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02/07/2024

Column: How To Be Well: Tell Your Stories

One of the great pleasures of my job is the relationships I have with the leaders of the other social service organizations in town. Twice a month I meet with the Directors of the Community Resource Center, Family Safety Network, and Food Pantry.

While these meetings are a productive way for us to get better at serving all y’all, I realized they do something much greater for me. They give me a sense of belonging.

Which is one of the four pillars of a meaningful life Emily Esfahani Smith writes and speaks about.

She argues, backed by lots of science I might add, that meaning is a far greater pursuit than happiness. Happiness tends to be fleeting and temperamental, while meaning provides lasting fulfillment.

So what then makes a meaningful life? 

According to her, meaning is found when we have these four things:

  • Belonging
  • Purpose
  • Transcendence
  • Storytelling

I know. You didn’t see that last one coming either, did you?

The first three make sense. They are also qualities written about in the psychology and self-help worlds since the beginning of time.

Belonging happens when we feel a sense of connection. And not around superficial stuff like what we do, but who we truly are. It’s when we really see and value ourselves and others.

Again, Purpose is less about what we do through our jobs and more about what we give. It’s about how we use our strengths to serve others. It’s the quality that gives us something to live for and drives us towards something. It’s also one of the most important protective factors when it comes to suicide prevention.

Transcendence is when we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. It can happen in a church or on the ski hill. Regardless of where it occurs, it’s those moments when we forget all the mundane details of our lives and feel supported by something greater.

Then, there’s Storytelling. The seemingly oddball of the group. However, stories are how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Editing what we say about ourselves and others has the power to change lives.

For instance, in my first job out of college, my supervisor was widely accepted as a very challenging person. To put it mildly. I often found myself having a very negative internal loop about her and myself. Until a counselor challenged me to reframe what I was saying.

Instead of ranting about “why she was so awful” and “how could any human possibly behave this way, what is wrong with her?!?” I was encouraged to ask, “I wonder what happened to her?”

That subtle edit allowed me to have much deeper compassion for her and helped me better hold my tongue instead of flying off the handle. Cause turns out, a lot had happened to her. Granted it was no excuse for the way she often treated people. But it did help me have a better attitude and a more productive working relationship with her.

It’s not only being able to edit and adapt our own stories that’s powerful. Knowing the stories of our loved ones helps us better understand how to live a meaningful life.

Research from the Family Narratives Lab shows that adolescents who know more stories about their parents growing up and their family history show higher levels of self-esteem, less anxiety, and, yes, higher levels of meaning and purpose in life.

Stories give us the frame we need to belong, find purpose, and transcend. Which sounds a lot more meaningful and long-lasting than constantly chasing happiness. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

If you, or someone you know, need help finding deeper meaning, let us know. We provide free and confidential support, as well as six free counseling sessions to qualified individuals. Call or text 208-354-6198, email info@tetonvalleymentalhealth.com, or get in touch with us. Our offices are staffed Monday-Friday from 9 am-4 pm. 

76 N Main Street, Suite 206, Driggs, ID 83422
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