We've been scheduling "find the meaning of life" on our calendars for years, but for some strange reason we never seem to get to it. We think it might have something to do with being too busy living our lives, but we don't have the time to verify.
As a bestselling author and former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, Lee Eisenberg knows a thing or two about being busy – including how easy it is to overlook the larger meaning in life when the daily grind requires our full attention.
"After decades of working, raising a family, moving the family to a number of different cities, the time had come to step back, take a breath, and reflect on what it all meant," he writes in an email. "I wanted to rethink the chapters that had brought me to where I am at the moment: the victories and disappointments, love affairs won and lost, the birth and death of family members and friends. But I also wanted some perspective, to listen to other people's stories."
Taking stock of his life led to Eisenberg's latest book, The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between, in which he asks us to imagine a small storywriter who sits in our brains and uses our memories to write the great narrative of our lives. That narrative is how we make sense of ourselves and find meaning.
Here, Eisenberg answers our questions about embracing the inner storywriter in a more literal way — writing in a journal — and recognizing the significance of our unique life stories.
DOTGL.com: What are some of the benefits of keeping a journal?
Eisenberg: Diaries weren't on my radar until it occurred to me one day that I'd actually kept one for a while. It was during an important chapter of my life. I started typing out entries when our son was born and continued on until shortly after our daughter came along. I hadn't looked at it in many years. In fact, I was surprised to discover that I still had it. And yet there it was: a Word document that had made its way to my current hard drive, hopscotching from one computer to the next over a couple of decades. When I reread it, a rush of memories came back. For example, the gaping wonderment I felt as I watched my son go through perfectly normal stages of physical development. Miracle upon miracle! He lifted his head! He turned over by himself! The diary describes a business trip when I sat on a park bench and watched a father with a young son and felt an inexpressible longing to be home. There's a highly detailed account of the night our daughter was born, and in particular the role played by a midwife whose name and gentle bearing I'd completely forgotten about.
A journal's not judgmental. Nothing's not important enough on the day you choose to jot it down.
A diary gives us a chance to go back and see how certain events and relationships are often far more meaningful and important than they seemed at the time. Plenty of research supports that. The studies show that we typically underappreciate events and relationships when they occur. A journal, however, brings them into the light of a new day. Based on what I took away from my own short-lived diary, and also what others have told me about their journals, I'm now certain that our lives hold many more truly meaningful experiences than we give ourselves credit for.
What would you say to people who think that they don't have a storywriter inside them?
Once I explain the metaphor you're referring to — that we create an internal life story out of our memories, as if there's a little writer living in our heads — everybody nods in agreement. They understand intuitively that without the life story we carry around inside, our lives would make no sense at all. Now, I suppose there are neurologists and cognitive scientists out there who'd argue that in all the years they've been scanning human brains they've never come across a little man or woman with a keyboard hiding up there. What I would say to them? I'd say, lighten up!
Is there a "wrong" way to keep a journal?
The only wrong way that I can think of is worrying that what you're writing is not written well enough. Some people have told me that the reason they don't keep a diary is that writing doesn't come easily to them. Well, guess what? It doesn't matter. Virginia Woolf, whose lifelong diary runs to 38 volumes, said that how a diary's written "doesn't count." The fact is, a journal's not judgmental. Nothing's not important enough on the day you choose to jot it down. Everything's not unimportant till time proves it meaningless or incomprehensible when you revisit it years later.
What about social media? Do you consider that to be a kind of journal?
Keeping a journal and posting on social media are two very different things. There's plenty of stuff that occurs to us that we'd rather not share with others, not on Facebook or Twitter, not anywhere. And there's plenty of stuff we don't fully understand and can't easily put into words. What social media provide, on the other hand, is a sense of community, albeit a digital community. Experts tell us that social relationships of all kinds are fundamental to leading a satisfying life. Social media can play a role in that, though it's no substitution for a face-to-face community.
You say someone should strive to live a meaningful life rather than a happy one. Why is that?
Because if your life isn't meaningful enough, you won't be happy. It's that simple. You'll be bored, restless, dissatisfied, or worse. Happiness isn't an end in itself. It's a by-product of something else: a deep personal relationship; a fulfilling accomplishment; a commitment to a cause; the feeling of being creatively satisfied. In other words, an attachment to something larger than yourself. While these things don't guarantee you'll be happy, you almost certainly won't be happy unless you're deriving satisfaction from at least one of the things I just mentioned.
What is the main point you hope readers take away from your book?
There are studies that show that it isn't how much happiness or meaningfulness there is in a life that determines whether we say our life is satisfying or not. What matters is whether your life is moving in the right direction. Imagine two life stories. Let's say that things in your life are right now going from not-so-good to good — i.e., your life is moving in the right direction. Let's say that things in mine are going the other way, from good to not-so-good. Which one us is more likely to say we're feeling satisfied with our life? You are — even if I've had more satisfying events and relationships than you've had. But if my satisfying experiences are petering out, and yours are moving onward and upward, you'll express more overall satisfaction with your life than I will. The takeaway? That it's never too late. It's never too late to connect to something larger than yourself and, if and when you do, you'll find that you're on the right glide path to greater fulfillment.
Lee Eisenberg is a New York Times bestselling author and the former editor-in-chief of Esquire Magazine. His latest book, The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between, was published in February. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. For more information, visit LeeEisenberg.com.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.