Growing up as a young girl aspiring to make her mark on the world, not surprisingly one of my heroes was Oprah. For as long as I can remember, I have been inspired by Oprah’s work ethic, her championing of diverse stories and voices, and how as a woman of color she is always unapologetically herself. Given I have spent so much time looking up to Oprah, it makes sense that I’m a big proponent of living my “best life”.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on this concept over the last year — the events of 2020, especially, have changed what it means for many of us to live our best. In the midst of a global pandemic and a racial injustice crisis, living our best lives doesn’t mean “having it all” in the traditional sense. Living our best life is now more about finding joy and fulfillment.
So what does it take to live a fulfilling life in these difficult times? There are two points that come up repeatedly whenever I look at research and wisdom about living well, and not surprisingly, they’re connected for many of us. The two things you need to live a fulfilling life are to find meaning in your life and to develop social relationships.
1. Live Better by Finding Meaning
A few years ago, when I was vacationing with my sister, she brought along a copy of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s profound 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. She was gripped by the book and passed it along to me. I had the same response (and our gal Oprah is a big fan of his work too!).
In the book, Frankl details his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp and his observations about the differences in how his fellow prisoners fared under such extreme circumstances. Essentially, what Frankl shares is that the greatest task we have in our lives is to find meaning from one moment to the next — and that no matter how much is taken away from us, we still have the power to choose how we respond to our circumstances.
Frankl’s central belief is that life is “not a quest for pleasure… or a quest for power… but a quest for meaning.” He explains that there are a number of ways that we can choose to find meaning on our journeys. Some people find their meaning through work, some by loving others, and some through having courage in difficult times. The key here is that we all possess choice — it’s up to each of us to decide which path we follow and to choose how we want to live.
Frankl’s wisdom is enduring, and contemporary researchers are still talking about the critical importance of finding meaning in life and revealing new aspects of how this shows up. (Check out Daniel Pink’s great book Drive to learn about the factors that motivate us at work.)
I’ve found in my own research that our ability to find meaning and purpose in life is directly connected to authenticity. In my life, the quest for meaning and the commitment to living authentically have been inextricably linked. One of the best things I ever did was to give up being an employee and work for myself. The decision to build a business around my passion for social justice, inclusion, and empowerment has made room for a tremendous amount of meaning in my life — and I’ve seen this happen for countless others who’ve committed to authenticity as well.
When we find our meaning and purpose and live it out by being authentic, we’re much better able to live a life centered on our values, which helps us feel fulfilled.
2. Live Better by Developing Social Relationships
In one of my favorite TED Talks, psychologist Susan Pinker presents some eye-opening research showing that the answer to living longer lives is not what we expect. A study examining numerous aspects of lifestyle showed that the top two predictors of long life do not include diet, exercise, alcohol use, or even genes. The two predictors are close relationships and social integration, that is, interactions you have with other people throughout your day, like greeting your taxi driver, the person who serves you lunch, etc. This research says that interacting with others influences the chemical processes of the body, improving our health by lowering our cortisol levels and increasing the release of dopamine. Simply put, in order to be healthy, people need people.
Relationships are a predictor of longevity, and they are also a predictor of happiness. A study conducted by Harvard beginning in 1938 set out to understand what leads to happy and healthy lives. What this nearly 80-year long study revealed is that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” The study finds that healthy relationships have a positive effect on both physical and mental health. In essence, good relationships are powerful indicators of both our quality of life and how we will age.
So what is the best way to go about cultivating strong, close, and meaningful relationships? The answer here, too, is authenticity. As I reveal in my book The Authenticity Principle, when we consistently choose to know, embrace, and be our authentic selves as often as possible, we feel better about ourselves, we bring this spirit to our interactions, and in doing so, we invite others to do the same. This fosters more meaningful and deeper connections with others, which will, in turn, improve our health and happiness.
The work of these writers and researchers proves a fascinating point — that in order to truly care for ourselves and to live our best lives, we need to focus both inward to find meaning and outward to develop relationships. Researchers are continuing to uncover just how important these deeper aspects — meaning and social relationships — are to our wellbeing and even our longevity.
So after today, if you want to live your best, the takeaways are quite simple: find meaning and develop relationships to live a more fulfilling life. I can tell you, from my own personal experience, that the research is spot on.
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