An underrated aspect of depression is a prevailing sense that life is meaningless. When used the right way, this key insight can lead to mental well-being, inner peace, and outward empathy.
The Invention of Meaning
The NBC network televises the Olympics every two years to entice viewers to watch commercials so they can sell time to corporations. To get viewers to watch sporting events that wouldn’t ordinarily interest them, they create stories to give them meaning.
In the case of the Super-G, or giant slalom event, the story they created went like this:
Lindsey Vonn is the most decorated female Alpine ski racer in World Cup history, with more race victories and season titles than any other woman. At the Olympics, the “Speed Queen” became the first U.S. woman to win a downhill gold medal in 2010. Four years later, a right knee injury prevented her from attempting to defend her Olympic title. In PyeongChang, at 33, she could become the oldest woman to claim an Olympic Alpine medal.
What they don’t mention in her profile, but play up in every piece of video featuring the athlete is that she is conventionally attractive. They show her winning, crashing, being rolled into surgery, in rehab; but they never show the tall, athletic blonde without her makeup.
NBC didn’t try to sell women from various countries skiing from one arbitrary point on a South Korean mountain to another, banging their shoulders into flags to win a shiny medal. They sold a woman overcoming adversity, hardship, and that bugaboo that none of us can escape, age. Her goal: nothing short of redemption. Grabbing the brass ring is for pikers. Lindsay Vonn is going for the gold!
What Makes the Meaningless Meaningful
I don’t blame you for a second if the shopworn narrative NBC created for Lindsay Vonn doesn’t excite you. Lack of interest in such unimaginative narratives often makes me feel like an outsider looking in.
What made the meaningless meaningful to me was the moment when the NBC narrative unraveled. Lindsay Vonn didn’t win her gold medal, or any medal, in the Super-G. I wasn’t invested in her win. I was happy to see Austrian Anna Veith claim the fastest time. But, that didn’t make the event meaningful either.
NBC had moved on to men’s figure skating by the time world champion snowboarder Ester Ledecka from Czechoslovakia borrowed a pair of skis originally intended for American Mikaela Shiffrin, who decided to sit out the event. The snowboarder crossed the finish line a hundredth of a second faster than the presumed gold medalist Veith.
She didn’t immediately raise her arms in a V, a behavior sociologists have tagged as a universal response to winning an Olympic gold medal. There was no cry of jubilation or breaking down in tears. She couldn’t believe what had happened. The NBC correspondent interviewed her about how it felt to win a gold medal. She said that she didn’t know. The reality still hadn’t sunk in. She hadn’t even worn make-up because she had no expectation of a press conference following her run.
A Shining Example
You could argue that I found Ledecka’s victory inspirational because it conformed to the traditional underdog narrative. That wouldn’t be true.
Ledecka hadn’t been portrayed as an underdog. Her win became my most meaningful Olympic moment because it served as a shining example of a very beneficial insight for moving from depression to well-being.
The Dopamine Reward
In Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, researcher storyteller Brené Brown writes about the work of neurologist/novelist Robert Burton:
“Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them.” He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, “we earn a dopamine ‘reward’ every time it helps us understand something in our world— even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”
This physiological reward we get for meaning making is a double-edged sword. It’s useful when we get the meaning right: Hey, I ate that food and I’m no longer hungry. It’s painful if we get it wrong: Chris didn’t answer my text message. He/She must hate me. What did I do wrong?
Choose Your Own Adventure
When Ester Ledecka completed her Super-G run in 1:21.11, every human being observing the event experienced a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral physical sensation. Based on that sensation, each human brain constructed its own meaning and invented its own story. But, if I were a god looking down from Mount Olympus and had the ability to read minds, the meaning created based on those sensations might have looked something like this.
Ester Ledecka (1:21.11): I can’t believe I won.
Anna Veith (1:21.12): After all those years of hard work, I get beat by a snowboarder, seriously?
Tina Weirather (1:22.22): Oh, well. At least I’m still on the podium.
Lara Gut (1:21.23): There goes my bronze medal.
Me: Awesome. I’ve got a topic for a blog post.
Finding Meaning in the Meaningless
Once we realize that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder (or meaning is in the mind of the experiencer), we gain a new-found freedom.
It’s not a freedom to do anything we want. If we start doing things to hurt ourselves or other people, we’ll experience more physical pain even if our emotional pain is under control. If we start breaking laws, we may lose our physical freedom very quickly by getting thrown in prison.
The freedom to view our lack of emotion as an insight into how our feelings shape our experience transforms it from a dysfunction into a virtue. With this knowledge, we can begin training ourselves to question whether our feelings are leading us to create beneficial or harmful interpretations of events. We can recognize that although we cannot control the behavior of others, we have more control over our response to those actions than we thought. And, while there’s no guarantee, better responses trend toward better outcomes.
Ten Minute Exercise
Understanding the physiology of how we form meaning can improve our sense of mental well-being by giving us a momentary dopamine reward. To develop that well-being into a sense of inner peace requires us to ease up on judging ourselves and others when our interpretations of events in the world differ. Non-judging can increase our sense of empathy when we recall times in our lives when our interpretation of events led to mental suffering. This takes practice.
- Find something to write with and set a timer for ten minutes.
- Take a moment to notice how your body and mind feel right now.
- Write down something that you did today that involved other people. (Hint: Even things we do on our own affect other people. Writing this post involves everyone I mentioned, the people who manufactured my computer, the people who produce the electricity to power it, etc.)
- Write down the meaning that each person might create based on their emotional response to the action from as many perspectives as you can. (Hint: Ester Ledecka: Hey, another post about me showed up in my Google alert. Apple: Keep putting wear and tear on that old computer, you’ll probably need a new one soon. Electric company worker: keep that electricity usage up. Job security.)
- When the timer sounds, choose the meaning that you like best.
- Take a moment to notice how your body and mind feel right now before continuing with your day.