The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2018

Head's Notebook: The Foundation for a Meaningful Life

by Rob Gustavson
A reflection on this year’s school theme, Finding Meaning, and thoughts about what meaning is, how we find meaning in our lives, and the kinds of skills, habits, and character strengths that our children need in order to pursue lives of substance and depth.
I want to reflect on this year’s school theme, Finding Meaning, and share a few thoughts about what meaning is, how we find meaning in our lives, and the kinds of skills, habits, and character strengths that our children need in order to pursue lives of substance and depth. Meaning and fulfillment are fundamentally different from happiness and enjoyment. There is nothing wrong with enjoyment, and all of us want to be happy. But these tend to be transitory feelings. Meaning and fulfillment are more profound and enduring. While we may enjoy being entertained or amused, fulfillment comes from interacting with the world around us, making sense of our experiences, and considering how they reinforce or change the way we think about ourselves and our lives.

When we think about what makes life meaningful, our families, friends, and communities may be the first things that come to mind. A sense of belonging—caring for and being cared about—is built from authentic connections we make with others. Many of us find meaning by spending time with people we admire and people we love, listening to each other’s stories, hearing about challenges and achievements, pursuing mutual interests, and offering each other help and support during difficult times. Communities formed around shared values can provide opportunities for this kind of connection and can nurture the feelings of belonging that foster meaning.

Meaning usually doesn’t appear like epiphany or inspiration, however, and we can’t sit back and passively receive fulfillment. We must seek and create meaning. Events and experiences themselves don’t inherently mean anything. It’s all in how we interpret them. The same event can mean different things to different people based on their individual values, perspectives, and memories. Our interpretations of experiences depend upon our unique narrative identities, what the writer Jonathan Gottschall describes as the internal stories each of us creates “about who we are deep down—where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means.”

In essence, then, it’s not what happens in our lives that makes us who we are; it’s how we make sense of what happens. We can either allow our narrative identities to take the form of destructive stories in which we are helpless victims of forces beyond our control, or we can choose to see the same experiences as telling a generative story of challenge, achievement, and progress, demonstrating an arc of personal growth and development over time. In her book
The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith shares evidence that people who create positive narrative identities for themselves perceive their lives as being more meaningful, and she reminds us that “We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we’re telling them.”

Clearly, a fulfilling life need not be free from hardship or conflict. In fact, leading a shallow, easy life can result in superficial existence. Many of our most meaningful experiences involve confronting fears and overcoming challenges. If we avoid difficulties and always take the path of least resistance, we can never achieve the satisfaction and sense of genuine accomplishment that comes from hard-won success. If we never make sacrifices or endure discomfort, we can’t fully appreciate the  
blessings in our lives. If we never work for more than our own personal gain, we will never experience the fulfillment that comes from connecting and contributing to something greater than ourselves.

Without question, all of us want our children to be healthy and safe. We want them to feel respected and supported and loved. We hope they enjoy their time at school and that every day is filled with many happy moments. We also want them to develop confidence and resilience, self-awareness and humility, self-reliance and intrinsic motivation, so we can’t shield them from difficulty. As hard as it may be, we must allow our children to struggle, to experience moments of discomfort, to make mistakes, to feel disappointed— and eventually to come to view each of these normal, everyday challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.

We want our children to construct positive narrative identities in which they are continuously striving to be their best selves and can accept the results of their efforts, regardless of the outcome, because they know they have done their best. We want them to have a strong sense of agency, believing steadfastly in their own ability to 
overcome difficulties and accomplish whatever they wish to achieve. Agency contributes directly to the development of purpose, which is also a powerful source of meaning in our lives. When we have deeper purpose, we believe that our efforts are directed toward something that matters in ways that extend beyond our own narrow self-interest.

If our children are to develop purpose, they need to discover what is important to them, what they believe in, and what they care about most. This can only happen if we give them opportunities to connect with others, to take initiative and make mistakes, to risk and sacrifice and strive—and then to reflect and make sense of their experiences in the context of how they view themselves and the kinds of people they envision themselves becoming. In all of these ways, as teachers and parents, we provide the foundation for our children to be wide awake and fully alive, to take purposeful initiative and actively engage, to connect, and contribute in ways that they find meaningful, and to make a positive difference in the world.

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