What makes our lives meaningful?
Oh yes, I’m starting with the "big guns”. But hey, I’m definitely not the first person to ask this important question. For centuries humans have been searching for the answer and it doesn’t look like they’re going to stop any time soon. Generally speaking, to be blessed with a meaningful life means to be equipped with a purpose, amazing motivation, and a sense of well-being. There are so many crucial components revolving around the categories of social, psychological, occupational, cognitive, and physical functioning. The definition of a life filled with meaning differs from one person to another.
On my private search, I asked myself: “Is there a common denominator for all these various aspects of meaning?” We humans are so versatile and colorful. There’s no denying it. Nevertheless, I believe that there is unity in our diversity and at the end of the day - we are one.
Many studies show that, among many other things, daily routines and rituals have the power of making life feel meaningful. I found this thought to be so charming. Looking for beauty in everyday life is a rather common idea. However, the concept of creating beauty and introducing the quality of meaning in the mundane reality is not so popular.
What if we can upgrade our regular existence?
Let’s start with the daily routines. We all have them, even if we don’t realize it. We all need to get up in the morning, take a shower, brush our teeth, and eat breakfast. We check the news, read the paper, go on walks with the dog, walk the kids to school, and start a workday. Our many routines aim to contain the chaos of everyday life and introduce some sort of structure. It serves us as a guarantee of stability, which in turn gives us a feeling of comfort. A perfect example is having an aromatic cup of tea after a busy day. We know that no matter what, the same beverage is waiting for us at home when we come back from work and we can finally unwind. Comfort and stability, plain and simple.
There’s another side to this coin though. A routine can also be viewed as a boring responsibility or worse... a dreaded chore! It’s often something that just needs to be done like cleaning the dishes, doing the laundry, or vacuuming the floors. We focus on the end goal - a spotless house, clean clothing, or a tidy kitchen. The motivation is external, right?
It’s not like we dream of sorting the trash. It’s not like we wake up super excited and we just can’t wait to walk the dog at 7 A.M. on a rainy Sunday morning. At times those duties can overwhelm us and make us feel hopeless. The danger of too many routines is that suddenly the definition of our very existence can boil down to disconnected series of events to which we pay little to no attention and we don’t even want to engage in them.
That’s where the rituals come into play. They really come to the rescue, filling our lives with meaning again. These practices bring an element of magic, they break the curse of the greyness and humdrum of our usual activities. Rituals offer not only a sense of purpose but also a subjective experience of specialness.
Those little mindful acts which, once again, differ from one person to another, are a way of keeping us engaged in the art of celebrating life. For some, an important and intimate ritual can be enjoying a delicious cup of organic cacao. For others, a simple relaxing meditation does the trick (while we’re at it, consider elevating your mindful ritual with a linen eye pillow). The main focus shifts from the end goal to the performance of the ritual itself (in other words - it’s all about the journey, not the destination). During turbulent times, a mindful ritual plays a role of an anchor on a stormy sea. We can simply rely on rituals. We can use them as tools to come back to the self, to remind us of our priorities, to check in with ourselves.
Here’s another idea: what if we have the power to change the boring into the interesting? What if we actually can transform a routine into a ritual? I think we absolutely can and here’s how:
I invite you to think about the bigger picture - the true meaning behind the seemingly boring everyday activities. Instead of thinking: “this needs to be done”, we can consciously make a shift towards: “this activity serves a purpose and it induces the quality of my life”. After all, why do we do what we do day after day? The true purpose of cleaning the dishes is to be able to cook delicious food and enjoy eating it off a clean plate. The actual point of doing the laundry is the pleasure that looking presentable and feeling comfortable in freshly washed clothing gives us. We walk the dog every morning, even on the rainiest days of the year, so that our fur babies live a happy life which makes us happy too.
Bringing more awareness to a routine is also a way of transforming it into a ritual. This can be easily explained by taking a look at the example of doing yoga. In order to get the asanas just right, you need to focus all of your attention on the practice itself: positioning your body, balancing it, and adjusting your posture. Let’s take another, more glamourless example: I used to absolutely hate standing in lines. It was like torture. All I could think was: “what a waste of time and what an annoying thing to do, this is horrible”. I avoided it whenever I could. Then I coaxed myself to adapt a mindful posture. I decided to test it out while standing in line at a post office. I started noticing little details around me: an old lady with big glasses, a mother with her 5-year old daughter sending a package bigger than the toddler herself, the specific sound of the post stamp, etc. It was all of a sudden so magical to just stand in stillness, observe the surroundings, and stop judging the activity of standing in line!
Now, after experimenting with other routines, I can truly recommend these practices to you:
breathing meditations when being stuck in traffic, waiting for a meeting
mindful walking with your dog or on your way to buy groceries
a gratitude ritual while cleaning the house
Who would have thought that vacuuming can be so much fun? I must admit, even standing in line is kind of cool now. What’s even cooler is the added value that the mindful attitude can bring to one’s life. My self-control is a lot better, I no longer get frustrated when waiting in the queue. I’m also more detail-oriented and so the overall quality of performing my routines improved significantly.
And probably the most important of them all: I get things done. Levels of procrastination decrease while motivation increases when you add meaning to the daily activities. You start to show up more often.
“Life is not only made meaningful through extraordinary experiences but also in its daily living”, Samantha Heintzelman and Laura King say in their research. Routines and rituals balance each other out. They are perfect together because they bring an amazing value of mindfulness to our lives.
My last question to you is: Do you have any chores that you’ve been putting off? How are you planning to transform them into rituals? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.