart the progress of women in America by the things Disney heroines sing about in their “I Want” songs.

    Though what they sing about changes, there is one constant: a heroine feels called by something.

Now, just as most of us do not spontaneously burst into song (though some of us do—Amelia), most of us don’t lead lives of epic heroism and high-stakes adventure. We aren’t chosen by the ocean to find the demigod Maui, restore the heart of Te Fiti, and save the world—nor, frankly, would most of us want to, given the choice. We’ve got other things on our plates. We have jobs and school. We have kids to feed, a bathtub to scrub, and an inbox to clear, not to mention novels to read and movies to watch.

But like all heroines, we thrive when we are answering the call of something larger than ourselves, when all the commuting and laundry and picking up dog poop and repeating “No television until you finish your homework!” has a meaning larger than the grind of daily routine.

Over the last thirty years, science has established that “meaning in life” is good for us, the way leafy green vegetables and exercise and sleep are good for us.

This chapter is about “meaning” as a power you carry inside you that helps you resist and recover from burnout. A woman’s need for “meaning in life” is not fundamentally different from a man’s, but the obstacles that stand between women and their sense of meaning are different.

What Is It, Exactly?

Art, orgasms, and meaning in life: you probably recognize them when you encounter them, they’re different from everything else, and no two people’s experiences of them are exactly the same.1

     Researchers approach “meaning” in two different ways. Positive psychology, as spearheaded by Martin Seligman, includes “Meaning” as one of the main elements that promote happiness in people who are otherwise healthy.2 Other research approaches meaning as a coping strategy for people who are recovering from illness or trauma.3 These different views of “meaning” have four things in common:

First, both approaches agree that meaning isn’t always “fun.”4 In the happiness-enhancing approach, “meaningful” activities are described as ones “seeking to use and develop the best in oneself,” in contrast to those devoted solely to “seeking pleasure.”5 In the trauma-healing model, “meaning” includes learning to “live with” chronic illness. In the first case, it’s like getting your nutrients from vegetables; in the second, it’s like getting nutrients through a painful but effective injection. Most of us would prefer the veggies, but sometimes the injection is our only choice.

Second, both approaches agree that meaning offers a “positive final value that an individual’s life can exhibit.”6 That is, a life has meaning when a person contributes something positive to the world by the time they die—whether they enjoyed it or not. Meaning is the feeling that you “matter in some larger sense. Lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.”7

Third, meaning is not constant. Some moments in our lives feel intensely meaningful. Others feel “meaning-neutral”—you’re just running errands or doing chores and it doesn’t matter whether you feel a connection with something larger than yourself. Still others include a strong sense of its absence, moments when we are seeking meaning. We might go too long without experiencing a sense of meaning and we begin to wonder what life even means, or maybe terrible things happen that seem to strip life of all meaning and we ask why. Meaning comes and goes.

And finally, whether it supports thriving or sustains coping, meaning is good for you.8 People with greater senses of meaning and purpose in life experience better health and are more likely to access preventative healthcare services, to protect that health.9 A meta-analysis of the relationship between “purpose in life” and health found that greater sense of purpose was associated with a 17 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality.10 And these benefits can be gained through active intervention. People who participate in meaning-centered psychotherapy develop greater overall well-being, relationships, and hope, as well as reduced psychological stress and improved physical health.11 Even among people living with advanced or end-of-life disease, interventions that enhanced meaning in life had benefits for participants’ depression, anxiety, distress, and overall quality of life.12

     “Meaning,” in short, is the nourishing experience of feeling like we’re connected to something larger than ourselves. It helps us thrive when things are going well, and it helps us cope when things go wrong in our lives.

So, where does it come from?

You Make It

You may be used to hearing about meaning as something we “search for” or “discover,” and sometimes people experience it that way—as a sudden revelation that descends on them from on high, or a treasure that they find after years of following the map. But rarely is meaning something that we find at the end of a long, hard journey. For most of us, meaning is what sustains us on the long, hard journey, no matter what we find at the end. Meaning is not found; it is made.13

To make meaning, the research tells us, engage with something larger than yourself.14

This “Something Larger”—like a God you believe in or a dream you have for the future—is your source of meaning. Its mere existence is not enough, any more than the mere existence of green vegetables is enough for you to be nourished by them. You have to engage with it actively. Eat your greens. Engage with your Something Larger. Like vegetables, your Something Larger may not be the most fun thing on your plate, but it’s probably the most nourishing. Unlike vegetables, you may have a sense of calling to engage with this Something Larger, the way heroines are called by adventure, by starting their own restaurants, or by the ocean.

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