Michael Steger

Discovering the Meaning of Life - Professor Michael Steger

The Meaning of Life - Michael Steger
Catalyst Coaching Podcast

Full Transcript

Dr. Cooper

Welcome to the latest episode of The Catalyst Health and Wellness Coaching Podcast. My name is Dr Bradford Cooper and I’ll be your host. And today we’re gonna talk about the meaning of life. Now, when I say we’re gonna talk about the meaning of life, we’re actually going to have a guest whose entire career is focused on studying the meaning of life. Dr. Michael Steger is the founder and director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose and professor of psychology at Colorado State University. He received his BA in psychology from MacAllister College, his MS in counseling from the University of Oregon and his PhD in counselling, psychology and personality psychology from the University of Minnesota in 2005. I pulled up his Ted X talk, which is titled What Makes Life Meaningful? It’s been viewed by almost 300,000 people, and he does a great job so you may want to check that out.

Dr. Cooper

Speaking of checking out, if you want to join us for the fast track certification coming up, we’ve got one just around the corner. It’s probably full at this point, but you can check it out at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com Our next one is April 4th and 5th, and then we’ll have a couple more coming up later in the year. But again, I’ve said this before. If you’re wanting to pursue the National board certification, please don’t wait. The rules are changing. It’s going to get tougher. It’s gonna be more involved. And it’s gonna be more expensive if you wait too long. So if that’s on your radar, it’s something you’ve been thinking about, check that out. Happy to help you. Any questions you’ve got Results@CatalystCoachingInstitute.com. Now let’s jump in. Dr Michael Steger talking about meaning and purpose in life.

Dr. Cooper

Dr. Steger, it’s a privilege to have you join us. Thanks for jumping on today.

Dr. Steger

Oh, the pleasure’s all mine. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Cooper

Absolutely. Our listeners, they know your background from the introduction, but seriously dude, founder and director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose that has got to be one of the coolest titles ever. Can you give us the 10,000 foot view of how you ended up here in this role?

Dr. Steger

That’s a really good question, I think. Thanks for supporting the idea of having a Center for Meaning and Purpose. It’s a long road to get some of this stuff to gain traction. I think it’s easier now than it used to be, as people are taking their own life journey more seriously. And as a lot of people have joined in with that effort, the quality of research has come out the quality of thinking around, you know, how do we want to live the lives that we really wanna invest our energy in? You know what we are most putting the commodity our time into. I think, as that stuffs all come around, it’s been easier for me to make the argument that a place like a university should let me, you know, put the center on the map. I don’t have a lot of easily transferable life experience I think sometimes because I’ve never exactly, I’ve never had a career plan, I would say. I’ve had a life plan or at least a lot of life aspirations and guiding principles. But you know, the career stuff, the work, the way that it comes about and manifests in my work has always been secondary to just what I want to be doing with my life. So the center ended up being not so much something that I had always wanted to do, but that seemed like a good next step to I don’t know take it advantage of the fact that people are taking meaning and purpose seriously. So why don’t we try to get a little bit more traction going, and then slowly we can start getting more resources out to people who are interested in the topic.

Dr. Cooper

So you said something interesting there, you said I’ve always had a life plan, hadn’t really had a career plan. That’s an interesting comment. A couple weeks ago, we did an episode on creating a theme for your coming year. So basically a 2020 vision and what that looks like and all the process of working your way through, reflecting on the past year and where you want to be in all those kinds of things. And I’m curious. How do you see the difference? It almost seems like the life plan. I like what you said. Like the life plan drives the career plan, right? Is that kind of what you’re getting at?

Dr. Steger

Yeah I mean, that sounds maybe even a little bit more noble than what I actually have done. It just, I guess I would say that for better or for worse, I’m really someone who needs to figure out a lot of ways to be intrinsically motivated to do stuff, whatever it is. So I think in a career world when I thought about me working effectively in the world, it never seemed that realistic to me just because, you know, it’s hard for me to feel like I could really just drive at a target if I haven’t been able to internalize that target. And a lot of times the sort of structures of the real world, the actual world seemed to me to be not that interesting a lot of times. So, you know, like, really what what I think was pushing it was I just knew I wanted my life to be about, sort of first and foremost trying to figure out what we’re doing here. How do we live this weird random, life that we’ve been given. And whatever traditions I absorbed growing up and whatever ones I read about, and whatever wisdom I ran across, I was constantly trying to figure out if that made sense to me and whether I saw that being acted out in the lives of other people, whether that reflected on the mistakes I made. And I was just kind of always lost in a sense lost in that world. I think that paired with just, I guess that’s almost like a value. But I just wanted to really be active in thinking through what my journey of life for however long it last is gonna be like.

Dr. Steger

And the other real value that I really just have always sort of had, I think probably the way I was raised and the and the values my parents gave me was just if you can, try to be helpful, and if you can’t be helpful, at least don’t be hurtful. So that’s kind of helped me direct my otherwise pretty self absorbed, just getting lost in my own thoughts and tendencies out into the real world and out into trying to figure out well how does this stuff, is anything I’m learning useful in any way? And if not, then how can I think about ways to make it useful or do things that are useful? So I think that’s been the real tension in my life. Is trying to figure out, you know what’s really interesting, what seems important to me. And then how and in what ways might that be important to the world around me? And what can I hear from people around me that they need, and in what ways can I try to pitch in? So that’s kind of been what’s led me to a lot of different places, and right now I’m a professor, and that’s great. But you know, that’s in that sense, I don’t know that I’ve really been so focused on. I have to find work that fits me more than here’s who I am. Here’s how I live. Here’s how I try to improve every day, and that will close some opportunities and open others and then the best of those that seems to help me make my difference in the way that I think I can are the ones I’ve gone for.

Dr. Cooper

See I think that resonates a lot with a number of people in the audience, because we’ve got people that are either current or pondering becoming health and wellness coaches or getting involved in wellness in some way. That it’s always been a part of who they are and helping the people around them and all that. And I’m intrigued about what you’re saying because I kind of hear the same thing from you. You’re saying I didn’t set out to do this. I was listening. I was looking at what was available, and I’ve continued to move forward, pursuing those values and opportunities to put those values in action. And this is what’s happened, at least at this point, is that am I hearing you right?

Dr. Steger

Yeah, I think you really nailed it. You know, if I was to draw my schedule out of what I actually spend my time doing over a typical month, I would say about 85% of it I didn’t even know was part of the professor job. I mean, some of that is, you know, that’s the sort of stuff that you might expect a kind of squirrely guy like me wouldn’t like, like meetings and all that sort stuff. But a lot of it is stuff that is incredibly enriching and rewarding for me, that keeps me growing keeps me challenged, you know, opportunities to to give talks and collaborate with people from around the world. And, you know, just be forced to think about how to contextualize this sort of odd area of knowledge that I’ve dedicated myself to and in a way that makes a difference in the world. And so there’s no way I could have planned for this if, you know, the stuff that I loved the most, I don’t know how I would have found a way to actually do that without just kind of, you know, going and trying to have those two balances. I mean, I really, I think it’s important for other people to consider where this is in their own lives. I don’t know what the balance is for each of us. We’re all sort of suspended between, you know, kind of what we owe the world in our obligations, responsibilities and then the sort of impulses towards growth and, you know, self realization within ourselves and so where we are at different times in our lives and for different people varies and there’s no one formula for anybody. But I think that being attentive to that has really been what, in that sense my career is. My career is just trying to figure out what do I sort of need to be doing with whatever level of of talents and strengths I have? And then how does that actually serve some need that exists in the world?

Dr. Cooper

So I hear a lot of reflection in there, do you, and I think I know the answer to his one but I’m just gonna throw it out anyway, just for grins. But do you set time aside on a monthly or quarterly or twice a year basis to sit down with your journal to reflect to go back through and say OK, optimally, I am making a difference with this and this. But is it really or am I spinning my wheels? Do I need to do change course here? Am I, you know, going along with the sea and the winds changed and I didn’t change with it. And like, do you consciously go through that? Or is it more you just kind of take it a day at a time, and you see what shows up?

Dr. Steger

That’s a really interesting question, because I think it’s a little bit of that whole spectrum that you kind of laid out, Brad. That the nature of what I do has a lot of varying timelines. But also I think it’s really interesting. So for instance, as a professor, I’ve now gotten the second of my lifetimes promotions. I’ll never get a promotion again. So I’m kind of like it, in a sense, like career ambition. It’s a great career for me because I’m not particularly ambitious. So, you know, I don’t really have any extrinsic titles to strive for. I won’t ever get more responsibility just unless I want to change jobs. So that’s like a seven year horizon though, each of those promotions occurred over a period of seven years. So that kind of like seven year horizon was there, grad school took forever. To get a paper published you start thinking about the research, and that’s another 3 to 5 year timeline in most cases. So I’ve got these big time lines and, you know, multiple projects on those timelines of the 3 to 7 year sort of things.

Dr. Steger

And then you’ve got things that just blow up in your face immediately. You know, we had a snow storm recently, out here in Colorado, we got like, someone said 14 or 15 inches and they shut the University down for the first time in a really long time. It happened over a fall break. But if that happens during the semester, you get a lot of students who suddenly can’t show up for the test. You know who maybe even need to go home and take care of family who’ve had something happen to them during the blizzard and then so that stuff just pops up immediately. So I think I’m kind of bouncing around between there. So I use the day in day, day out data on kind of like my mental state the same way I do in my ever frustrating attempts to get in good running shape, which is, I think, a 19 year project now or something absurd like that. I’m not giving up but man am I getting a little bit less hopeful. But, you know, so, like, my mental status will go, when I feel frazzled, when I feel afraid. And I’m trying to pay attention to how I respond to the kids. You know what I think when e mails come in. A weird but good indicator for me is how angry I get at the dumb games I play on the phone when I’m bored. You know, if I get really angry, I know that I’ve got to really take take a step back and figure out what’s going on. But that feeds into the long term stuff because, I might you know, a friend might ask me to contribute to her book or, you know, prepare a course to give in 18 months or, you know, sometimes even two and 1/2 years and I’ll say yes at the time. And when that deadline comes seemingly out of the blue two years later I’m like, oh, why did I do this so then I have to figure out how to use my daily levels of enthusiasm, vigor, and or on the other hand, stress and exhaustion to figure out what in two years do I want to be doing in my life.

Dr. Steger

So I think that’s the kind of balance. And I think just naturally the life cycle of the kinds of projects that I end up engaging in helps me do that. But I will say this, probably the biggest influence initially, I think I’ve got a lot of reinforcement in my life now around trying to make a difference, I think because I’ve intentionally tried to, you know, drift towards people who want to do that as well and sort of make commitments that this is what it’s all about. So I get a lot of that, like calling me on whether I’m actually doing any good from my professional colleagues now, who our friends as well. But initially I would say that I went from being a therapist to going back to grad school and getting so into the data, I forgot that there are actually people providing the data. You know, I was just really numbers structural equation models, all of it. I was just, like, so into that abstract world. But my partner, you know, we’ve been married 20 years now, but we were, you know, kind of dating at these important times, and she was always more serious about getting her life going than I was. And she’s a speech therapist, and I tell this story, it’s apocryphal. So it didn’t ever happen exactly like this. But I feel like it happened in parts like this almost every week for years, you know, I’d come home and so I’m so excited about being a grad student, learning their statistical methods and, you know, trying to get the the analyses to work for a paper I’m planning and it’s all brand news, it’s all so exciting. I’m just sitting in my office when I wasn’t home with the kids. I was at the office, you know, 16 hours just plugging away. So excited. I’d come home and, you know, she’d say, hey, honey, how was your day? And I’d be like oh, it was amazing. You can’t even believe what kind of day I had. I got the co variance matrix debugged. The structural equation looked great. The residuals were overly correlated. The model wasn’t under saturated. The tendencies were perfect. It’s amazing. No day like this ever. And eventually I remember oh, yeah, she exists. And it’s not just stats. So I said, well, how was your day? And she’s like you know Timmy who I have been working with for three year?. We finally got his tongue to land on the right part of his palate. And so he can now, people or kids at school can understand him. He made his first friend.

Dr. Cooper

Wow.

Dr. Steger

I’m like, oh, my God. Okay, what am I really doing after all? So she’s been such a huge influence on making a difference seem possible. You know what I mean, on a daily basis. So I think that’s really a big reality check for me as well.

Dr. Cooper

Okay, good. Really good. All right, So your Ted X talk. Great talk, for those of you in the audience who haven’t heard it, I loved it. We talk a little bit about some of the funny parts in there, but you talk about the association between meaning and health or specifically longevity. Can you talk us through a little bit more about that connection between feeling like you do have meaning and longevity or overall health?

Dr. Steger

Yeah. Yeah. You know, first I’ll preface this with saying that if you were to go back in time to when those events were occurring in my Ted X talk, I kind of opened with some of the story about how my partner and I got together, influenced heavily by John Cusack movies, problematically on my part. But meaning in life was seen as like really a weirdo thing to to. I got three types of advice when I decided I wanted to start studying this in 2000 when I went to pursue my PhD at Minnesota. Number one was it’s unscientific, you can’t study this. Number two was oh, I didn’t know you’re so religious. And number three was well, it’s obvious we don’t have to study. I mean, in their eyes there was nothing about the scientific process, nothing about the accumulation of knowledge, nothing about a contribution to a broader perspective on being a healthy and flourishing person. Full circle, right? So to be where we are now as a field, and so many brilliant people have done just incredible work in this space. And I’ve been really lucky to throw my own work out there. To be at a point where I can say with confidence as being someone who, I’m not wedded to the idea, I don’t want to be like the meaning guy or a meaning guy. If meaning in life and purpose in life doesn’t do what I hope it does for helping people really capture the inspiration to pursue the life that will feel worth living to them. Then I’ll find something else that does that.

Dr. Steger

So I’m not a booster. I’m not one of those people who needs to root for a team or root for a variable. So when I say this, I’m saying this I believe in all honesty that when I read through the literature on this whole explosion of happiness and well being and positive psychology, I really only think that within the purely psychological round there’s only a couple other variables right now that have anywhere near the strength of research data, showing what a cornerstone of flourishing meaning of life is. Maybe we’ve got positive, I’m pretty sure we’ve got positive emotions at this point and probably have positive, interpersonal relationships with people. Like even mindfulness, for example, is lagging behind in terms of the hardcore longevity data that we have for for meaning in life. So just to put that out there, that if you are thinking about living a longer, healthier, happier, more beneficial life, it’s really hard to find anything that’s going to connect those dots for you like this exploding world of meaning and purpose research.

Dr. Steger

So I really encourage people to dip their toes. It can sound intimidating to some but it’s actually pretty simple when you break it down. So if we take a look at just the longevity data. A year and 1/2 ago, they produced the first meta analysis of meaning and death, which they found 12 studies that had good methods, there have been more sense. So we’re over a dozen studies now with hard core data points showing that if you measure meaning and purpose in life, and this is with different measures so you don’t have to use a specific one. And then you follow people over time controlling for a whole range of different, other influences on how long we live, such as, you know, neurotic personality traits, even positive emotions and relationships, chronic medical conditions, level of physical disability, income, depression. I mean, the list is incredible. You still see across these studies at least a 15% reduction in your over year risk, among older adults in particular of dying. So what that means is, as we noticed that people have a strong sense of meaning, we follow them over time compared to people who are lacking meaning or whose lives feel meaningless, or devoid of purpose. The people with meaning are living longer, even if in both cases they’re depressed, even if in both cases, they have low income and can’t, you know, invest as heavily in nutritious food or exercise all these sorts of things. It’s sort of fascinating, and I really hope you have time to dig into why that might be, because if you think about it, meaning isn’t health itself. Like you can imagine that something like positive emotions is directly connected to health because it’s a purely biological experience and it’s corrective to negative emotions, which we know also is a biological experience. But meaning sort of sits on top of that so trying to understand why. You know in some cases there’s a 57% lowered hazard of dying over a five year period of time. And the the research out there suggests that on average, large differences, you know, one standard deviation above versus one standard deviation below means on meaning and purpose in life translates into something like a seven year longevity benefit. So that’s really powerful stuff right now.

Dr. Cooper

So it seems like that comes back, like we were talking about the personal theme or vision, that’s wrapped into the why. Why am I getting up in the morning? It seems like that’s what you’re talking about is when you’re clear, when you have that crystal clear vision about where am I going? What is my reason for getting out of bed today? That seems like, yeah, of course, that would drive that in the right direction. Are you getting pushback on that? Or are you saying no, no, no, Brad, I’m just saying the research is saying yes, we’re not just pondering that idea. It is dialed in, and it’s been shown over and over across the board.

Dr. Steger

Yeah, it’s exactly that part that you’re talking about that I think right now we can guess at, but we don’t have super strong data for. So I’m always pretty cautious about these claims. We can definitely show and make strong claims to say that meaning in life, is related in some fashion, systematically, consistently and with really tangible results to how long we live and actually how healthy our bodies are. What is far less clear is why that might be the case. And there’s really a lot of different strands, now you mentioned one of them, which is sort of like a psychological directiveness combined with, you know, kind of like an absence of the purposeless nous. I mean, if we get up and we have a reason to live, that does infuse our daily life with so much psychological richness. So in that sense, it sort of populates our life with positivity, eagerness, optimism and a lot of just the psychological mindsets that prime us to take advantage of good opportunities and help us through rough times.

Dr. Steger

The two most researched or let’s start with the first. The first most common explanation for the reason why any psychological variable has a health impact is in this stress management model. So stress, we know shortens our lives. And people who are kind of miserable are more prone to stress, you know, but also stress is unevenly distributed across our population. You know, more stress is placed on women and people of color than it is on other folks in society. But even within all of those different populations, even among folks who are dealing with chronic medical conditions or acute medical crises like a cancer diagnosis. What you can show is that folks who have a sense of meaning in life, their stress reactivity is lower, and they’re perceived level of of carrying stress, what some researchers call allostatic load is lower as well. That shows up in terms of, you know, heart rate reactants, blood pressure, you know, and a lot of these other sorts of physical indicators that people are stressed out as well as what they report to folks. So that’s one real important model that, you know if you go all the way back to the beginning of psychology’s interest in meaning, it was with Victor Frankel, who was really trying to explore Nietzsche’s idea that, you know that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. If I have a why for my life, I can get through any sort of circumstance. And, of course, Frankel had to live that in a horrific way in concentration camps. But that idea that if you have something out there that you’re pushing for, if life is meaningful to you, you can get through this stuff and you don’t sweat the small stuff as much. That does seem to have some research backing, for sure. And of course, we know that there’s a lot of research linking stress to poor health.

Dr. Cooper

Okay, so let’s let’s cut to the chase. You’ve touched on some of these, but what makes life meaningful? Is it completely unique to the individual? Or are there some broader concepts that are coming out of the research?

Dr. Steger

Yeah. I mean, I think one the interesting pieces of being a human being is is how when it fits us, we imagine we’re extremely unique. And the rest of time we think everybody else is exactly like us, right? Like if we think about how we should read politics or which sports team should win. We assume a reasonable person will come to the exact same conclusion that we happen to come to. But when you know someone else is telling us to do something, we’re like, yeah, that would work for you but it wouldn’t work for me. And actually meaning in life research is pretty similar to that. There are broad strokes of common findings from around the world. At this point, I would say maybe 50 or 60 nations now have contributed data into what it looks like to be a person who says my life is meaningful because that’s really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people volunteering in research using questionnaires or surveys or interviews that my life seems meaningful to me. We don’t have a test to prove whether they’re right, we don’t have like oh, actually, Steger, your life isn’t meaningful. You’re wrong about that. We don’t really have a test for that. I think we’ll wait for philosophy to catch up with the science and tell us how to exactly determine whether someone’s life is meaningful. But if you feel like it is, that seems to be just as important as being able to demonstrate that it is. It seems to be that we can ask the question in two ways. One is what are people kind of thinking about when we ask them, is their life meaningful? So what are the dimensions of meaning that, if we can contribute to those dimensions, we should create this sense that life is meaningful.

Dr. Steger

So the answer in that area is one, being able to make sense of life. So meaning captures this the sense of coherence or comprehension of what’s going on around us. That includes who I am with issues of identity. It includes our kind of latent assumptions about how the world works. A lot of us have beliefs that are really buried deep inside of us about the world. Like, you know, good things happen to good people. Only bad people would be murdered, for instance, you know. Also buried within us are deep beliefs about ourselves. Some of us really have to work to overcome the idea that we’re not worthwhile or that we’ll never be successful, or that we don’t have anything to offer the world. So that’s in the sort of cognitive basin of this huge schema, this huge mental map that we’re constantly updating about the world, how it works, who we are, how we get things done. We update that, and we actually live according to that it seems like.

Dr. Steger

The second piece about having a meaningful life is about purpose. This is really about having a very self relevant, highly valued, consistent with our values, consistent with who we really are at the essence, sort of, really aspirations for what we want accomplish in our lifetimes. I think of these, the phrase I often use is that they’re like an anchor. These purposes are an anchor that could be thrown into the future. And it’s a destination we want to get to, The way we get there, who knows? It’s like any other map, you can pick 100 different ways to get to New York City, right. But it’s gonna keep us wanting to push towards those outcomes that’ll help organize their behavior. So if you’re thinking about, you know, coaching folks, if you can connect like a fitness goal or, wellness goal to a sense of purpose, then people keep trying to find paths to get there even when they hit obstacles. And so purpose is a big, important part.

Dr. Steger

Purpose is complicated in and of itself, but I’ll just try to dismiss two of the most common misconceptions. One, you don’t have to be Gandhi or Nelson Mandela to have a life purpose. You can have a lot of life purposes that fit for you. Like for me, I’m trying to be a good parent. I’m trying to be a good person, trying to make a difference in the world. And that leads to the second one, you can have multiple purposes, and sometimes they pull you in different directions. And then finally the third piece is we talk about a sense of significance, and this is kind of like a gut feeling thing. So if you’re talking with someone and you ask them, you know, is your life meaningful or do you feel like there’s a lot of positive purpose and meaning in your life? And they say, yeah! Ok so tell me more about that. They’re like, you know, I never thought about it. It’s like this sort of this gut sense that life is worth living. My life has inherent value. I matter in some way. There’s a reason to be. So those three things, we start to see these around around the world. When we asked people, when we prompt them to tell us whether life has meaning and purpose. Really purpose then ends up being a part of meaning along with coherence or comprehension and significance or mattering.

Dr. Steger

Then the other pieces that you can answer is if I were to ask you Brad, what are the parts of life that make it feel meaningful to you or what in life is meaningful to you, you sort of start listing, probably, some pretty recognizable categories or life domains. And we call these sources of meaning. Sources of meaning are really awesome for folks who want to generate or get into applications around meaning because it takes this really abstract and kind of fuzzy notion of the meaning of my life and turns it really tangible and even visible at times. So the most common answer that people give when you ask them where does meaning come from in your life or what makes your life meaningful, it’s almost always people in some sense. Whether it’s family, whether it’s romantic partners, friends, community neighbors, whatever it is, it’s usually people. So that’s a really great place to start getting texture and personalization from folks about what meaning actually feels and looks like in their lives. And there’s a whole list that goes on after that. There’s, depending on the study, you can get somewhere between 7 and 28 different sources of meaning. But that data is out there, too. So there’s a lot of what’s known about the the typical ballpark in which people play. But the way that people play the game is gonna be pretty individualistic, not only from person to person, but for a person at different stages and times in life.

Dr. Cooper

I don’t want to take us off on too much of a rabbit trail here, but you mentioned sometimes purposes pull you in different directions. Two purposes that are very strong for you in your life. Any brief tips you could provide? Because I think we’ve all experienced that you talked about that you’re experiencing to a point right now. Any tips for people that could kind of get the ball rolling if they are in a stage right now, where they feel like you have got these two things and they’re both important and don’t know where to go from here?

Dr. Steger

Definitely. I mean, I feel that way a lot. I would say the first step is to take some really honest stock in whether the things you’re doing and the things that you’re spending your time on and the things that are really occupying your mental space, to what degree are those actually related to life purpose? The best circumstance we can hope for is that we find ourselves with lots of things we’re trying to do, lots of things that are stressing us out and feel important because they are part of our life purposes. And then we can get to the question of how do we balance competing life purposes? Much worse scenario, but actually pretty common, I think, is that a lot of the stuff that occupies our mental space and feels like it’s, you know, forcing its shape upon our lives is actually not that relevant to how we actually want to have our lives turn out in the end and what we actually be living for. So I think that’s the first step is to try to be as honest with yourself as possible.

Dr. Steger

The second step is to realize, I shouldn’t say realize that sounds really condescending. What I would say is that my personal take on it and what’s worked for me is for me to come to a realization that, it’s really a process. It’s not a checklist, it’s not a status. I guess I would said my life is not meaningful, but I’m trying to live a meaningful life, if that makes sense, that difference. Other people might come at this very differently. So you know, we don’t have a ton of information on whether it’s better to live your life thinking that meaning is a process. But it certainly seems to fit the data that I’ve seen in the encounters that I’ve had with people. So your life is going to have moments where different purposes will loom more important, less important, they kind of wax and wane. And sometimes they’ll both be incredibly important. And it’s a process of moving towards the realization and that purpose. In fact I often times will ask people to consider adopting or framing their purposes in ways that maybe can’t even be achieved within their lifetimes. Like the idea of being a good parent. Like, when am I done with that? When do I check that off? So it’s a process and you know that means then when things get terrible. The worst thing for me is when my kids don’t think I’m funny, you know? So when they don’t think I’m funny, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent it’s all part of the process, just to choose a light example. But certainly people out there have confronted really, really difficult times trying to be a good parent or trying to be a good partner and all these other things. So realizing that the answer doesn’t have to be correct forever. That the blend doesn’t have to be right forever, either. And that if you do find yourself in a really good circumstance, where you’re putting yourself on your path to investing time, energy, attention your talents, towards something that feels like a life purpose, and then there’s another one, too. Then, you know, really it’s gonna come down to the idea of that long game. Anything important in your life is gonna require nurturing pretty periodically.

Dr. Steger

So I’ll just give a perfect example for me. So, the two big ones that often conflict are me trying to be a good dad and family member with my wife and me trying to, there’s some weird blend, right? Like my professional identity of being someone out there, trying to talk about purpose is both really personally rewarding for me and feels like my purpose is to talk about purpose, which is really strange. But so one of the big demands for me, is my travel schedule sometimes just explodes out of control. And it’s not easy to bring my family on every trip. I can’t do that 10, 20 times a year. So, for me, like trying to figure out when I’m just out of the house too often or for too many stretches that I have to cut back. It doesn’t matter what opportunities are gonna come up next. I have to just not do that anymore, or I have to find a way to really make it work within other things that are going on. So because I do sense right away, this is maybe a little bit overly personal. But I came back one time after yet another trip came in the door, and you know, the kids are kind of semi watching TV, semi on their phones. And I’m like, hey, guys, I’m home, and they’re like hey dad. I’m like what? Didn’t you guys miss me? And they’re like we’re used to it. And I’m just like, oh my God, did I really make a life where that happens? So, you know, be really open with those. I really just think authenticity and being authentic in your responses and your responsibilities is really gonna help you navigate where to put a little bit of extra effort. Or maybe sometimes where to even kind of cut them off for a little bit of time. One of the pressing purposes in your life, you really don’t wanna have it strangled off.

Dr. Cooper

This is so good. It builds so nicely on what we what we went through with this annual theme concept and reviewing, we call it the F5. So it’s the key areas of life. And as you address those phases of life that you mentioned, you know it’s different when your kids were young versus when you’re empty nesters. It’s different when you’re in school versus you’re in a profession, etc. So there’s different phases. But in the midst of whatever that biggest draw is, you don’t want to explode. You don’t want to blow up. Like you were just saying, you want to develop your professional pursuits. You want this information to get out there to people where it could make a difference. But you want to be a great dad, and it’s realizing that I’m in a phase of life now with my kids, I’m talking about you, in the phase of life now with your kids being young, that that’s important. And so sometimes you just simply put the brakes on it. So I think it’s really valuable for you to lay that out for us. Thanks for specifying that. Let’s talk about the person who feels their life doesn’t have much meaning and purpose. Or maybe somebody that’s listening is a wellness coach that’s working with somebody that feels that way. Or they have a friend that it feels that way. Any beneficial starting points, just kind of getting the ball rolling on which they could build or help somebody else build a little bit?

Dr. Steger

Yeah. Yeah, totally. This is probably the most common question I get asked. So you’d think I have a good answer by now? We’ll find out, right?

Dr. Cooper

Here we go.

Dr. Steger

So the first thing I want to say this gets linguistically aggravating. The word meaning makes studying meaning a pain in the ass because everything means this or those meanings of the word meaning and blah blah blah, it gets confusing. So one of the things, one of the big problems in our field is the idea that every life has meaning. But when we say a meaningful life, we usually mean a positively meaningful life. So folks who feel like their lives are meaningless, they’re not absent of meaning. What probably is going on is that their lives have sort of just been, you know, swarmed or, you know, consumed by negative meanings. The the idea that there’s nothing for me out there in life is actually not the absence of meaning. It’s a really toxic meaning to have So part of that then is this goes to the notion, this really goes to that cognitive side that coherence or comprehension side. We never turn off the meaning making engine in our mind. It is always working, every one of your listeners, even if they’re bored out of their minds as they listen to me talk is still making meaning from what’s going on. Everything that happens, were interpreting. If we’re picking it up it all, we’re processing that information. In a sense, once it gets stuck into this sort of, I call it the schema or this giant mental map that we have, once it gets in there, then it takes on a life of its own. So folks who feel like life is meaningless almost always are not completely apathetic about life. They’re not some sort of neutral suspension where there is nothing. They actually feel probably that they have negative meanings that make life seem unappetizing, that make life seemed pointless. So that, I think, can actually be a pretty powerful insight for folks trying to figure out what do I do with someone who feels like life is meaningless because you can’t convince someone that life is meaningful just by arguing with them. So really starting with like, well, tell me more, what does life look like to you? Like when you think about meaning, what pops into your mind and why does that seem like that’s not a thing? Do you know what I mean, because I think you’ll get at some of that negative content, the beliefs that are holding people back, that sometimes it takes, you know, a lot of work just to uncover that you’ve drilled that so down deep into yourself of a past experience and really practice almost of cutting yourself off from opportunities. But so that’s one possibility that you could take up if you really wanna give someone a little bit of a shift in perspective and hang with them for a little bit.

Dr. Steger

But another thing is just to side step altogether the idea that life has to be meaningful or super meaningful or incredibly meaningful or you have to have a certain level of meaning in order to be good enough, right? That’s for sure not a competition. And one of the things that I love about meaning is that so far the data back up what I think is a gut instinct for a lot of us. It’s that meaning in essence, draws us outside of our own skins. Like so much about the world has us obsessing over how we feel inside our skins right now. Like, how does this affect me? What do I think about this? Do I like what’s going on right now? And meaning is way bigger than that. Meaning draws us out of the moment to think about our life overall, meaning draws us out of our own, you know, natural tendencies towards selfishness by getting us to think about the big picture and other folks and how we contribute. So if you just go with the flow on that the really great ideas about getting people to think about meaning is have them stop thinking about meaning and instead, just sort of like start making movements towards some way of contributing. So alright, forget about meaning for now, meaning is this weird thing anyways. You know you can’t trick yourself into thinking life is meaningful. I can’t trick you into thinking life is meaningful. But how do you engage with the world in a positive way? Like, what kind of differences do you make? What can you do to help someone else out? Like you’ve got a lot of experience now thinking about life being meaningless. So what would you say to someone else who’s struggling, or can you think of opportunities to give? And so that ends up being pretty challenging, depending on the context and what kind of coaching you’re doing with folks.

Dr. Steger

So then the next, you know, probably the least intrusive approach, so I think both of those take a pretty good relationship with someone to dive into, but this one doesn’t. I don’t think this one takes very much a relationship at all other than remembering that you asked them to do this task. So I came up with this idea of an intervention looking around, I think I was moving into a new office and I was like dragging a lot of stuff from my old office and I was like why do I even have all of this stuff? I haven’t looked at it in years. As I’m a pretty sentimental person, I decided I wanted to really scrutinize why I was bringing all these pictures and like these little trinkets from the past into this new office. And I’m like does this do anything for me? I know that I wouldn’t like to have an anonymous office. So what is it that I’m doing with all this stuff around me that I’m bringing that supposedly reminds me of these other amazing things. And I decided that I want to run a study that would get at that. So at the time, I bought the cheapest digital cameras I could find, which were actually powered by two double A batteries if you could remember the time when that was even a thing. So this is pre good camera phones and we got some people into the lab and I asked them to go just take pictures of what makes your life feel meaningful. And the cameras were so old that they could only hold 8 to 12 photos. And that turned out to be a really good number.

Dr. Steger

So what folks would do is they go off and they had to take a week so they’d be scheduled one week after this. This fits a lot of coaching schedules or you can do this, over the web, too of course in a web meeting. They go off, take a set of photos, try to keep it no more than 10 or 12. You don’t want, like, 160 photos. Someone gave us a memory card, actually, that had 380 photos on. We’re just like I don’t know what to do with this. Make sure that people are, whenever they start the, we call it a photo safari now, but whenever they start it, make sure they take the last photo on the day right before they come in. So they have time to think about it, right? So don’t just go out and within the 1st 5 minutes you took 10 photos of your dog or you know your car or whatever it is. Like take some time. Come back, tell me about each one of these and why it’s meaningful to you. So it was a study I ran, and over that one week is pilot data. So this isn’t super robust data. It’s more suggestive. We’ve incorporated it into other workshops that I’ve done over the years and people give positive feedback. But you can’t say this is like a hardcore, random controlled trial. This is just a pilot data. But folks found that meaning in life went up. Depression went down, life satisfaction with positive emotions went up and negative emotions went down, just over that one week from when they took the survey, before we gave them the camera and when we took it back from them.

Dr. Cooper

Just by tuning in,

Dr. Steger

Just by tuning in and taking photos of what’s meaningful in their lives. And that was across the spectrum of people who scored high and low on meaning. So I’ll talk a little bit about why I think that this is a good intervention, that your listeners can work with it, break it apart, figure out where the moving pieces are and make it better. And then we gave them just, you know, other measurements right before we downloaded their photos. And then we actually put these in PowerPoint presentations, I do everything with PowerPoint I guess, so we could paste their photo on top and then they’d have room to type their responses about what each one was like. I think it works better as a conversation. But you know, if you’re doing it remotely and you only have a little bit of time with the client, you might want to have them do this ahead of time. But just the act then of describing those photos with no social interaction even, also increased state levels of meaning. So, like how meaningful does life feel right now. Well, it feels more meaningful now that I’ve described these important sources of meaning in my life. So this is really easy to do, and it’s actually a way that we think through the world. It’s hard to describe in words a lot of the stuff that’s important, vital, meaningful, crucial about life. But we can certainly recognize it when we see it, and even someone who feels like life is meaningless has things that are more or less special to her or him. So that’s all we’re asking. Like relatively speaking, there are gonna be things that are more meaningful in your life than others. Just take a photo of those. Bring it back in. We’ll have a quick conversation, no stress. There’s no right or wrong answer to this, obviously.

Dr. Steger

And I think it’s doing a couple of things. One, like you, said, they’re noticing and being reminded of these things in their lives. They’re going out into the world and they’re saying, oh my God, I’m looking at the world with open eyes and as crummy as things feel like look at this stuff. This is not so bad, right? We’ve got beautiful mountains to look at, don’t we Brad, out here in Colorado because of that huge dump we had? Another thing they’re doing then is what I think was happening with the office is that I’ve like, endowed this thing with meaning now. You know this, like rock from a canyon in New Mexico, or whatever it is. Or you know, this picture of my kids feet at the beach, their toes in the sand. Like that’s a meaningful thing for me now. I’ve said it. I took a photo of it. I brought it to another person. I said, this is a meaningful thing for me. So when I go see that thing again, that’s not gonna be lost on me that I went out of my way to say, you know what? This is one of the 12 things that matter. So I think those are the moving pieces And of course, it gets a conversation going in a non pressure situation. The first thing I learned when I start researching meaning, is you go up to people and say, hey, what makes your life feel meaningful? It doesn’t make them happy at all, yeah, I thought it would. That’s how weird of a person I am. I thought people love those conversations. It’s not true. So having a focal point also really helps. And it’s gonna be a personal story. We have pictures of people’s shoes, logs, parking lots, cars, tractors, garbage cans, computer textbooks. I mean, weird stuff. You would never suspect what the story is until you get people talking and then you’re just blown away by every person’s ability to crack open that nut and see what is really important inside.

Dr. Cooper

That’s good. All right, let’s flip the mirror. How are you at applying your research in your own life? On a personal level. And you’ve talked about a couple of ways you’re integrating some of this, but does anything come to mind that you’re currently in the midst of and you’ve consciously said, I need to apply this thing over here.

Dr. Steger

Yeah, you know, a lot of things that made a difference in my life, have a common theme, you know, and it’s sort of like a back story. I’m happy I study meaning because even though that gets lumped in with positive psychology and happiness. And most people who know me or even get to know me are like, why are you, why would I think I could learn anything about happiness from you? I’m not like a naturally happy person, I don’t actually think about happiness very much. I do think about what everything is all about, and so you can imagine I could be a little bit of an aggravating person during bar talk because eventually I end up talking about like, hey, we’re gonna die someday. What do you think about that? So, you know, I’ve got a slightly unnatural take on a lot of this stuff. That is really, I kind of always have in my head like the bitter and the sweet about life, and I tend more towards the bitter. Like I reflect on the worst things I’ve done to people. I reflect on the fact that everything I love is impermanent. I reflect on the fact that as hard as I might try in my career and in my life to make a difference, in 100 years, it’ll be like I never existed, right? So I have all those things in my mind, and I think it’s important to be able to manage those because of the anxiety about those sorts of things hold us back from living. We end up dabbling in life if we can’t embrace the fact that we’re vulnerable to disappointment and suffering. But you can imagine that makes for kind of a miserable person after a while, especially when that person tends be pretty neurotic anyways, and a little bit quick to be angry and not so patient.

Dr. Steger

So you can’t say I was any sort of example of being a happy person living a good life. I was mostly an angry person feeling pretty bitter and overwhelmed by the problems in life. And for me, the practice that I intentionally developed and have to keep reminding myself of ends up really being a lot about savoring. And so savoring is when we talk about mindfulness and non judgmental awareness. Savoring for me is really it’s really like that wake up and smell the roses sort of thing to be trite about it. It is the fact that yes, suffering is immense in the world. Yes, we’re all still mindlessly contributing to our own ruination. Yes, there’s injustice. Yes, I do terrible things from time to time without meaning to or without being able to prevent myself too. But on top of all that, there still are really amazing things in the world. There’s still beauty, and so I make sure I look at something and just actually look at it and spend time appreciating something good, and as many good things as I can every day. And that core skill took a long time for me to figure out how to do. Some people are great at it. I love people who are just great at it. Just naturally. You know like, oh my God, look at that icicle. I’m like, you mean the icicle that’s making my sidewalk slippery? And now I have to worry about the homeowners association, sending a nasty letter? So that’s me. And so I love people who can come at it with seeing what there is to appreciate right away. Never take that skill for granted I would say. So for me, it’s been important to appreciate that. And what that’s done for me, I think, and how that’s expanded into other practices is to take stock of what’s happening right now. I’ve got a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad tendencies that would make me drift off even further than I typically do into laziness or self indulgence or resentment or impatience. And for me, those innate tendencies do not seem to be going away. So it’s really about managing those weaknesses that are part of my very being it seems like.

Dr. Steger

So I can use savoring mindfulness to to try to take a check on myself before some of that stuff spins away. So the big things I’m working on these days, is how to be responsible for my choices. So I’m not allowing myself to feel resentful that I have to do stuff because I’m saying yes to these things, right? Really holding on to as much as I can. The experience of being with my kids, they’re in five years, both kids are gonna be at college or out of the house, so I’m running out of time to be that close to them, at the same time, of course, they’re running away from home to be able to do independent growing up things. So, I don’t want any of that time spoiled by my silliness or my pettiness. So, for me, in both of those cases, you could imagine how, something like savoring or mindfulness can help me figure out am I living the way I want to be living right now? Am I saying yes to the things I think are important? Am I saying no to the things that while may be important, will take away from other things. Am I stopping myself from indulging in being aggravated, a grouchy or snippy or sarcastic? And, you know, I think that’s really what I want to be doing for me. I’m just trying to figure out am I making enough progress towards being better? And am I avoiding the trap of tricking myself into thinking I’m doing just fine when that’s just pure rationalization? It’s a lot of self reflection, for me is what makes a difference and then also really accepting the flaws that I have and not excusing them, but figure how to accommodate them. So dates and times are really a struggle for me, I almost never know what day of the week it is. If I know what day of the week it is, it’s highly unlikely I know what the date is and I often don’t know what the year is. I’ve never, well not never, rarely known when it’s my own birthday for instance. So this thing makes a lot of things tricky, like getting to the airport. I’m super nervous about airport and getting there like hours early. So I have to accommodate these things. I take responsibility for where my weaknesses might effect my plans to be better. My plans to live a purposeful life. And in particular might affect other people. I’m not always successful, as you know, Brad has been too kind to say it, but I was like, 10 minutes late for our call today again, just mystified by the fact that I can’t like, teleport across town. So, you know, I apologize for that. I really try to minimize that sort of stuff and I never try to overlook it or excuse it. So that’s just kind of for me those are the projects and those are the ways I try to approach it.

Dr. Cooper

Yeah, I love what you said about being better, and I didn’t cue you on that at all. That’s something that we say over and over and over on this podcast, of it’s not the best self that’s intimidating times. That’s like, oh my gosh, that could never be me, but the better self that’s one step away. That’s one choice. That’s one decision. That’s one whatever. So that’s a great spot to kind of wrap things up with that focus on what you’re saying for your own life, but also by extension to ours of being better, that’s a great place to start. So, Dr Steger, thank you. Great stuff today. Thanks for taking the time. You got a lot going on and we really appreciate you joining us.

Dr. Steger

I really appreciate you letting me be here and having such great questions and being so really gentle with my answers. I appreciate your responsiveness and I hope that folks get something out of it. And if not, just send me an angry email and I’ll try to do better next time.

Dr. Cooper

Another big thank you to Dr Michael Steger for joining us today. He and I have been working on getting this on the calendar for probably close to a year. He’s just got a crazy schedule, and I really appreciate how generous he was with his time today. Hope you enjoyed it. If you want to follow him, check into his studies he’s been involved with, reach out to him for anything. You can either Google him, Michael Steger, Colorado State University or his email is michael.f.steger@colostate.edu. So feel free to do that, I think he he’d love to hear from you about some of the things we talked about today. If you’re looking for some additional resources, we’ve got quite a few on the website CatalystCoachingInstitute.com that I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned, if I have, it’s been months. We have book lists, we’re getting asked all the time, what are some books I should be reading? What are the resources that I should be looking into? And so we put together a list. You can see that on the website. If you’re curious about some specific things around your career and how to integrate this with what you’re doing is a clinician or a coach, or whatever it might be, we’ve put together a number of special reports. You can also pull those up at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com, and then if you’re on Twitter and you like following folks there, you can find me @Catalyst2Thrive. What I do there is generally, I occasionally post something, but most of the time I’m re tweeting or highlighting things that people have tweeted out, research studies, new findings, things that influence our health and wellness, things that can help us be better on a daily basis. So with that, let’s go get better. Dr. Steger mentioned it. We highlighted it. You know it. It’s one step away, and we can do that starting today. This is Dr. Bradford Cooper signing off. Make it a great rest of your day and I’ll speak with you soon on the next episode of the Catalyst Health and Wellness Coaching Podcast.