The best advice on how to live a good life is often the easiest to dismiss, because it tends to be simple — boring, even. Eat leafy greens. Exercise regularly. Make time to connect with friends and family. Floss. (Though you may be off the hook for that last one.)
Here is another to add to the list — you also need to feel like you’re connected to something larger than yourself. This is, on the one hand, a thoroughly obvious point, one that exists at the heart of both ancient religions and modern social-justice movements. But like eating healthy foods and exercising, it’s one thing to know you should do something; it’s often quite another to actually do that thing. Also like eating healthy foods and exercising: This is necessary. This is nonnegotiable. To be a fully functioning human being, you have to, research in behavioral science overwhelmingly shows, feel like you’re a part of something that’s bigger than just you.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies three major themes of a fulfilling life. “Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger,” Haidt wrote. On his website, Haidt expanded on that point:
[W]e are, in a way, like bees: our lives only make full sense as members of a larger hive, or as cells in a larger body. Yet in our modern way of living we’ve busted out of the hive and flown out on our own, each one of us free to live as we please. Is it any wonder so many people ask “what’s the point?” or “what is the meaning of life?” Most of us need to be part of a hive in some way, ideally a hive that has a clearly noble purpose. Religion, teaching, science, political campaigns … these are some of the hives people seek to merge themselves into. The self is often a problem; find ways to lose yours, rather than constantly celebrating or expressing it.
One easy way to meet this need this weekend: Join a march. After that, join a cause. “Join an organization that has a noble purpose and a long and noble past,” Haidt writes. “Any volunteer work can take you out of yourself. But one that has history, traditions, and rituals is an easier place to find ‘vital engagement,’” his term for the crucial relationship that exists between a person and their surroundings.“It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself,” he writes in his book. “If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.” All in all, the pursuit of meaning seems like a good theme for 2017.