The meaning of life

It’s the oldest philosophical question of all, troubling generations of thinkers, but the meaning of life can be found in our day-to-day existence, says David Servan-Schreiber

by Psychologies

When I was 15, a church sermon left a mark on me. The priest began with the question ‘Where should we seek God?' Years later, I found my own answer. I believe today that what for centuries was called ‘finding God’ means finding a meaning to one’s life.

A new perspective has emerged from neuroscience in the past 20 years: what gives our lives a sense of richness does not come from reason and intellect. It comes, instead, from a well-balanced emotional brain. And what does a balanced emotional brain need? Above all, strong connections, full relationships. And these can be found in four areas of our lives.

  1. Our physical existence If we don’t allow ourselves to taste, smell, touch, listen, look, while concentrating on the present moment, we are not connected to our bodies. Yoga, an ancient source of wisdom, is first and foremost an education in connectedness to our physical being. Exercise, too, which engages our attention, our agility, our strength, and builds endurance, is another means of connecting. As we grow aware of our bodies’ reaction to the world, we are connected to the roots of our emotions.
  2. Intimacy The emotional brain is connected to the body, but it is also designed to regulate our emotional relationships. Naturally, love is an effective way of giving us meaning. When we look each other in the eye and feel our hearts beating faster, we stop asking existential questions. Anything that involves us in intimate relationships anchors us firmly in our existence. We don’t question the meaning of life when we take a child by the hand on his first day at school, or when we watch our daughter singing in a choir. All those to whom we feel close connect us to life and give it meaning.
  3. The community I had a 30-year-old cancer patient who only had a few months to live. He was no longer working as an electrician and spent his time moping in front of the television, in anguish at his approaching death. I saw him once a week and we talked about his fear and what his life had been like. He ended up volunteering his time to repair the air-conditioning system in his local community centre. He spent several hours at the centre almost every day. People greeted him by name when they met him in the corridors. When he was working on the roof they waved to him, and brought him food and drink. In a few weeks, even though his health was getting worse, his anxiety abated. All it took, in the end, was to feel useful and appreciated.
  4. Spirituality It is possible to feel connected to a dimension beyond the body. For some, the greatest source of meaning is the feeling of being in the presence of something much greater than all these. We often come into contact with it simply when we are face to face with nature or in certain places that remind us how insignificant we are in the universe. Strangely, it is at the precise moment when we experience how small we are that life itself seems to fill with meaning, and so do we.

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