• Sarah Hickson

Seeking life fulfilment? Change your focus and create your own meaning

Updated: Aug 12




Have you ever stopped to ask yourself and reflect on the following questions?

What is important to you?

What kind of impact do you want to have on others?

What kind of person do you want to be?

What do you want your life to be about?

I admit, these questions can be quite confronting and heavy if you have never considered them before. Especially if it’s morning, you’re still in bed and only had only stumbled across this blog post by accident while surfing the net on your phone in sheer procrastination to face the day ahead.

“The why’s and what’s of life? Jeez, the only consuming thing on my mind at this hour is whether or not I have enough milk in the fridge to make coffee!”

However, aside from the weight of it all, and the risk of disappointment incase your partner finished the milk carton last night (that bastard!), you may have not yet considered the value of such question contemplation when it comes to optimising your own health and wellbeing, especially if issues with self worth, finding direction, anxiety and feelings of low mood are chronically problematic for you.

Nutrition to Holism, Fine Tuning My Approach to Health

The secret of man’s being is not only to live, but to have something to live for

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

What started out as a interest for me which later grew into a passion, an obsession and beyond, I have found my focus on health to evolve from the slightly obsessed and naive mantra of “nutrition can heal anything” to examining and factoring in our own beliefs, mindset and emotions, into the whole wellbeing package, i.e. the mind/body connection.

We all understand the importance of quality nutrition (although I admit that what constitutes quality nutrition these days is consistently blurred thanks to confusing diet fads and dodgy marketing claims…more on that in later blogs), and it’s true that from a physiological and physical point of view, nutrition is indeed vital to providing the building blocks to create a biochemistry that feeds a healthy state of mind. There is also no doubt that certain food particles, inflammation and poor gut health can affect our mind and emotions in significant ways by compromising balance in our neurochemistry.

Yet, even when our diets are pure the mind can still manage to trip us up through life’s inevitable curve balls, as we stumble with mistakes, and for many of us, as we focus on and amplify imperfections to feed a story in our minds that we don’t measure up, causing us to question our own self worth. Our perspective is the lens to how we view the world and and in turn how we view ourselves, our experiences and our interactions, and this can be adjusted at anytime.

The Band Aid Effect…

For anxiety and depressive disorders there are many medical interventions available that aim to correct a disturbed neurochemistry, elevate mood and alleviate anxiety through manipulation of neurotransmitters, in particular the often “golden child” of neurotransmitters…serotonin. However this is not without its fair share of unwanted side effects and limitations, because drivers for mood and anxiety disorders are not based on single chemical imbalances alone but rather a complex relationship between our internal biochemistry, external environmental factors, our choice of ‘lens’ and the consequential thought patterns associated with it. You may not yet realise that “every thought we have causes a chemical and electrical reaction in our brains,” as quoted by Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. And seeings that our brain governs the way our body operates, the stress created from self-loathing, lack of meaning and a negative outlook on life can be a big driver towards the manifestation of disease, and/or its progression.

What you perceive is how your brain reacts…

Unsatisfied with the limitations of medical and cognitive behavioural treatments for mood and anxiety disorders, psychology researchers Fava and Elena (2009) documented the benefits of a psychotherapeutic intervention called Wellbeing Therapy, which aims to increase both psychological wellbeing and resilience to adverse environmental circumstances. The framework of this intervention includes the following 6 dimensions:

Environmental mastery - The subject’s ability to see and take advantage of surrounding opportunities and manage their own environment and everyday affairs, while having a sense of control over their life.

Personal growth - The subject’s sense of continued development, openness to new experience and realising their own potential

Purpose in life - Where the subject has their own goals and direction in life, and feels that their life has purpose and meaning

Autonomy - Where the subject can resist social pressure and the expectations of others, exercising independence and ability to regulate their own behaviour

Self-acceptance - Where the subject has a positive attitude towards themselves, accepting their good and bad qualities and can learn from past mistakes

Positive relations with others - Where the subject has a warm and trusting relationship with others and is concerned about their wellbeing, and where they have the ability to express intimacy, affection and empathy.

The researchers found that patients who struggled with ongoing depression and anxiety had impairments in some or all of these dimensions, with a tendency to feel as though they had no control over their life. Feeling personally stagnant without growth, purpose and direction was common amongst these subjects, along with feeling deeply disappointed and dissatisfied with their own personal qualities and their past experiences. Closeness, trust and openness in their own personal relationships was often an issue for them. The researchers noted that the subjects shared an inattentiveness towards positive experiences and a reduced capacity to sustain a state of wellbeing due to automatic, unchecked thoughts, compromising their psychological wellbeing. In these subjects, previous medical and cognitive behavioural interventions weren't enough in promoting and retaining their recovery because residual symptoms still often occurred following treatment, and their tendency to relapse back into an anxious and/or depressive state was strong.

They found however that when guided by their therapists through Well Being Therapy which involved optimising each of the above dimensions away from an impaired level, the subjects had a greater sense of emotional wellbeing and became more much more resilient and less vulnerable to relapsing into anxiety and depression compared to those who were treated with standard cognitive therapies alone.

The importance of having personally meaningful goals…

Other research studies have shown that goal attainment is a major benchmark for the experience of life satisfaction and wellbeing, and that our happiness is equivalent to the fulfilment of personally meaningful goals, needs and wishes. Researchers have demonstrated that superficial goals such as social recognition, physical attractiveness, materialism and financial success were negatively related to vitality and self-actualisation, yet were positively associated with feelings of anxiety, depression, narcissism and physical illness. Interestingly, while income was shown to be moderately correlated with wellbeing, its increase beyond a base level (financially comfortable) failed to make any improvement to wellbeing. On the other hand, personal goals that were related to personal growth and community contribution promoted a greater sense of subjective wellbeing, thus indicating that it’s not our popularity, how we look and the possessions that we hold that contribute to a deep sense of life satisfaction and happiness, but rather our sense of purpose and life meaning (Emmons 2003).

The Mind Body Connection

To go back to that mind/body connection, it’s important to understand and remember that our biochemistry and the energy of our thoughts don’t work in isolation from each other, instead they are blended into our very own and unique internal pool, reacting continuously to our internal and external environments, creating a ripple effect throughout the entire body. The impact over our emotional health by living without goals, purpose or sense of growth, from feeling disconnected from yourself and others, and tuning into esteem destroying thought patterns, powerfully accelerates and fuels disharmony in the body potentially developing into a diseased state if left unchecked. Much emphasis is placed onto improving our sleep, our diet and exercise routine (or developing one) in order to maximise our health yet it’s important to remember they are only pieces of the wellbeing picture - human connection, self love, a healthy perspective and sense of purpose are the threads that make it whole.

Connecting with Your Values

Man is a being in search of meaning

(Plato)

One of the most powerful exercise that I have ever done in relation to my personal life meaning had been at a seminar I had attended in Melbourne, 2015, led by Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap and International Trainer in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Dr Russ Harris had just previously explained to us that connecting to and actively living by our own core values had a greater impact over our overall state of wellbeing and happiness than a high self-esteem alone. He explained that self-esteem is merely an opinion that we have of ourselves based on a series of thoughts that can frequently interchange between positive or negative. Often our attention can become so fixated by the negative series of thoughts that we use them as evidence to feed a story in our minds that we don't measure up in one way or another, preventing us from taking action and leading our lives in a more personally fulfilling direction.

To put it all into perspective, Dr Harris asked the group to imagine what it would be like to attend our own funeral and the kind of words that would be said about us during the eulogy. He jokingly pointed out that someone who expressed a healthy, high opinion of themselves but made little action in expressing kindness and compassion towards others was far less memorable than someone who had dedicated their life to actively putting these two things into practice.

To revisit those questions that I had posed to you earlier, maybe now with a coffee (with frothed milk) in hand, perhaps now you may be beginning to draw on your answers:

What is important to you?

What kind of impact do you want to have on others?

What kind of person do you want to be?

What do you want your life to be about?

Whether it’s making the effort to become closer to your partner, being a positive example to your children and a supportive friend, pursuing a meaningful career path or committing yourself to making a positive impact towards a cause that you believe in - all of these things matter and make life more meaningful, at least and importantly, to you.

Ask yourself what you need to do to put them into practice. Set meaningful goals now and take small steps in making them happen, regularly reflecting on your progress, the mistakes you’ve made and how you’ve learnt from them. When the challenges are high (and that’s expected) remind yourself of why your goals are worth pursuing, and reward yourself after any accomplishment. Whenever you notice a moment that makes you feel happy, loved, loving or grateful, however fleeting, write it down to remind you of all the things that make you smile. Teach yourself to be grateful often.

Always make an effort to work on adjusting your lens to see the beauty of life through all of its complications and flaws and its inevitable ups and downs, because for all we know for certain, we only have one. You, and only you, have the power to create meaning and mould it into the one you want. It’s time to start now.

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