Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
This week, I’m visiting an 87-year-old friend who lives in an excellent supported living facility. We have been sharing communal meals with other residents. Yesterday we visited with a woman who was brought to the table in a wheel chair and told us she is 97 years old. Like many others around the table, she ate slowly and laboriously. She struggled to cut her sliced peaches into bite-size pieces.
During meals, the room seems full of staff. Nurses circulate with medications. Student nurses chat with people and help them eat. Attendants bring juice and coffee without even being asked, tie on bibs, move walkers out of the way, take orders from the pink printed menus on every table, and joke with the residents. The room buzzes with activity.
For the Staff: A Shared and Valued Purpose
After breakfast, I talked to Linda, the nurse who seems to have the closest eye on my friend. I was about to attend the 6th Biennial Conference on Personal Meaning, and asked what she thought motivated the staff.
She agreed that the staff has a shared sense of valued purpose. During the day there are hundreds of things they do to contribute to the quality of life of the residents, helping them dress, bathe safely, move around, get to activities, and making sure they eat and take their medications. The workplace culture is tolerant and friendly, even in response to unrealistic complaints and demands. They understand how frustrating it is for their residents, who spent a lifetime taking care of themselves, to rely on and wait for others to help them with the simplest of tasks. This morning I witnessed an exchange between a 92-year-old resident and the attendant who was bringing her juice that ended with the resident saying, “You know I love you,” and the attendant saying “That’s why I like working here.”
Linda and the staff have a clear sense of meaning. What about the residents?
For the Residents: How to find Meaning in a Shrinking World
My friend has had a long and busy life. When she retired at 65, she took on several volunteer jobs working for the symphony, the library, an environmental concern, a museum. She was selected to serve on the Public Disclosure Commission. She went on 24 trips outside the United States — none of them to Europe. She shopped for herself, cooked for herself, managed her own apartment, and went out for walks twice a day. Now, 22 years later, she no longer has the energy to volunteer. She can’t walk very far, and she relies on elevators because of her walker. She can no longer manage purchasing and preparing food. She reads newspaper and magazine articles instead of books. Her world is shrinking.
I can tell from talking to my friend that it is harder to feel a strong sense that life has meaning when you can no longer do things for yourself and others.
She frequently says that there is no point in her being alive.
Tips for Finding Meaning
These questions were on my mind throughout the Meaning Conference. What gives meaning to life when someone feels they are no longer able to serve others or contribute to lifetime passions or a larger purpose?
Here are some ideas from the Meaning Conference that I will share with my friend:
- Other people find meaning in life by serving you, so your needs enhance their lives.
- Younger people — your children, grandchildren, others who serve you – also learn by watching you. If you accept your shrinking world cheerfully, you may be making it easier for them to do so when their time comes.
- There is a time in life for doing and giving, and another time for receiving. Without someone to receive, nobody can give.
- Think about what would not have been if you had not existed. The existence of those things gives witness to your existence.
- Meaning doesn’t have to come from what you do. Meaning can come from the way you are. The time for doing is past. The time for being is now. One speaker, Z. Bellin, studied how people express meaning, and whether it is more dependent on doing or being. He said our understanding of meaning tends to be over-focused on accomplishment. There are many ways to experience meaning — by coping with difficulties and through interactions with others. Meaningful experiences remind us of our aliveness in relation to the world.
Alexander Batthyany, from the University of Vienna, was a keynote speaker. He said, “Up to the last moment we can choose what will be our harvest and what will remain of us.” He suggests we ask not only “Am I getting what I want? Am I feeling good?” but shift toward asking “Am I taking part in existence?” He stated that each of us is irreplaceable and unique. What really counts for psychological and existential well-being is having something to live for, which requires being open and flexible to the ever-changing meaning of the moment.
Now to find out which of these ideas will resonate with my friend …
Author’s note: Later this month, I will post a summary of the 6th Biennial Meaning Conference and other things I learned there.
All of these points come from presentations and discussions at the 6th Biennial Meaning Conference that took place in Vancouver Canada on August 5-8.
Dr. Alexander Batthyany is inspired by his work at the Victor Frankl Institute in Vienna. Dr. Paul Wong gave a workshop about short-term meaning therapy, where this topic came under discussion. Right now I don’t have the details for Z. Bellin’s dissertation on experiencing meaning through being as well as doing, but I will add it later.