Man is created to face challenges and risk. The brain grows when we try to solve problems. The body grows muscle when we challenge our strength and stamina. When we stop either, the DNA is programmed to think we are now dying and it is time to start winding down.
If we look at our life cycles, we seem to have the most optimism when we are young and exploring and tend to drift once we think our productivity or relevance is waning. When we are enthusiastic, there is no age limit. We can contribute all our lives to our own personal well being, our circles and the larger picture of mankind. In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith says there is a difference in a life of happiness and a life of meaning.
When I was young, I thought we get happiness after we have achieved a level of accomplishment in life. I thought we set a goal and when we had arrived, happiness was one of our rewards. Until then, we were really not entitled to happiness. The world was “happiness” crazy in the 70’s and 80’s and thousands of authors contributed their view on how to achieve it.
Sometimes we faked it. We would buy things to make ourselves happy and would find that within a short time, we needed something else. We would surround ourselves with material items as though we had made it and therefore others would think we were happy. We still do this. I had purchased so many toys thinking that I had found the secret of life, but that existence was really empty of true meaning.
I have found since that devotion to my personal health and well being has given me a connection to Nature and the beauty of being alive. My gratitude created the desire to contribute and my well being made it easier to be creative. As Smith found in her research, giving rather than receiving has given the great people in our global history more satisfaction with their lives.
It turns out that working hard to achieve something meaningful has had more significance in making people happy than activities that only pursue pleasure. True meaning in life is following the model in physics in which the smallest particles that make existence possible work to maximize their energy, share, and make the whole better. The cells in our bodies want the best nutrition so they can make the biggest contribution to how we feel and function.
Think of yourself as one cell in the global picture and how your function might be to make the whole better. You start with your own vitality. You build your unique capabilities grown out of your interests and passions to make a contribution. As you move toward greater competence or mastery, you get feedback from your circles that they are appreciating your efforts.
We are learning that challenging ourselves to contribute is energizing our personas and our natural abilities to achieve are supported with happiness brain chemicals. Nature gifted us with dopamine to reward us for achievement. We also get bursts of serotonin and oxytocin for helping others. In fulfilling Nature’s desire for us to exercise strenuously, we get a bath of endorphins (the runners high).
Having vision, meeting challenge, committing ourselves to improve, and helping others gives our life meaning and the happiness we were seeking all along.