I was leisurely scrolling through Instagram this morning and came across a familiar quote:
Brené Brown suggests that some of us are ‘crazy-busy’ because we’re trying to outrun our needs and emotions. We often put our busyness down to our desire and duty to do things for others, for our employers, for our businesses, for our families, kids, communities, pets, clients, friends, loved ones… Being still and quiet can be uncomfortable. It can come with feelings of being bored, overwhelmed, unproductive, inconsequential to the world, uninteresting, not doing anything meaningful, wasting time, not making an impact, not being seen, not being needed.
I can empathise with all these feelings, I have them all, every now and then. As someone who finds neuroscience insanely fascinating, I’m always keen to understand whether anything in our evolution can explain typical behaviours. And – like so many of our behaviours – the tendency to hyperactivity has been hardwired into the human brain when we lived in a hunter gatherer environment. Taking immediate action, i.e running or fighting, rather than reflecting and deliberating kept us alive in an environment of many threats. This cognitive bias is called action bias. The problems of today’s world require reflection and benefit from thoughtful consideration. Yet, our bias is still to act rather than wait. If in doubt, most people will do something rather than nothing. We often jump into action or solution mode before we have fully understood the problem, sometimes we end up making things worse. Acknowledging that there’s nothing we can do is incredibly difficult. The challenge is to notice this bias when it kicks in and press ‘pause’.
I’m no stranger to busyness and seeing existential concepts of success, meaning and self-worth tied to my level of busyness. In my own exploration of being overly focussed on work I came across the Map of Meaning (© Marjolein Lips-Wiersma). I now use this framework in my client work to explore what a meaningful (work) life might look like. More than a decade of research has gone into developing the Map of Meaning and it has established four ways to infuse our lives with meaning. They are:
- Self-awareness and developing the inner self
- Being in unity with others
- Expressing your full potential
- Being of service to others
I find it comforting that there are four ways to bring meaning into my life. Interestingly, the work of the team behind the Map of Meaning has also revealed that being of service to others is commonly believed to be the only way that leads to a meaningful life. That’s why professions to which being of service is central are often seen to be meaningful per se. Yet, we see a burnout crisis amongst health care providers and teachers are abandoning the profession. These two examples show that there is more to meaning. Organisations want us to focus on being of service when we assess whether our work makes any sense and gives us meaning. For an organisation, we are at our most productive when being of service to their agenda and goals. From an individual’s perspective, it’s also understandable to look for this direct feedback loop. We get direct and often the most rewarding feedback to our contributions when we are doing something in service of someone else. We might get a heartfelt thank you, witness visible change or improvement, see someone expanding their skills or knowledge, we might see a rise in safety, quality or standard of living through the work we do. To keep us going, it makes sense to pour our energy into an area that is most likely to provide us with feedback and encouragement. But we need all four areas of meaning to play a role in our life. Just focusing on one won’t be sustainable.
This shows that the hyperactivity we see in the world can be down to a range of reasons. We might not feel up to facing our needs and emotions in all their depths and complexity. We might simply act based on a cognitive bias that tells us doing something is safer than doing nothing. Or we might seek meaning for our lives by striving to be of service to others because this is what is being most rewarded, whether by our workplaces or the individuals we serve. It is, however, vital to understand that meaning can be shaped and being of service is only one way to bring meaning to your life. Taking reflective time to further your self-awareness, being in unity or community with others and expressing our full potential all contribute to a meaningful life.
You can use this journaling prompt to explore what meaning might look like for you: What is bringing my life meaning right now? Importantly, take note of the two little words ‘right now’. If we ask this question at a general level, it is impossible to answer. Meaning is about noticeable everyday experiences. It’s never accomplished, it’s not a goal that we can tick off, it ebbs and flows, but we can shape it. If you are interested to find out more about the Map of Meaning, please get in touch. It’s a fascinating and insightful tool!
Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space