TIME psychology

How Do We Find Meaning in Life?

plant
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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Human beings certainly gravitate to religion and it seems we all have an tendency to believe in some sort of karma. Your mind may require meaning. Studies show it’s one of the key factors underlying happiness and motivation.

So what is meaning in life and what does research say about how we might be able to find it?

Stories

Studies have shown that stories are key to some of the most fundamental parts of our lives: increasing happiness, group solidarity and meaning in life.

Some research indicates that to have meaning in your life you must have a story. You need to reflect on how things could have been and why they turned out the way they did. Seeing that things had a direction and a purpose provides meaning.

  • Looking back on our lives necessitates a narrative so it’s not surprise that nostalgia increases feelings of meaning in life.

Fundamentally, our brains may not be able to tell the difference between the real and the story.

But stories also distort the world. People who watch lots of TV are less accurate judges of reality. Fiction makes makes our perspective less accurate.

What’s even more interesting is the truth may not matter. Feeling that you know yourself creates a strong sense of meaning in life —whether or not you actually know yourself doesn’t make a difference.

That may seem depressing but it also means that you can craft the stories in your life to build meaning and fulfillment.

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has talked about how the process of “story-editing” can help us improve our lives:

The idea is that if we want to change people’s behaviors, we need to try to get inside their heads and understand how they see the world—the stories and narratives they tell themselves about who they are and why they do what they do.

So how can you decide what is really meaningful?

Your own regrets and the most common regrets of the dying might lead you in the right direction.

How can you shape the story?

Thinking about your funeral (morbid as it may sound) can help you envision the story you would like told about your life.

How do you make the story part of your life?

Be the story you tell yourself.

Again, Timothy Wilson:

…the “do good, be good” method. It capitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people. Well-designed studies have shown that teen girls who participate in community service programs do better in school and are less likely to become pregnant.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Living

When Life Hacks Go Too Far

Kristin van Ogtrop was named Managing Editor of Real Simple magazine in 2003.

We all love a great efficiency hack, but for the important things, short cuts are a waste of time

Who doesn’t love a good life hack? Whether you’re storing Christmas ornaments (hack: use empty egg cartons), opening clamshell packaging (it’s easy with a can opener) or organizing plastic grocery bags (stuff them into an empty paper-towel roll), somewhere there’s a shortcut or trick you can use to make your life easier and prove your cleverness to yourself and the rest of the YouTube-viewing world.

Our life-hacking obsession has grown from a passive enjoyment of the TV show MacGyver to an entire, very active industry with websites and books and apps galore. At this moment, someone somewhere is hacking something, and I don’t mean in the cloud where all your data is securely (ha!) stored. I mean that in an average kitchen or bathroom or basement or garage, some enterprising citizen of this glorious nation is proving her resourcefulness, saving money and flaunting her ingenuity like there’s no tomorrow. If MacGyver could see her, he’d weep with joy.

So life hacks are great, right? Right! Until they’re not. Just ask bacon. Bacon was perfect until the past decade, when some foodie marketer decided it should be trendy and our enthusiasm for it overtook all rational thought. And then manufacturers began to add bacon to beer and toothpaste and condoms and vodka, and suddenly there was chocolate bacon cheesecake, which I actually paid cold hard cash for last month, and when I took one bite, I thought, O.K., that’s it, we’re all going to hell. Bacon, poor bacon, is proof that if you love something you must set it free–that is, before you add it to chocolate cheesecake.

And so it is with life hacks, because now software engineers are trying to convince us that everything is hackable. To wit: next month a Silicon Valley investor/marketing dude named Dave Asprey is publishing a book called The Bulletproof Diet: Lose Up to a Pound a Day, Reclaim Energy and Focus, Upgrade Your Life, in which he describes “hacking his biology.”

You may know Asprey from his Bulletproof Coffee or from his blog, which exhorts us all to “Search. Discover. Dominate.” (First step: skip breakfast in favor of a bizarre, sludgy cup of strong coffee mixed with grass-fed, unsalted butter and Brain Octane™ oil, which you can conveniently buy, along with the coffee, at bulletproofexec.com.) Anyway, Asprey claims he lost 100 lb. and gained 20 IQ points with his Bulletproof Diet, and now he wants the rest of us to hack our biology and follow his excellent example. All I have to say is that if gaining 20 IQ points requires drinking coffee with butter in it, I’d rather be dumb.

I have no doubt that Asprey is quite smart, and certainly he’s an excellent marketer (think Timothy Ferriss meets Tony Robbins), but let’s take a lesson from the ruination of bacon. Just because you can add bacon to chocolate cheesecake doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And there are things in life that, even if they can be hacked, shouldn’t be.

For example, you should not hurry your lacrosse-obsessed 7-year-old son’s long, digressive, boring plot summary of the movie Crooked Arrows, as much as you’re dying to check your email. He sees that phone in your hand and is really hoping you don’t look at it. Never mind that you have watched Crooked Arrows with him at least four times and could yourself recite the plot even while under general anesthesia. Don’t hack your interest in your child’s interest. Bad parenting, bad karma.

You should not hack a conversation with your teenager about drugs, drunk driving, unprotected sex or crazy people on the Internet.

Don’t hack the conversation you have with your parents about what life was like for them when they were your age. (Or their estate planning, medical history and DNR orders. Just saying; you’ll want to give these items full consideration.)

Don’t hack taking a walk with your arthritic 11-year-old Labrador, whose time on this planet is coming to a close. Speaking from experience here.

Don’t try to hack bulb planting, pruning perennials, plucking your eyebrows, making a cake from scratch, sewing on a button, composing an email to your boss or writing a speech that you must deliver at a wedding, retirement party, graduation or funeral. For all these activities, there is no way insufficient effort will produce optimal results. Or to put it in engineering terms, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Which brings us back to today’s hackathon. Although I have no interest in hacking my biology, there’s one thing Asprey and I agree on. You can hack breakfast. But I would not do it by drinking coffee with butter and Brain Octane™ oil. I would hack breakfast with a piece of avocado toast. Yes, avocado toast has taken the nation by storm. And when we see avocado toast in a box of chocolate cheesecake–well, then we’ll know we’ve gone too far.

Van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple and author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

The Secret to Telling if Your Life is on Track

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Sir Ray Avery, entrepreneur and author of Rebel With A Cause, says it’s as easy as counting your days.

“When you’re born, you’re born with 30,000 days. That’s it. The best strategic planning I can give to you is to think about that.”

He’s 65. So he’s “got about 5,625 days to live.” Then he just works backward to plan.

Via Techcrunch (HT: 99U):

“For me, I can reverse engineer my life to achieve much more than you guys. Every day I do a chart on what I’ve achieved and where I want to be. And it makes you scary-as-shit clever,” Avery said. “So think about that. You’ve got 30,000 days and the clock is ticking.”

Mind-blowingly simple yet it makes so much sense.

9 minutes in to his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs discussed the importance he placed on thinking about death during life:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

And scientists agree he’s on to something. Thinking about death really does help us prioritize and be better people.

Candy Chang gave an inspirational TED talk about a project that asked people to finish the sentence: “Before I die I want to…”

 

I’d love to write more but I’ve got less than 20,000 days left. So much to do…

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 130,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

What five things can make sure you never stop growing and learning?

What do people regret the most before they die?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME space

The Great Lakes—a Billion Miles From Earth

This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.
This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

A new picture from the Cassini spacecraft reveals a dazzling vista on Saturn's moon Titan

Titan coulda’ been a contender. Saturn’s largest moon is a very distant, very cold place, -289º F (-179º C) worth of cold in fact. But even before the Cassini probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was clear the giant world had unrealized potential. Its hydrocarbon atmosphere always suggested that had it been situated closer to the incubating warmth of the sun, it might have cooked up life. Indeed, astronomers long considered Titan a sort of flash-frozen version of the early Earth—back in the epoch when biology had yet to emerge but all of the ingredients for it were in place.

One other thing Titan was thought to share with Earth was the presence of oceans and lakes. The Titanian version would be filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water, but the behavior of those bodies—freezing, evaporating, lapping up against shorelines—would be the same. When Cassini arrived, its radar scanners confirmed that these theories were true, and its infrared imagers have been returning better and better images of the lakes and seas—none so striking as the one above, just released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the mission.

The image shows the region around Titan’s north pole, with the sun—more than 900 million miles (1.4 billion km) distant at the time the picture was taken—glinting off the sea known as Kraken Mare. Clouds farther north of the site are likely refilling the sea with rain—the methane and ethane variety again. Close analysis by JPL researchers has also revealed what they call a bathtub ring around Kraken Mare, the residue left over when some of the contents of the sea evaporated, reducing its overall size.

The north pole is not the only region of Titan that is home to lakes and seas; the southern extremes of the moon have them too, but not nearly as many. This, investigators believe, is due to greater volcanic activity occurring in the north, leaving the region scarred with divots. These then served as the basins that became the seas.

Nobody is seriously expecting to find life in the Titanian depths—unless it’s a form of life that needs no liquid water and can somehow survive the punishing temperatures of the deep solar system. But nobody minimizes the value of the science that’s coming back from Cassini either. If nothing else, studying Titan reminds us of how precise the conditions must be for biology to exist on any world—and how lucky we are that those conditions were met here.

TIME Companies

Have a Look at Tim Cook’s Time As Apple CEO

Following Tim Cook's announcement that is gay, here is a look back at the many successes of the Apple CEO.

TIME psychology

How Can You Tell if Your Life Is On Track?

Woman thinking about life
Gustav Dejert—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Sir Ray Avery, entrepreneur and author of Rebel With A Cause, says it’s as easy as counting your days.

“When you’re born, you’re born with 30,000 days. That’s it. The best strategic planning I can give to you is to think about that.”

He’s 65. So he’s “got about 5,625 days to live.” Then he just works backward to plan.

Via Techcrunch (HT: 99U):

“For me, I can reverse engineer my life to achieve much more than you guys. Every day I do a chart on what I’ve achieved and where I want to be. And it makes you scary-as-shit clever,” Avery said. “So think about that. You’ve got 30,000 days and the clock is ticking.”

Mind-blowingly simple yet it makes so much sense.

9 minutes in to his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs discussed the importance he placed on thinking about death during life:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

And scientists agree he’s on to something. Thinking about death really does help us prioritize and be better people.

Candy Chang gave an inspirational TED talk about a project that asked people to finish the sentence: “Before I die I want to…”

 

I’d love to write more but I’ve got less than 20,000 days left. So much to do…

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join 25K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

What five things can make sure you never stop growing and learning?

What do people regret the most before they die?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME remembrance

See What Manhattan Looked Like Before the World Trade Center

Photos from the LIFE collection depict Lower Manhattan in the decades before the Twin Towers became part of the New York City skyline

Just because it’s become a cliché doesn’t make it any less true: the world changed on 9/11. And nowhere was that change more profound or enduring than in New York City.

For some, the scale of the carnage in Lower Manhattan transformed all of New York, overnight, from a place they called home to a ruin they had to leave behind forever.

For countless others, the love we always had for New York only grew stronger after seeing the city so savagely attacked. Our connection to the town, and to other New Yorkers, suddenly had about it a sense of defiance, tempered by a kind of rough, unexpected tenderness: the metropolis that had always felt so huge and indomitable seemed, all of a sudden, painfully vulnerable. In need of protection. Our protection.

Here, we pay tribute to New York — specifically, to the storied landscape of Lower Manhattan, where 400 years ago New York was born — in photographs made in the decades before the Twin Towers anchored the foot of the island. Wall Street, Battery Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Trinity Church, the vast, shimmering harbor — they’re all here: landmarks that, despite everything, retain their place in the collective imagination, captured by some of the finest photographers of the 20th century.

See more of LIFE’s collection of New York City photography here, at LIFE.com: Where New York Was Born

TIME space

Jupiter’s Moon Europa Just Got Even Cooler

Look familiar? Europa (in natural color, left, and enhanced-contrast color, right) is more like Earth than we ever knew.
Look familiar? Europa (in natural color, left, and enhanced-contrast color, right) is more like Earth than we ever knew. NASA/JPL/DLR

There is no moon in the solar system like Jupiter's Europa, with an icy surface and a salty sea that may harbor life. Now, it appears that the moon has plate tectonics too—just like Earth

The more they look at other worlds in the Solar System, the more scientists discover that Earth isn’t as special as we earthlings like to think. Our planet has active volcanoes—but so does Jupiter’s moon Io. We have geysers—and so does Saturn’s moon Enceladus. We have lakes, rivers and rain, and so does Titan, another moon of Saturn’s.

Now a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience argues that one more geological feature thought to be unique to Earth may not be after all. Using images from the Galileo spacecraft, planetary scientists think they’ve found evidence of plate tectonics on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa—a world that’s already on astrobiologists’ radar because the ocean that lies beneath the moon’s thick rind of ice could conceivably host life of some sort.

Plate tectonics is the same process that causes continents to drift slowly around on the surface of the Earth, and, says Michelle Selvans, a research geophysicist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, who wrote a commentary on the new research for the same journal, “we’ve never seen this anywhere else.”

If plates are indeed shifting on the Jovian moon, it explains a longstanding mystery. Europa’s surface is crisscrossed with cracks where the thick ice has spread apart and the resulting gaps have been filled in by new slushy ice oozing up from the water deep below. “The fundamental question,” says the paper’s lead author, University of Idaho planetary scientist Simon Kattenhorn, “is how you can keep adding new surface without getting rid of old surface?

That’s wouldn’t be a problem if Europa were simply growing in size, but, writes Selvans, that is “unlikely.” (She admits privately that this is really science understatement-speak for “ridiculous.”) It also wouldn’t be a problem if the old surface simply folded like an accordion, as it was pushed aside. “We’ve looked for that,” she says, “and haven’t seen it.”

On Earth, however, the creation of new surface that spreads from places like the submerged Mid-Atlantic ridge is balanced by tectonic plates of crustal rock plunging back down to melt in the sea of magma below. It’s these sinking, melting plates in Earth’s so-called subduction zones that give rise to volcanoes in the “Ring of Fire” surrounding the Pacific Ocean.

And now Kattenhorn and his co-author, Louise Prockter, of Johns Hopkins, seem to have found evidence that Europa gets rid of its excess crust via subduction as well. One clue: they looked at surface ice features on Europa that have been scrambled by repeated cracking and shuffling, then manipulated the imagery to move the pieces around and reassemble them as they must have been when they were intact. Some of the puzzle pieces, they discovered, had clearly disappeared. “We looked at an area about the size of Louisiana,” says Kattenhorn, “and there was a missing piece the size of Massachusetts.”

Another telltale sign: along the boundaries where the scientists think some of the crust plunged back under the adjoining ice, there was evidence of “cryolava”—that is, partially melted, slushy ice—on one side of the divide but not the other. That’s similar to what happens on Earth, where volcanoes happen on one side of a subduction boundary but not the other.

Finally, the existence of plate tectonics and subduction on Europa would answer another longstanding question about the frigid moon. Its surface is remarkably deficient in craters considering the number of comets and asteroids zipping around the neighborhood.

This suggests that Europa was completely resurfaced no more than 90 million years ago. It could have happened just that once, but that, says Selvans, feels like “special pleading”—that we’re looking at the moon at a unique time in its four-billion-year-plus history. It’s much more palatable to scientists to think they’re looking at an ongoing process, which plate tectonics certainly is.

Selvans emphasizes that the evidence so far isn’t a slam-dunk, and Kattenhorn is quick to agree. Galileo took high-resolution images of only a small part of Europa’s surface. “Our paper can’t answer the question of whether this is a global process,” he says. Since melting ice and melting rock behave differently in terms of buoyancy and density, moreover, it’s not clear that what’s going on at Europa is an exact analogy for what’s happening on Earth.

The only way to figure it out for sure is to get more imagery, and Galileo went out of service back in 2003. Unfortunately, the only probe scheduled to visit Europa (and two of Jupiter’s other moons too) is a European Space Agency mission, which won’t arrive until 2030. NASA’s own Europa mission, meanwhile, known as the Europa Clipper, is still only a concept.

TIME Environment

Check Out the Freezing Cold Place Where Scientists Found Life

There are close to 4,000 organisms living in the lake, which hasn’t seen sunlight for millions of years

A subglacial lake 800 meters beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet has been discovered to contain “viable microbial ecosystems,” according to the National Science Foundation, which funded the project. The findings are the result of a 2013 drilling expedition in which researchers used a sterile, hot water drill to reach and collect samples from Lake Whillans, in the west part of the continent.

Researchers for project Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) found organisms that feed off of rocks for energy and use Carbon Dioxide as a carbon source in water and sediment samples from the lake.

TIME space

Cosmic First: Spacecraft Orbits Comet—With Plans to Land

Behind the veil: Comet 67P—like all comets—is a lot less glamorous without its tail
Behind the veil: Comet 67P—like all comets—is a lot less glamorous without its tail European Space Agency

Watching comets from a distance is one thing. Riding along with one for more than a year—not to mention landing on it—is something else entirely

Space scientists have scrutinized comets with Earthly telescopes. They’ve watched from afar as one comet self-destructed and slammed into Jupiter, and as another committed hara kiri by venturing too close to the Sun. They’ve even sent space probes to whiz by comets at high speed, trying to unravel their still mysterious nature. Until now, however, nobody has attempted the daredevil stunt of inserting a space probe into orbit around a comet and following with the even riskier maneuver of sending a lander down to scratch and sniff at its ancient, murky surface.

But that’s exactly what the scientists and engineers behind the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission have just accomplished—or the first part, anyway. On August 6 at about 7:00 A.M. ET, after more than ten years in pursuit, Rosetta caught up with and began circling a bulbous comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimernko (mercifully called 67P for short). And in early November, if all goes according to plan, the mother ship will deploy a lander named Philae to analyze the comet’s structure and composition in unprecedented detail.

It may seem like an awful lot of effort to expend just to study a member of a class of cosmic objects Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple once described as “dirty snowballs.” But these particular snowballs could be the key to all sorts scientific mysteries. They’ve been largely deep-frozen since the Solar System formed some 4.6 billion years ago, for example, so they preserve some of the original material from that seminal time. A rain of comets shortly after Earth came into existence might have been the source of our planet’s life-giving oceans. And some of that “dirt” comes in the form of tarry organic compounds, which means comet impacts could even have played a crucial role in the origin of life.

All of these questions, plus more nobody’s even thought to ask, could be answered, at least in part, by Rosetta and Philae as they ride along with 67P for the next 15 months, using a total of 21 separate instruments, including cameras to study the comet as it stirs to life in the heat of the Sun.

“We’ll be there through its closest approach with the Sun in summer 2015, when the activity is at a maximum and the nucleus is expelling thousands of pounds of material per minute,” says Mark Taylor, Rosetta’s chief scientist. That material will give 67P a temporary atmosphere for the orbiter to sample and analyze (among other things, it should be able to tell if the comet’s ice is a chemical match for Earth’s oceans), but since its closest approach to the Sun is still about 27 million miles (43 million km) outside Earth’s orbit, there’s not enough heat to make the thin atmosphere (called the coma) flare into a full-fledged tail.

The main spacecraft is currently circling at a distance of 60 miles (96 km) but it will gradually diminish to less than 10—stationkeeping while the lander does its work on the surface. That work will involve taking close-up photos and analyzing 67P’s surface chemistry—as well as the chemistry of the subsurface. Philae carries a handy drill which can penetrate a few inches into the ground beneath it. “It digs up a sample and puts it into a small oven,” explains Rosetta team member Fred Goesmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, which allows volatile chemicals to be released for chemical identification.

Another, ingenious experiment will be able to look far deeper into the comet’s interior. When the orbiter is on the opposite side of 67P from Philae’s landing site, it will send radio waves right through entire 3 mi. (4,8 km) mass of rock and ice. Philae will reflect the waves back—and just like a CT scan does with the human body—the reflected waves will reveal the interior structure of the comet. That will help scientists figure out whether it formed as a single piece, or as small chunks that slowly aggregated into 67P’s current size.

And that’s just a hint of what the mission is likely to uncover. Racing by comets at high speed or peering at them through telescopes has proven useful enough. Hanging out with one for more than a year of intensive study, however, will give scientists an unprecedented amount of information about these icy messengers from out beyond Neptune.

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