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Doing Better: Resources for finding meaning in life and making everyday count

Author Annie Dillard once wrote, “what then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives … there is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.”

As the days get longer, summer offers an opportunity to look up from our work and reflect on where our life path is taking us. What does the good life look like? And how can we be more intentional about making the most of our time here?

James O’Toole notes in his book, “Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to find Meaning and Happiness,” Aristotle believed that in the good life we find happiness – not in the contemporary sense of immediate (and often fleeting) sensory satisfaction but in the ancient sense of eudaimonia, meaning happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and full flourishing of self.

Authors Richard Leider and David Shapiro define the good life simply as “living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work, on purpose. … In other words, reaching for and holding on to what really matters in your life and letting go of the responsibilities and commitments that do not.”

This can feel like a risky endeavor. It requires an honest evaluation of who we are and how we are living and reflecting on potential changes and choices that need to be made. Fortunately, there are some great resources available to guide us.

Born learners

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about how we learn and how we make choices. In her seminal book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes how all of us are born learners who throw ourselves into difficult tasks such as learning to walk and talk – overcoming the inevitable setbacks along the way through grit and persistence.

But with time and experience, some of us stop running up the learning curve. Dweck suggests that we become afraid of failure and develop a fixed mindset that hinders our ability to take on challenges.

When we have a fixed mindset, failure starts to define who we are – and failure gets transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure). Conversely, those who maintain a growth mindset embrace challenges. Setbacks become an opportunity to learn and improve. Rather than being debilitating, failure provides motivation to get better.

Mindset also affects our relationships. Dweck finds that growth-minded leaders are not focused on trying to prove they are better than others (a hallmark of the fixed mindset). Rather they work to lift others and create a collective mindset of improvement, innovation, hard work and productivity. In these settings, critical feedback becomes a chance to learn and become more emotionally intelligent.

Another good book is Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ.” Through extensive research of successful leaders, the Harvard professor concludes that while intellect (IQ) is certainly a contributor to performance, 90 percent of the difference between average and star performers is attributable to emotional intelligence (EQ) factors. They include self awareness, self regulation (or self discipline) and personal motivation.

Learned helplessness

EQ competencies also include how we manage our relationships with others, our ability to empathize, skillfully navigate social settings and motivate others through inspiration rather than coercion. Like Dweck’s growth mindset, emotional intelligence can be learned, practicedand strengthened. A similar line of argument for self improvement and self mastery comes from Martin Seligman, a renowned University of Pennsylvania psychologist.

Through his exploration of what makes people depressed, he developed a theory of learned helplessness – or a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a bad situation.

Over time and in collaboration with others, Seligman began to flip his attention to what made people happy and wrote an important book called “Learned Optimism.” It looks at strategies for developing an optimistic approach to life and contributed to the growth of the positive psychology movement. In his book, “Flourish,” Seligman articulates five elements to his “well-being theory” that include positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

Creating a life of meaning and making each day count is an age-old pursuit. It can also be a call to action. In his essay “On the Shortness of Life,” ancient Greek philosopher Seneca wrote “the greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes today… live straightway!” Here’s to a well-lived summer and all the days that follow.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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