How can we find meaning and purpose in our lives? And what does a meaningful life really look like? Woven through personal stories and the lens of science, this episode is a reflection of my own search for meaning. As I traverse the peaks and valleys of my own journey, racing through the highest mountain bike race on Earth in Nepal and pursuing a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology, I unravel the threads of resilience, personal growth, and the transformative power of storytelling.
Finding Meaning Through Stories and Science
Embarking on the academic pursuit of Applied Positive Psychology illuminated the profound impact of comprehending our life stories. Whether stitched with triumphs or woven with challenges, these narratives shape our well-being. As I navigated through the rigors of academia, I discovered the scientific underpinnings of deriving meaning and purpose in life. It involves weathering storms with the right tools and cultivating a resilient mindset—a paradigm that resonates through both personal anecdotes and psychological studies.
Overcoming Challenges and Personal Growth Through Racing
The YakAttack mountain bike race in Nepal stands as a crucible of personal growth and overcoming adversity. Amidst doubts and a crisis of confidence, I grappled with a catastrophic brake failure. Yet, in the heart of struggle, I found resilience. Connecting with the environment and fellow racers, I discovered a wellspring of determination that transcended the mechanical failures. The race became more than a physical challenge; it became a profound journey of self-discovery and connection with the world.
Finding Purpose Through Storytelling
Stories are the fabric of our existence, and within them lies the key to meaning and purpose. As I recount my personal journey, I delve into the importance of comprehension and purpose. Sharing stories, whether through triumphs or tribulations, allows us to understand ourselves better and relate our experiences to others. In the repetitive act of storytelling, we unearth new perspectives and insights, fostering personal growth and an enduring sense of purpose.
Finding Meaning and Purpose Through Experiences and Emotions
Purpose, a beacon in life’s voyage, emerges through proactive and reactive experiences. Drawing insights from “Transcend” by Scott Barry Kaufman and Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” I explore the concept of transcendence. My hypothesis takes root in the crucible of high-intensity races, where physical exhaustion and exposure to nature amplify emotional responses. This synthesis creates a potent elixir of transcendence, fostering a profound connection with self and the world.
Finding Meaning and Purpose in Life Through Mental Performance Coaching
Choosing a productive attitude amidst life’s challenges emerges as a cornerstone in the pursuit of meaning and purpose. Reflecting on personal experiences with mental performance coaching, I share moments of frustration transformed through mindset work. The rocky terrains of life may seem insurmountable, but with the right mindset tools, we can navigate them with grace and resilience.
Crafting Your Meaning Story
As I invite you to reflect on your own meaning story, I encourage you to pen it down. Share it with others, for in the act of articulating our journey, we gain clarity and support. The journey to meaning and purpose is a mosaic, shaped by our experiences, emotions, and the stories we tell. Together, let’s navigate life’s peaks and valleys, discovering the profound beauty in the tapestry of our existence.
Key Takeaways about Meaning and Purpose:
- Exploring meaning by investing in understanding our own experiences and storytelling.
- How to find purpose through proactive exploration, reactive experiences, and social learning from others.
- Choosing your attitude and associated actions is deeply meaningful for personal agency
- Pushing limits through challenges like endurance races can facilitate feelings of transcendence and connection.
- Why having a meaningful life is not the same as a happy life.
LISTEN TO SONYA
- Finding meaning in life through personal stories and science. (0:00)
- Overcoming challenges and personal growth through racing. (3:28)
- Finding meaning and purpose through storytelling. (7:52)
- Finding purpose through experiences and emotions. (12:04)
- Finding meaning and purpose in life through mental performance coaching. (16:20)
Here are some books mentioned in the episode:
- “Transcend” by Scott Barry Kaufman
- Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Want to hear more from Sonya? Tune into these episodes:
- Watch my TedTalk about defining meaning during YakAttack
- Cultivating inner qualities for positive change with Oren Jay Sofer
- Tuning in to Savoring
If you want to work towards your goals and more, check out my self-paced online course: Moxy & Grit Mindset Academy.
Sonya Looney 0:00
Today I’m going to tell you a story about how I find meaning in life. While friends, we’ve made it, we are almost to the end of 2023. And just a quick heads up, our team is taking next week off. So there won’t be a podcast next week, I am so excited to have finished my first semester in my Masters of Applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, it is an incredible accomplishment to be done with about 40% of this degree, and all of the things that I have learned the effort that I’ve put in, and I’m excited to start sharing some of these things with you. I also am grateful to belong to such an amazing community. The incredible thing about math is that everybody there is there because they found their calling, they found their passion, they found a purpose in life that has brought them to the program. I don’t know what the average age is. But I would say it’s probably around 40, around my age. And many people in there already have a master’s degree in something else and have had an entire career. And then they found positive psychology and came to the MAT program, so that they could change and pivot so that they can be in greatest service of the world. That type of environment and being surrounded by so many people who are passionate and eager to learn is a very different learning environment that I’ve been in in the past. One of our assignments was to write a story, a narrative story about how we have derived personal meaning in life. And this is something I encourage you to do, maybe over the holidays, or reflecting into the new year, because whenever we have something that has anchored our life and meaning or purpose, it can really help us move forward. And a lot of people have published their meaning stories in a folder. So I’ve gotten to experience some of the other stories from people in class. And there are many profound ways to derive meaning in life, it could be from your children, it could be from something really bad that happened to you, it could be from something really good that happened to you. Or it could be from something very simple. So don’t put pressure on yourself to have this profound, crazy story. But just something that evokes emotion for you. It’s interesting to think that your ammonia, which is Aristotle’s version of living a good life is rooted in meaning. And that doesn’t mean that we always feel good. And I think that that is a misconception about positive psychology, that it’s about living a life that is about feel good emotions, and everything’s always good. But no, that is not what positive psychology is about. It is about the science of well being and how we can create conditions for good but also how we can weather conditions that aren’t so good, and having the tools in order to do so. Even before coming to map that was a massive part of my coaching practice. And I’m very excited about my coaching practice moving forward, especially aftermath with all of these incredible skills that I have acquired. So I’m going to share the story with you and then I’m going to tell you about the science of meaning and purpose in life. It’ll be a very quick overview of it, I could certainly do a deep dive and talk about it for a very long time, but for the sake of simplicity, and to keep it light. I will talk about that at the end. Many of you are familiar with this story that I’m about to tell from the YakAttack. But if you have heard it stick around because the end is a little bit different. And the way that we create meaning through storytelling can evolve over time. My temples throbbed with an excruciating altitude headache. It was 4:15am and I was alone, approaching the world’s highest mountain pass the wrong law at 17,769 feet. With my bike disassembled and strapped to my back. The ghostly beam of my headlamp illuminated the snowy path ahead. Why am I doing this to myself? I was mentally and physically exhausted a reminder of the previous nine days I had endured in the Himalayas. I was in Nepal at the highest mountain bike race on Earth called the YakAttack. Attempting to be the first woman to complete the 10 day race. Today was the crux of the race. If I could get over the past, the rest would be easy. Yet a voice of doubt crept in. What if I can’t make it? This was the hardest thing I had ever done. I recall my first 100 mile race where my resilient buoyant narrative was my foremost strength, and where I learned any physical or mental load was temporary. As I labored toward 18,000 feet, I leaned into my skill set of managing expectations, laughing at redist ridiculous a sense, being present and remembering why I was here, curiosity about my limits. Instead of fixating on fear of failure and discomfort, I thought of the warm connections with the Nepali villagers, the camaraderie with fellow racers, and the many struggles I had overcome that rainforest my grit and self belief. If I could endure this, I could do anything. Yet the mountains were indifferent to my personal battles and emotions. There looming presence reminded me I was a mere speck in the world. Yet I had the sense I was connected to all beings. The potent mix of awe, exhaustion and acceptance of suffering, open gateways to consciousness that stretched far beyond the realm of bike racing. It wasn’t the first time I had felt transcendence, but its intensity was stronger to to the extremes I faced. The warm light of Daybreak and distant tears from a Nepali man signaled my arrival at the wrong law. The rest of the race would be smooth sailing, one long descent and a final day’s race to the finish. As I hopped on my bike, the unthinkable happened. My brakes failed catastrophically and were beyond repair. The disbelief and enormity of my impending failure and journey overwhelm me. I cried bitter tears about my bad luck thinking of the courage it took to travel to Nepal and enter this race, the daily mental battles, the physical agony, the putrid, squat toilets. What did it all amount to if I couldn’t finish as I trudged for five more hours toward the finish line, I desperately searched for silver linings. Along the way, I discovered another racer had quit due to altitude sickness. I wonder if his brakes work, maybe I could use them tomorrow. With renewed hope i quickened my steps and eventually finished the day’s race. After much anticipation, he safely arrived with one functioning break the break I needed to win the race. The following day, I stood at the last finish line in a foreign village, a row of bright prayer wheels, marking my final passage, I was the first woman to ever finish the YakAttack. But somehow, my sense of pride wasn’t only from the accomplishment, it was rooted in something more, but I couldn’t put words to it. After I returned home, I realized what I was truly proud of a new perspective for approaching challenges in life. Racing wasn’t just about doing hard things or preoccupation with winning. It was about personal evolution and the positive ripple effect. Now I can help other people find satisfaction and courage in the process of pursuing their potential. other races from my past provided this perspective to I just didn’t realize it until now. Adversity creates an environment for growth. Choosing your attitude and associated actions is deeply meaningful for personal agency, and agency allows you to change the world. I realized no matter how difficult to challenge, I could still be patient, find meaning and hardship, find the fun and be optimistic. progressing with a renewed perspective and curiosity after the YakAttack opened the door to extreme challenges in 25 plus countries. Each race was a cauldron where I forged and tested the psychological strategies I now share with you. Over a decade in addition to racing, I have a dynamic career that includes coaching, Keynote, speaking, podcasting, writing, and now becoming a scholar in positive psychology. And that’s the story. It’s been really interesting writing these papers because they are shorter than you want them to be. And you have been, and we were required to be very concise with our words. So a lot of us, we’d write these papers, and they would be multiple pages over the limit of where they were supposed to be. So that has been a great exercise in trying to pack a lot of meaning and value into a few words at a time. Many people are searching for meaning and purpose in life, and a lot of us will orient ourselves around work to find meaning and purpose. And while some of us are lucky to have that there are many people that do not so you can derive meaning and purpose from other things in your life. Meaning comes from comprehension, which is a way to understand one’s place in the world, approaching self value goals and finding fulfillment.
I’ll quote Michael Steger, who is a researcher in this area, who I actually had the pleasure to hear speak at a conference over the summer. But he says, comprehension encompasses people’s ability to find patterns, consistency and significance in the many events and experiences in their lives, and their synthesis and distillation of the most salient, important and motivating factors. People face the challenge of understanding themselves, the world around them, and their unique niche, and interactions within the world. And the notion of comprehension unifies these domains of understanding, meaning also comes from purpose. So meaning comes from comprehension and purpose. And I’ll continue to read Michael Seegers words because they’re better than mine. Purpose refers to highly motivating long term goals about which people are passionate and highly committed. He says that the most rewarding purposes arise from and are congruent with people’s comprehension in their lives. Also, purpose encompasses working toward goals that don’t have an end, and that is a greater contribution to the world. And whenever you think about that, it can add a lot of pressure like, oh, gosh, I have to change the world. But you don’t have to change the entire world by impacting hundreds of 1000s or millions of people. You can change the world by just helping one In a person, because the ripple effect is something that you could never understand or see. And I noticed that I jumped straight to helping other people. And I say that because a lot of times we feel our best when we are being kind or helping someone else. meaning in life is a process instead of an outcome. It’s not something that we ever achieve. It’s something that we orient our life towards. So how do you improve comprehension so that you can find meaning and purpose in life, or that’s where storytelling comes in. Storytelling is a powerful way for defining our identity and making sense of the world. So in my case, storytelling about my racist, with my races, with an emphasis on my strengths on personal growth, and my personal agency, allows me to know what type of person I am, how I approach stressful events, and I also relay my experiences into life lessons for others to benefit. So if you think about a meaning story that you have, and you can have more than one meaning story in your life, think about how if you were to tell that story, what that says about the type of person that you are, and that can help you comprehend how that is even more meaningful and helps you have more purpose in life. I’ve been fortunate that through my races, I’ve done tons of writing and speaking about them. So I’ve had the exercise of storytelling over and over and over. But a lot of times, we don’t tell the story of the thing that gives our lives meaning. And that doesn’t give us a chance to learn about ourselves and see what themes come out. Also, repeated storytelling as we change can be very powerful. If you listen to my TED Talk in 2015, I talked about the Yak attack, and I talked about how, when my brakes failed, it was an opportunity to redefine what success meant in life to me. And that was what the YakAttack was to me at that point. But as you learn things in your life, you get more language and more words and new perspectives for things. So going back to something that gives you meaning in life, especially as you change and seeing how the storytelling evolves, is a really interesting exercise. Another interesting thing from the research is that purpose can come from three different sources. It can come from a proactive experience where one’s purpose is solely uncovered during exploration, kind of like a bike race, or something that you did. It’s uncovered over time. So it isn’t one thing that happens, but it is a gradual uncovering of it. The ability to capitalize on those situations, and by reflecting on them, and that again, that’s where the importance of storytelling comes in. And sometimes there’s serendipity involved with this proactive uncovering of your purpose, random things happen that can evoke responses, random in my story was my breaks failing, which led me down a path to facilitate meaning in my life. Also, whenever you’re pushing your limits and delving into the unknown, it leads to self expansion. And that is another way to help uncover your purpose. A second way to uncover your purpose is through reactive experiences, there are a second pathway to for meaning. And that is pretty self explanatory. If something bad happens, there is something it could also be good, I guess. But something happens. And there is you before the event and you after the event, and a lot of people will use death of somebody, or something very catastrophic happening in their life, that suddenly creates purpose for them. But again, this could also be a really positive thing, like having children could be a reactive experience. It is one marker in time that creates purpose for you. The third pathway is through social learning. And you can have a hybrid model, I would say that my experience is a blend of these three pathways involving vicarious experience, you know, I wouldn’t have done a bike race or LED led myself down the path of doing these ultra endurance stage races without seeing other people do them first. And also the reactive experience of the breaks failing the YakAttack was a reactive experience in creating meaning. But there was lots of things that led me to the ACC attack, which also means that there’s a proactive experience in uncovering purpose. So I encourage you whenever you think about some stories, or a story that has created meaning or purpose for you in life, thinking about which pathway or pathways have gotten you there, because having clarity around things that have happened to you in your life, can help you move forward and help you make even better decisions whenever you’re trying to make goals or decide the next thing that you want to do in your life. One thing I want to talk about with my story is transcendence. And that is something that I think many of us experience over time. I think about humanistic psychology and you’ve heard of Abraham Maslow’s Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which it’s not even really a pyramid. And I encourage you to read the book transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman, where he talks all about Abraham Maslow, and it’s one of my favorite books. But mountain bike racing often has many or inspiring experiences and creates exhaust Shin, which I think intensifies feelings of awe and also of transcendence of feeling like you’re connected to something more than just yourself. And that you can contribute to something more than just yourself.
I actually have a hypothesis that the exhaustion of these intense races paired with the beauty around you, really creates strong emotional responses. I know that myself like in the Breck epic, for example, if I’m pushing myself to my maximum, and then now I’m suddenly at 13,000 feet, I’m almost hysterical, laughing and crying. And I just feel things so much more intensely. And my ability to connect with that transcendent experience and feeling of being so small, and something so big is, is amplified by the fatigue. So I’m wondering if there is something to that. And last, if you haven’t read Victor Frankel’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which many people talk about, and quote regularly, because it is such a powerful book. It’s about his experience, as a psychiatrist during the Holocaust. And being in a concentration camp, there’s a lot of horrendous things that have happened to him. And he talks about choosing a productive attitude during times of struggle and directing mental focus to the benefits of an experience no matter how bad it is, even if it’s the Holocaust. And to lighten it up a little bit, that’s a skill that’s imperative to anything that we do is choosing a productive attitude. And that is not always easy to do. So that’s why I talk about mental performance, coaching and training and skills, you can’t train yourself to be resilient in the race, you have to do it leading up to the race, you have to do it in other areas of your life. Because whenever you’re faced with a very intense experience, if you haven’t worked on choosing a productive attitude, when things are hard, it can be incredibly challenging to do so whenever things get very intense. And your productive attitude might come after the thing that happened, maybe in the moment, you’re not able to change your emotions or accept your emotions. And maybe it’s afterwards where you can say, hey, that struggle was really meaningful. And next time, you are able to have a productive attitude, because you chose to reflect on the thing that happened, how I found positive psychology and speaking and coaching and all of these things was when I started giving free talks about my races. And initially, people would ask me questions like, how do you train? Or what tire pressure Do you run? And I have many articles on my blog and numerous magazines about that if you’re curious, but eventually evolved into people asking me, How do you stay so positive in these races? How are you so happy all the time, and I’m not happy all the time. But I am somebody that is positive. It’s because I’ve choose my attitude, and I choose my inner narrative. And it doesn’t mean that it always comes easy to me. And it also means that sometimes I can be really frustrated. And I can also still have a positive inner narrative. So an example today is I am doing lots of trail running lately for numerous reasons. And one of the reasons is that it’s really fun because I get immediate feedback. And I get to watch my technical skills improve rapidly. As a mountain biker, I’ve been doing it for a very long time. So it’s a lot harder to see these improvements. So it’s really fun. And it’s also really annoying. So there was or there is this very steep rock slab. And right now it’s winter here. So it’s very wet and muddy and slick out there. And I’m trying to work up the courage to run down this very steep rock slab. And I’ve been doing sessioning, which means I will run a section of trail over and over and over to build up my skill set and confidence so that I can try something a little bit harder next time. And I thought today, I would be up to the challenge. And I wasn’t and I tried for about 10 minutes, I tried doing little sections, and I just couldn’t do it. And I was frustrated. I used to beat myself up in those situations. And I was really not very nice to myself. But today because of the work that I’ve done, I was able to be angry and be frustrated that I couldn’t do it. And also at the same time, say to myself, yeah, like it’s okay to be mad because you have high expectations. And it takes patience, and you are doing the work and you’ve improved so much and one step at a time. And not every single day is going to be an amazing day where you make gains. So that’s just a really small example of how you can accept challenging emotions that maybe want you to be negative, and then you can choose how you deal with them afterwards. And last, I’ll leave you with the story of Sisyphus, the gods punished him and condemned him to push a boulder uphill for all of eternity only to have the boulder roll back down the hill. And he decided that the task was worthwhile and purposeful choosing struggle over giving up, which sounds almost ridiculous that he would choose to say, I’m condemned to doing this forever, but I’m going to choose my attitude that this work is worthwhile. And meaning does not always feel good. There is a lot of negative emotions around meaning so it can be something thing that doesn’t feel good all the time. But having a meaningful life isn’t necessarily the same as having a happy life, you can have both. But if you’re doing something meaningful, and if you don’t feel super happy while you’re doing it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong. So I hope that that was enlightening and interesting to learn about meaning and purpose. And to hear my meaning story, I highly encourage you to write your own and share it with somebody and think about how and why you are deriving meaning and purpose from that story and read it to somebody else. So maybe you can help them have a little bit more clarity in their lives. And I find that it’s really fun. It’s a fun exercise to do, and it’s also a challenging exercise to do. I hope you have a wonderful holiday. I hope you get a break. I hope you get time with people that you really like and family and hope you like your family. And as always, I’m with you on this journey of personal growth adventure and our mission to be better every day. I’ll see you right back here next year.