View Full Version : Meaningful Activity

Barry Cooper
01-03-2006, 03:09 PM
This falls squarely in the mental training category. I post on a couple of different sites, and chose this one because I feel like I'll get honest answers.

Question: what does meaningful activity feel like? Does it feel different from non-meaningful activity, at the time (i.e. versus years afterward)?

Obviously, meaning is specific to the individual. I'm curious what people have to say. Not directly relevant to CrossFit, but hopefully folks will humor me. I think it's a good question.

Graham Hayes
01-03-2006, 04:17 PM
Tiring, but not in a mundane way.

David Wood
01-03-2006, 06:12 PM
Uh . . . define "meaningful"?

Eugene R. Allen
01-03-2006, 10:01 PM
Meaning - ful in Barry's application here appears to be a priori as regards the clarity with which it is applied. Certainly he is asking what sensory input distinguishes activity which has meaning for the actor from that which does not. It is not the action itself that is at the heart of this issue but rather the method by which this action is to be evaluated that we must review.

Worth, value, that which is good is not necessarily that which you enjoy or that which makes you happy. Meaningful in the Barry sense has a larger Big T Truth consideration in that it needs to comport with and contribute to the greater good in a larger sense than simply that which pleases the actor.

I don't view entertainment (TV, movies, video games) as a meaningful activity for example because it does not have any sort of lasting developmental good but is rather something that does little more than pass the time and uselessly occupy the mind. Those things that sharpen the mind, strengthen the body, energize the soul and rejuvinate the spirit I will call meaningful. Although I would not go so far as to say those things that do not satisfy this set of requirements are a waste of time, they are not, in my view meaningful.

Socrates let us know that the unexamined life is not worth living. If you read Dan Millman's book "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior" perhaps you remember the part where Socrates (a different one) had Dan sit on a rock until he came up with something meaningful. It took him a few tries but eventually he came up with "There are no ordinary moments." Examine your life, put meaning into everything you do and then all your activity will be meaningful and thus not require this secondary examination.

Russ Greene
01-03-2006, 10:28 PM
Well said, Eugene. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior is an excellent book. I would add to what you said that it is beneficial to learn to enjoy the painful but meaningful things as opposed to merely performing them as a means to an end. We tend to get more out of that which we enjoy rather than tolerate.

Tony Young
01-04-2006, 06:25 AM
Meaning is what you bring to an activity. Anything can be meaningful (or meaningless) if done with thought and, dare I say it, a spiritual consideration. If action is helpful or "meaningful" to others it's because of the focus those others bring to it. Even entertainment can be meaningful if it's infused by the actor with thoughtfulness and purpose. Some things may be more obviously and easily realized as "meaningful" - saving a life, writing a great book, producing anything profound - but can also be rendered meaningless if not realized on a spiritual level.

To answer your question, Barry, ...I'm not sure what it feels like. I know it feels different, meaningful from meaningless, but how each feels I'm at a loss to describe. As hard as could I try I'm certainly not at the level that I can infuse meaning into everyting I do. Occasionally, I'll notice meaning in a past action that at the time I considered meaningless.

Too much thinking, too early. Great question.

Barry Cooper
01-04-2006, 11:09 AM
I had intended to post this one for some time. The other one just occurred to me. I'm actually not being more philosophical than usual, just being publicly what I usually am privately.

All of us need, on some level, to answer the question "what is worth doing?". I would never say one answer is better than another, up to a point (what Hitler did, for example, was definitely not worth doing; I call that relative relativism).

I'm just thinking, if I'm doing work which is essentially meaningless, to me, but supporting kids financially, which is meaningful, then logically the work itself is meaningful, but it doesn't feel that way. Does that matter, or is it irrelevant?

I think about the troops on D-Day. They likely felt like they were doing something meaningful. It seems likely that some of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan feel like they are doing meaningful work, and some don't. Does the "meaning content" of the work there depend on the ultimate outcome, or does it depend on what we are TRYING to do, the spirit we are bringing to the task? [Note: I'm not trying to comment politically; the question would apply regardless of political beliefs]. Can activity be meaningful even if it does not achieve its' goal?

It may sound like I'm taking counsel from my fears. I'm not. I'm just trying to answer some basic questions for myself, and I've learned that putting these types of questions out in the open, in public forums, frequently helps me answer them.

I know this is a fitness website, but I feel like there are some good, decent people here, of a high intellectual caliber, and we all face the same demons, whether we acknowlege them or not.

I liked that "there are no ordinary moments." I'm not sure, at this point, how to put meaning into everything I do, though.

I guess one thing I try and do is grow a little personally every day.

I've just been in a strange mood for a couple of days. I'm not depressed, just perhaps unusually reflective. I apologize if these posts are a bit TOO far off the beaten path.

Douglas Chapman
01-04-2006, 12:44 PM
Fran gives you all the meaning you need! :proud:

Eric Moffit
01-04-2006, 04:29 PM
i love this stuff.

first of all, as i was reading through the posts (especially Eugene's), i realized meaningful activities are usually ones that are largely valued on a reasonable level (in contrast to sensual). for example, the soldier on D-Day knows Hitler is a bad man doing bad things, that the invasion is part of the plan to stop him, and that he plays a small though essential part in it (like voting in a democracy). now contrast that to someone doing drugs...he does them to feel a certain way and the only reasoning involved is 'if i put this inside me, i have this feeling.' the action is directed by the pleasure principle, whereas the soldier's action seems to be directed by something far greater than the pleasure principle...actually, now that i think about it, maybe there is a bit of the pleasure principle involved with the soldier. not sensual pleasure, but something deeper. almost like Socrates (or was it Plato) who said everyone desires happiness though some dont know the way or get caught up in 'smaller' happinesses.

anyway, i think meaningfullness is based heavily on reason.

Hollis Petri
01-04-2006, 05:34 PM
Great stuff
Some of my favorite moments are running in the woods all alone when i remember to be in the moment enjoying the 'now' and not thinking about how quickly I'm running or anything else. That seems meaningful to me though I'm not doing anything for the greater good. Is that meaningful? On the other end is the saying below which I have up on my wall:

George Bernard Shaw - A Splendid Torch
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

Andrew Brown
01-04-2006, 07:01 PM
I am of the opinion that my life and all I own belong to me. If I choose to serve my community with them, it's my choice. I don't see much meaning in a life that you don't consider your own, nor in service that you don't consider a choice.

As to serving in a war that some disagree with and whose outcome can't be certain til it's over- doing as right a thing as you can discern is meaningful. The magnitude is modified by success or failure and later judgement of right or wrong...but there is intrinsic meaning in undertaking what you think is the right course of action regardless of possible/probable result. Courage, conviction, willingness to stake yourself and your reputation for a larger cause= demonstration of intrinsic virtue not dampened by failure. Meaningful.

Rene Renteria
01-04-2006, 11:36 PM
“There are no ordinary moments.” So hard to live by! But what a path to find. (Still looking.)

It seems to me that combat isn’t the best place to look for this answer. From what I’ve read (not faced, certainly), what drove men on D-Day to perform in the face of mortal danger was roughly esprit de corps, not wanting to let your fellow soldiers down, wanting to do well by them, and not for larger goals of policy or nationalism. That’s what gives meaning enough to allow heroic actions. Or at least one thing. The fact of survival of you--and, importantly, your buddies--makes it meaningful. This is what has pushed small unit cohesion in training; it works.

Wouldn’t you want to look at activities that would otherwise be boring or uninteresting or tedious except for the meaningfulness of them? Hmm. Not sure about that. You probably wanted personal answers, but is there some way to find this out for a population? Maybe it’s a question of motivation. If we assume that people overall make choices to do things because those things are meaningful to them (that’s why they do them) (a big assumption given that people do plenty of things that we probably wouldn’t call meaningful in other ways), we can hypothesize that people making the most meaningful choices will have the most “satisfaction” or “happiness” with their lives and choices. We can ask them.

Alternatively, we could make up some mundane task and assign two different groups the task. For one group, we could infuse it with meaning or importance, for another we could tell them that it’s just meaningless timefilling for something else. (Or whatever it takes to convince them that the task needs to be done but isn’t meaningful.) Then we could quiz the two different groups about how they felt performing the task. (Great coaches, for example, are able to bring a vision of meaningfulness to games for their players.)

I assume these two different ways of asking this question have been asked by sociologists or psychologists. Does anyone here know some of that literature? I hardly know any. The second one reminds me of that study where people were told to turn a dial that was supposedly giving electric shocks to a person in another room. A white lab-coated authoritarian figure was telling them to keep turning up the dial even though the person could hear increasing screaming coming from the “test subject”. People who were told to turn it up to where they thought they should (or something like that) didn’t turn it up nearly as far as people who were ordered to keep going up by the authoritarian figure, who in this case was providing the “meaningfulness” in a sense. (Although the interpretation, I think, was that the authoritarian was removing the operator’s sense of free will…)

Interesting question. Here’s one abstract at least that asked something similar to the first scenario (querying a population about life satisfaction):

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstra ct&list_uids=7812021&query_hl=1&itool=pubmed_docsum (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=7812021&query_hl=1&itool=pubmed_docsum)

Disabil Rehabil. 1994 Oct-Dec;16(4):205-16. Related Articles, Links

On non-work activity preferences: relationships with occupational roles.

Branholm IB, Fugl-Meyer AR.

Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Umea, Sweden.

Occupational therapy is to a great extent based on the idea of engaging patients in meaningful activities. Using mailed checklists this investigation examines the preference attached to 50 activities by 201 adult (25-55 years old) northern Swedes using a four-grade ordinal scale. The self-reported levels of activity preferences were related to age and gender. Factor analysis was used to analyse the inter-relationships between activity preferences. The possible effects of activity preferences on self-reported occupational role internalization (10 items) were examined using discriminant analyses. Activity preferences were gender-dependent for more than half of the activities while only 14 of them were age-dependent. The factor analysis grouped 41 of the activities into 15 factors which were labelled 'activity goals'. Fourteen of these were distinct classifiers (discriminant analyses) of the self-reported degree of internalization of 8/10 occupational roles. In this sample occupational role internalization has elsewhere been demonstrated to be closely related to several domains of life satisfaction, which in turn are closely associated with satisfaction with life as a whole. Taken together with those results the present investigation leads the authors to suggest this model: activity preferences-->occupational roles-->domain-specific life satisfaction-->happiness.

A lot of jargon; the conclusion depends on what “occupational role internalization” means. In this next study, researchers found that solitary activity was important in (i.e., correlated with) longevity but not social activity for an elderly population in Sweden. I wonder if this shows that exercise (i.e., doing CrossFit) was the critical factor:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstra ct&list_uids=11682594&query_hl=3&itool=pubmed_docsum (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=11682594&query_hl=3&itool=pubmed_docsum)
J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2001 Nov;56(6):S335-42. Related Articles, Links
Click here to read
Does engagement with life enhance survival of elderly people in Sweden? The role of social and leisure activities.

Lennartsson C, Silverstein M.

Stockholm University, Swedish Institute for Social Research, Sweden. carin.lennartsson@sofi.su.se

This research examined whether engagement with life, defined as involvement in social, leisure, and productive activities, produced a survival advantage among oldest old persons in Sweden…. Analyses revealed 4 domains of activities that lie along 2 basic dimensions: solitary-social and sedentary-active…. For the entire sample, greater participation in solitary-active activities significantly reduced risk of mortality when all other activity domains and health factors were controlled.
(Hook ‘em, Horns!)

Eugene R. Allen
01-05-2006, 11:30 AM
Because my brain isn't as big as Rene's I have a more mundane approach to this topic of meaning and of the recent off-shoot topics of satisfaction and happiness. It comes in the form of a story about twin boys with very different behaviors. If you have heard it before, keep it to yourself, don't spoil it for the others...

A mom of twins brings her boys in for evaluation because one of them is always happy and the other is always miserable no matter the circumstances. The doctors in the clinic decide to set up a test to evaluate the boys and put the always sad one in a beautiful room full of toys and the always happy one in a dark and filthy room full of horse ****.

After 15 minutes they go back and check on sad boy and he is sitting in the middle of all the toys sullen and crying. The doctor asks him why in the midst of all the toys he is so upset and he whines, "There's so many toys here I don't know what to play with first." (Editorial comment: I always want to knock this kid upside the head).

When they walk down the hall to happy boy they hear him whistling and singing joyfully as they approach the room. When they go inside they see that he has found a shovel and that he is very merrily working away at digging through the muck. When the doctor asks him why it is that he is so happy the boy leans on his shovel and says, "Oh, hi doc. I just figured with all this poop you put in here for me that there has to be a pony in here someplace."

Life is about outlook and as you all remember from Hamlet "A thing is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so." The Bard reminds us from so long ago that just as with Barry's other post about pain and how those who suffer make due, we are responsible for our own outlook and it is our outlook that gives our lives meaning, beauty, joy, happiness and fulfillment and how it can also give you misery, pain, suffering and sorrow. People with backgrounds of wealth and plenty very frequently have pathetic and miserable lives while those who come from miserable circumstances frequently rise up and become heros, newsmakers and life changers.

Yes, working a job that you do not find meaningful for you but that provides for your family is meaningful. Of course it is. Your outlook is wrong to consider it otherwise. Find joy in what you do, don't search unto the ends of the earth to do what brings you joy. I'm a cop and I go after bad guys. I have a knack for catching drunk drivers and have arrested over 1,800 of them. It's tedious as any of you who deal with drunk people know but it brings me no end of satisfaction to know that in that number of arrests surely at least one, almost certainly more but at least one person did not get hurt or killed because I got the drunk off the road that was going to cross the centerline and drive through their hood ornament.

You are responsible for your own joy and for putting meaning in what you do. If you are joyful and happy, good for you...you are seeing to your own mental and emotional fitness. If you are miserable and depressed and don't know why, pull your head out of wherever it is and realize that you are your problem. Now if your family just died in a fiery helicopter crash from a meteor impact (I wanted something that had no significant likelihood of really happening) your misery is understandable and needs to be dealt with. But if it is an unfocused "I just don't feel good about myself" sort of ailment...OK, OK maybe you need meds or something. I can already hear the comebacks about depressive mental states and all of that but why all this reliance on medication over the last 20 years? We are medicating ourselves and our children into stuporous vegetables.

End of Rant. Now where was I...leaving room for those that truly need lithium or whatever to account for chemical imbalances and assuming the only problem is one of a bland "I need someone or something outside myself to make me happy or give me meaning" I maintain that though you are not an island and though you are not here by yourself and need to interact with the world you are still responsible for your own mental state.

This is disgusting. I am emoting here and then making corrections to myself for fear of stepping one someone else's emotional toes. I find it difficult sometimes to make a point for fear of an accusation of being insensitive. For surely that is the ultimate crime now-a-days, being insensitive. The PC police have had their little victory over me - I am becoming, OMG, someone help me...

considerate of other's feelings.

I need to go rearrange my gym.


Barry Cooper
01-05-2006, 02:07 PM
In my particular case, don't worry for a second about hurting my feelings. I get told no for a living, and some people aren't very nice about it. It takes a LOT to hurt my feelings, and I doubt anyone on here could if they tried.

I'm not stuck in my head, although I do spend a lot of time there. I've done 2 WOD's this week, 3 hours of martial arts training, and 3 flexibility sessions. I definitely don't sit around crying in my beer, although I can certainly do better in the work-out department.

I left my wife 8 months ago, and we'll be filing the paperwork some time in the coming year. There's nothing unusual about that. In my case, enduring the marriage was much more difficult than the separation, and looking back, I did everything the way I would have, had I scripted it. I behaved honorably, in my view, even though it caused me a considerable amount of additional pain. I did it right.

Where I'm at now, the best example I can use is when your foot falls asleep, it's numb, and to get the feeling back, you have to go through that tingling sensation, which is mildly painful, but tells you you're on the way to recovery, and I think that feeling is what's got me reflective. It's actually a very positive thing. Certainly, I view it that way.

That's probably too much information, but hopefully not entirely out of line, especially given my personal history with this website. Folks that have been here a while will know what I'm talking about.

In any event, last night I put on a Steven Reich CD (the composer) smoked a couple cigars, and thought about this, and the conclusion I reached is that a deep-seated, subtle joy is the primary symptom. People think you have to think about others before yourself, and be one of these "do-gooders" to be living a meaningful life. I actually think if you can just make yourself happy in a harmonious way with those around you, that's good enough. I'm not an Objectivist, by any means, but I also distrust sainthood.

As painful as the WOD's are, I think most of us have half a smile on our faces when we're doing them. That is a symptom of meaning, I believe.

I thought, too, about the concept of Flow, as described by Mihalyi Csikscentmilhi (spelling approx.). I think that, a sense of meaning, and joy, are approximately synonymous. Now that I think about it, he coined the word "autotelic", which is an activity you do for the sake of itself, versus what you get from it.

For me, CrossFit is autotelic, because I actually don't care if I get better. Obviously, I would like to, but I actually enjoy the challenge of completing the WOD's.

I read a book a number of years ago, called "To the Last Cartidge", which was a collection of Last Stand stories. I like those kinds of stories, stories where they knew they were going to die, but they didn't care, or at least they accepted it. Like the last scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Living in fear is playing not to lose. If you want to play to win, you have to accept whatever comes down the pike cheerfully.

That's enough, for now. I think I figured out, for myself, what I wanted to figure out. Hopefully these ramblings are of some use to other folks, too.

Graham Hayes
01-05-2006, 06:15 PM
I thought your conclusion was good until you mentioned being in harmony with those around you. You'll certainly be happy though...untill someone your in harmony with screws you...talking of being in harmony seems to lack the 'striving' that I would associate with meaningfull activity.