What Makes Life Meaningful: Michael Steger at TEDxCSU

Sharing buttons:

I need to start with a confession I

learned almost everything I know about

life from John Cusack movies for the

1980s and in these movies the hero just

through the sheer force of trying to be

a good guy and speaking from the heart

wins true love in the end and the

widespread admiration of all I tried to

put this plan into effect this John

Cusack plan and most importantly came

when I met this amazing woman in college

and I fell head over heels almost

instantly and nearly is instantly when

John Cusack and declared my undying love

the the John Cusack plan took about four

years to work in my case but you know

John Cusack also teaches us to be

persistent right not not creepy but

persistent and so it got serious pretty

quickly moved from Minnesota out to

Oregon together about three years later

we're on a beach and manzanita Oregon

leaning back against a weathered

driftwood log sitting in the cool dry

sand the you know the Pacific surf had

kicked up a haze around us and in my

pocket I had this this contraption I

built out of some shells I brought back

from a road trip to Baja Mexico and

using tape and glue and the cotton ball

I had don't laugh this is serious right

I I had created this little nestling

thing for this diamond ring I brought

but I realized it's going to be a little

strange if at a beach I pull a shell out

of my pocket so I need a cover story and

I said I'm gonna go spelunking and see

what's going on and so so I got up and I

left and she looked at me like many of

you are like this makes no sense but I

didn't care because I was on a mission

and so I looked at the I tested the

contraption out it was working I had my

crib sheet of this passionate speech

I've written and I said I've got this I

looked around I tried to memorize every

sensation I was experiencing at the time

and I walked back and I said hey honey

look what I got

and she oh that's nice so I said now

look it opens and closes because that's

what you say when you find a shell right

so so she takes it she looks inside and

there's the ring she looks at me

I'm on my knees and I launch into about

92% of my prepared remarks and conclude

with will you marry me and she looks at

me and she says beep I don't know look

at my so this was a surprising answer

and I've thought about this moment many

times in my life since then and I think

it's really an interesting response in a

lot of ways because I was asking

something pretty huge I was saying can

you turn your life into our life and I

was asking for the most precious thing

that she has that any of us have that

week's the years the days that we've

been given life is our moments we have

an unknowable number of moments all we

know is that once we spend them we can

never get them back and we can never get

more and I was asking for dibs on all of

her moments

that's a serious thing and another thing

that was going on on the same time first

of all John Cusack thanks for ruining my

life second around the same time there's

a popular t-shirt and had this spirally

galaxy looking thing and a arrow said

you are here and I love this I love this

image because we are this little speck

of dust in the middle of the abyss we

are ourselves a tiny speck of dust we

live on a speck of dust in the middle of

oblivion of nothingness and it's

actually worse than that right if you

think about it because if you look at

images from space we only live on the

outer crust of a speck of dust like the

shell of a robin's egg that's where life

is for us it's incredibly almost

unfathomable and precious and in that

life we have all these moments that

we've been given and we have to make

those moments matter you're going to

meet a lot of people today who go right

to the edge of oblivion they go to the

fragility of existence and it yawns and

father may be out of a door of an

airplane maybe down the sheer face of a

mountainside the jaws of a shark other

people find that fragility of existence

in the eyes of another person a starving

child a bruised woman a shattered

veteran as people find it in a damaged

and destroyed landscape but these people

are going and embracing the fragility of

existence and finding ways to enhance

what we all have what we all share

they're making their moments matter and

that's all we can ask how can we find

ways to connect and contribute and

consider how to make these moments

matter at the same time there are people

out there who discard those moments like

fast food wrappers out a car window

littering the landscape with toxic

throwaway moments in life casual cruelty

thoughtless destruction mindlessly

squandering this one thing that we've

got the contrast between these two

groups is a psychological study of

meaning in life and in a sense what

psychologists are trying to do with this

question is turn that from you are here

- why are you here and that's we're

trying to figure out now in the

psychological study of meaning we think

that meaning is at least two things

meaning is purpose and significance and

purpose is the need to do the University

of Minnesota psychologist Eric clinger

argued that we didn't evolve from

passive rooted organisms that can stand

around and wait for what we need to come

to them we evolved from creatures that

need to move we must move to find and

seek and obtain what we need in life and

that entails risks but it also entails

doing we can't just stop it's in our

very being to do I think a purpose as an

anchor we throw it out into the future

this aspiration we have this big dream

we throw it into the future and it keeps

the future alive in us and sometimes

when the present is too hard

it serves as asset as a source of Solace

we can transcend what's happening now

because we know that out there is a big

dream that we're pursuing so in our very

being is the need to do but what are we

supposed to do what kind of purpose are

we supposed to pursue the answer comes

from significance the need to make sense

raise your hand if you see a camel right

so there's no camel there obviously it's

just a little squiggly thing and if you

didn't see a camel initially when I said

do you see a camel it became a camel

someone some people think it looks like

a an old person with glasses and a cane

it can be that too it can be almost

anything because our brains are created

and have evolved incredible capacity to

combine and recombine and find

associations and link and relink and

find patterns and maps and meaning

everywhere the question isn't can we

find meaning in life we can't not find

meaning in our lives it's happening all

the time it's happening a hundred times

today for you the question is can we

build powerful meaning if we forge a

powerfull purpose that transforms our

life and helps transform the lives of

our shared future that's really the what

we're trying to understand with

significance and purpose combining it to

the meaningful life meaning tends to

have the sort of intuitive appeal it

sounds good right if I said hey you get

it your choice meaningful life

meaningless nothing meaningless life a

lot of us choose the meaning side right

but we can do better than that we've

been studying this for over 50 years in


ecology and we can take a look and we

can say this meaning matter

yeah it's associated with a whole

constellation of amazing and cherished

psychological attributes people are full

of vitality and happy and energy they

pursue the future their goal-directed

they care about other people they're

kind they're benevolent they seem better

equipped to cope with the adversity

that's inevitable for all of us but I

want to see if I can even do a little

bit better than that and asked his

meaning matter and maybe put the seed in

your head that maybe meaning is a

life-and-death issue I want to choose

one study here this is by Patricia Boyle

her colleagues at the Rush University

Medical Center in Chicago Illinois their

couple studies like this they're

concerned with longevity among older

adults and it's kind of interesting I

think that the way we study longevity is

by setting who dies and who dies first

so on the left-hand side here we have

cumulative hazard of dying and you can

read those numbers as if they're kind of

like percentages so 5% 10% 15% hazard of

dying on the bottom we have the number

of years this study they followed the

adults for five years and we're

concerned about two groups the first

group of the people in the top 10% of

feeling their lives are rich and

abundant and overflowing with meaning

that's the blue group the red group are

the people who score in the lowest 10%

of meaning in life they're telling us

these older adults my life is

meaningless my life has no purpose and

what we see when we run this study is

that over time one of the truths of life

emerges the longer alive the less life

we have left and so even for the people

who are in the highest 10% of meaning

their hazard rate their hazard of dying

was somewhere around 11% but if you look

at what happens with the people in the

lowest 10% of meeting there's a big gap

here their hazard dying is close to 21

percent over the course of this study

and that gap is significant it

translates to 57 percent less hazard of

dying for those whose lives are abundant

and overflowing with meaning compared to

those whose lives are bereft of meaning

now we all know that a lot of things are

associated with longevity and this study

is great because it controls for these

things over and above depression

disability neurotic personality traits

that tendency to approach life in a

negative fashion

over and above chronic medical

conditions and income 57 percent less

hazard of dying for people whose lives

are rich and meaning compared to those

whose lives are bereft of meaning so

maybe just maybe meaning as a matter of

life and death and that's not where the

story ends right because well hey I'm

saying meaning is this great thing I

can't say and then you can't have it so

how can we try to find meaning and this

has been the question that's really kind

of obsessed me over the last several

years and I think there's a good

news/bad news situation you know of

course you know social scientists always

have a little bit of this a little bit

of that we never commit the bad news is

I can't tell you how to find meaning in

your lives you are going to go out and

find your purpose and you are going to

forge the sense that you make in your

own lives there's no answer from me or

anybody the good news is that you can

all do it anyone can do it and when we

take a look at research we find patterns

emerging and that's what I'd like to

share with you in the last little bit of

mice of my talk today we did a very

simple study we simply gave digital

cameras to college to said take pictures

of what makes your life feel meaningful

come back and tell us what you took a

picture of the number one answer was

people almost 90 percent of these

students mentioned explicitly a form of

relationship brothers sisters parents

grandchildren colleagues lovers

co-workers people relationships are the

ocean in which we find meaning is the

landscape of meaning but beyond that we

find some other interesting and

compelling ways to look for meaning in

our own lives and I'm going to share

with you a few of these these pictures

from the actual study so this is what

one person took a picture and what she

told us about this picture is this

picture represents the beauty of the

world stopping and taking it all in

helps make life meaningful so we see a

20 year old college student

rediscovering thousands of years of

wisdom about the secret of meaning in

life which is there's no secret at all

it's all around us there are invitations

and opportunities to find meaning and

get meaning all around us all the time I

grew up in a rural area so this isn't a

quite unusual picture for me but the

story behind it is deeper

I suspected this person says the main

focus is a tractor I picked it because I

wanted to show how farming was a large

influence in my life it shows that are

still people who work hard just put food

on the table and that those are my roots

we see this person connecting with

family and connecting with heritage and

tradition contributing working hard and

finding a way to make something

important of the way that he spends his

moments the last picture I'll share with

you is a scene that plays out countless

times all around us in malls and

airports restaurants everywhere but are

we missing something are we missing a

chance to find something deep because

what this person says is this is my work

in the Lauria Student Center though I am

a custodian I'm proud to be one this is

the first job that will not get me in


I am proud because the job pays for my

family again this vital connection the

ability to contribute to other people to

weave our futures together and for this

person to consider ways in which the

moments he's spending at work are

building something powerful important

for himself so we come to this question

what makes life meaningful and maybe

it's the biggest question we can ask why

are you here what are you going to do

with your life what makes your existence

matter and maybe the answer that is a

matter of life and death just may be

right but maybe the answer this hugest

of all questions is very small all

around us opportunities to build

together meaning through connecting

contributing and consuming ways to make

all of our moments matter and this

question is really important to me

because if I can bring you back to

manzanita beach in that moment where I

got a little bit of surprising answer I

think that doesn't happen in the John

Cusack movies for that you know John

Cusack says stay with it and so I kind

of I didn't run away crying like it was

part of my plan at that point but you

know later she asked me questions says

are you sure I want to say I built a

clam thing that's

that's being sure

I said yeah I'm sure and now many years

later we have two kids

and this is this isn't a flee for

sympathy they're great kids I'm lucky

they're going out into this world though

and I can already see it in them they

want to make a difference they want to

make moments matter and they're no

different than the other kids in their

class and the world they're going into

has a lot of people like the people who

are here we're doing the same thing

we're grabbing life and spending their

moments wisely to make a difference and

make things matter but they're also all

those other people right who litter all

of our collective landscapes with these

tragically misspent moments these

destructive ticking time bombs of a life

not considered and the question for me

is what if everyone tried to live a

meaningful life life is short it's easy

to waste and hard to use it's not easy

to say I'm going to go live a meaningful

life I'm sure everyone says that from

time to time but my background is in

clinical and counseling psychology and

we say to clients all the time we can't

do anything about everybody I can do

something about me and you can do

something about you so what if you and I

starting today taking advantage of what

we're given and this opportunity to hear

so many great ideas and share so many

great ideas

what if today you and I tried to live a

meaningful life the concern I have is

what if meaning becomes just another

commodity what if meaning something I

want more of and I want the best kind of

meaning and so meaning becomes like this

bottled water that we have to get from

some South Pacific Island it's made out

of raindrops or something

is there a better way to do this what if

we change this question just a little

bit what if instead I think there's a

great question don't get me wrong what

if you and I tried to live a meaningful

life what if you and I tried to give a

meaningful life what if instead of only

harvesting meaning from life around us

what if we try to help other people find

it too and give some of the meaning that

drives us some of the purpose share the

energy for purpose in the drive share

the sense that we make that the world is

worth investing in that there's a great

future that we can build together out


can we give meaning away that's the

question I hope you'll explore for the

rest of today thank you