What really brings meaning and purpose to life? This episode is part of our January Jumpstart series where each week we dive into concepts to drive real change through learning and action.
Get science-backed insights from an 80-year Harvard happiness study revealing how relationships and activities—not money or fame—unlock fulfillment with our guide, Robert Waldinger. Discover philosophical wisdom and practical tips to continually reconnect with what matters through relationships, reflection, and daily practices with Yale professor Matthew Croasmun, as he invites us to join in asking life’s big questions to illuminate the quest itself as a source of joy.
This research-inspired guide to crafting a life of significance also offers a simple 7-day challenge to increase your sense of purpose right away. Small steps compound over time, so join us each week this month to unlock more vitality, creativity, connection, and meaning.
We can’t wait to share this experience with you. Follow along each week, do the challenges with friends for accountability, and send us your questions. Let’s make this year one of growth, discovery, and living your good life!
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Matthew Croasmun: [00:00:00] We need one another. We need people who won’t necessarily share our answers to the question of the good life, but they share our questions. There is something uniquely powerful about community built around shared questions. We have lots of ways of phrasing the question right, what is a life worth living? Or what is a good life? Or what is the shape of flourishing life? But one way that I’ve really starting to appreciate these days is what sort of life would be worthy of our shared humanity. I think it’s in part just because that shared ness, right? Of course, there is something irreducibly particular and individual. We’re each going to come to our own answers. But there’s something powerful about, as a group of people, a community, convene just for a moment to take up this question, with this shared question about can we think a little bit about the worthiness of our shared humanity? How do I lean into that? What’s really the center of that?
Jonathan Fields: [00:00:55] So if you’ve ever heard the phrase midlife crisis, you might be wondering, what actually is that all about? And why are so many people experiencing it not in their 30s, 40s and 50s alone, but even in their 20s? Turns out it’s not a crisis of money, status, fame, accomplishment, power, or prestige. It’s a crisis of meaning and purpose, and we’re increasingly realizing that we can’t easily live without these things, which is why they are the focus of today’s second installment of our January Jumpstart series. So how do we build a life of purpose and meaning? Our purpose in meaning really all that necessary for a life well lived? Is there science behind the often broad proclamations that show real-life critical benefits to living with purpose and meaning? And what does the science say about the impact of a lack of purpose and meaning? In today’s part two of our January Jumpstart series, we’re building on last week’s exploration of passion and focusing in on the role of purpose and meaning in life. Now I’ll be sharing some thoughts and science, and we’ll also be guided by two guest experts who offer a rare perspective on the power and impact of purpose and meaning. Doctor Robert Waldinger shares truly revealing insights from his years directing the Harvard study of adult development, often shorthanded, as the grant study, which has tracked generations of lives for over 80 years. And this groundbreaking research reveals surprising truths that challenge common myths about what really leads to health and happiness.
Jonathan Fields: [00:02:30] And then next up joining me is Professor Matthew Croasmun, who probes ideas from history’s great thinkers to encourage timeless guidance on crafting a meaningful life. As the director of Yale University’s Life Worth Living program, his scholarship prompts profound self-examination of our deepest values and beliefs around living well, and together, we’ll blend scientific rigor with philosophical wisdom and real-life ideas and insights and inquiries to provide much-needed clarity on how to build a life of purpose and significance and really reconnect with what matters. And remember, this is part of our five-part January Jumpstart series, where we’re focusing on one specific topic each week. That alone is critically important in your ability to live the life that you dream of living, and feel the way you yearn to feel. To truly live a good life no matter what comes your way together, each of the qualities will be exploring can quite literally transform your life for life. And they are available to everyone. And at the end of each episode, we’ll invite you to participate in a seven-day challenge. Super simple anyone can do to add more of that week’s good life quality to your life, so be sure to follow Good Life Project. in your favorite app so you don’t miss any of these special January Jumpstart episodes. Take just three seconds and do that now.
Jonathan Fields: [00:03:49] And if you miss the kickoff episode on The Science of Passion with Dan Lerner, and you’re kind of jonesing for more passion in your life, and you want to get past the pseudoscience and really understand what is this thing called passion, how do I bring more of it into my life? You’ll definitely want to listen in. We’ll include a link to that episode in the show notes. No need to listen in order, by the way. Definitely just tee it up next. So excited to share this 2nd January Jumpstart episode on Purpose and meaning with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.. Okay, so truth, I have been mildly obsessed with the topic of purpose and meaning for probably over two decades now. I’ve researched them, written about them, presented keynotes, trainings, and workshops on these concepts, both because I wanted to understand their role in my own life and my work and my relationships, but also because I have wanted to truly understand what role, purpose, and meaning play in all of our lives and in the ability to live good lives not just individually, but communally as a collective and a society. And because my brain tends to do this constant dance between peer-reviewed, published academic science, philosophical and spiritual teaching, and real-world lived experience, I’ve gotten pretty deep into the latest insights and information and sought out the leading experts on the topic, while also running countless personal experiments and exploring how people from all walks of life explore and experience purpose and meaning, or the lack thereof.
Jonathan Fields: [00:05:27] Now we’ve got two incredible guides to help us explore these concepts today Robert Waldinger and Matthew Croasmun, both of whom have deep chops on all fronts academic, spiritual, philosophical, and practical. Before I hand the conversation over to these two luminaries, though, I wanted to frame this conversation around purpose and meaning a bit and also share some of the practical implications. First, for any doubters who don’t want to go too far down the quote woo path and are wondering why purpose and meaning truly matter. Are they even real? Some hard science lays the foundation for our guest experts and their more nuanced deep dives. What we know is that scientific data shows a powerful correlation between what is often called a sense of purpose in life, or a sense of purpose, and a wide array of conditions, both positive and negative purpose tends to be strongly correlated with higher levels of happiness, especially among older adults, and can also drive a wide range of healthier habits, from movement to nutrition. One study showed that people with a stronger sense of meaning and purpose were actually more likely to have a life partner, more friends, that they actually were in touch with, lower risk of divorce, and less loneliness, a strong sense of purpose.
Jonathan Fields: [00:06:43] It also correlates with higher levels of prosperity, less chronic illness, pain and depression, and lower all-cause mortality, meaning less risk of conditions that lead to death. It’s also correlated with better sleep, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and better cardiovascular health, and lower incidence of heart disease. Translation this isn’t just about feeling psychologically better. I mean, that’s a great part of it, but it is so much deeper. The tentacles reach into literally every part of our lives. Now, one other thing to know, similar to last week’s conversation about passion, it’s not so much about identifying and having a singular life purpose or finding one overriding driver of meaning for your life. Some people may find that, and at some point in their lives, if they’ve accumulated enough experience and been self-aware enough to have intentionally or I think more often than not, serendipitously stumbled upon a singular pursuit that feels like it rises to the level of a unifying, driving purpose that just kind of keeps them going for their entire life. That person, though, is the extreme outlier. They are incredibly rare, even though we often hold them up as the model of what we should all aspire to. It is not a standard that any of us want or need to aspire to. For many, saying that you need to find your one life purpose can actually pile shame onto confusion and futility when that one defining thing never quite arrives.
Jonathan Fields: [00:08:15] And the truth is, it doesn’t have to. All the research and so much philosophy and spiritual tradition show that what we’re looking for and what is more important, and for most people far more realistic, is to find things, activities, experiences, interactions and relationships that give you a sense of purpose. These things can be big, grand, lasting things or really simple, more everyday ones. It can come from work, which is what most people center in their exploration. In fact, I also founded another organization that developed a set of archetypes for meaningful, purpose-fueled work that we call Sparketypes, along with an assessment and follow on research that shows the more you do the work of your sparketype, the more likely you are to experience both meaning from work and purpose. And by the way, if you haven’t already done so, you can take the Sparketype assessment at sparketype.com or just click the link that will include in the show notes. It’s freely available to all. But I also want to stress that work alone is not the only area of life that can deliver a powerful sense of meaning and purpose. You can experience these things from relationships, questions, creative endeavors, and so many other devotions and activities across nearly every domain of life. So while it is incredible when your work is a powerful and grounding source of meaning and purpose, you’re not excluded from these feelings. If it’s not, you’ll just want to explore other paths to them.
Jonathan Fields: [00:09:51] Either way, though, I’ll invite you to consider truly centering the exploration of purpose in your life, both because it makes life so much better and the research shows life without these things tends towards some pretty scary possibilities. And with that, I’m going to hand things over now to Robert Waldinger. So imagine if you could peek inside the lives of hundreds of people over multiple generations to uncover the keys to health, happiness, and fulfillment? Well, in this conversation with Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and long-time director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, he has been studying these topics for literally decades. For over 80 years, this groundbreaking study has tracked individuals from adolescence into older age, amassing an unprecedented data set and searching for keys to health, happiness and fulfillment. In his illuminating book, The Good Life Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness, he shares powerful revelations from this expansive research and offers eye-opening wisdom on surprising things that matter most. If you want to thrive, flourish and craft a life brimming with meaning and purpose. So get ready to have some of your assumptions challenge as we explore decades of meticulous scientific insights into the art of living. Talk to me about some of the mythology, about what people have thought indicia of a life well lived that are largely turning out to be mythology.
Robert Waldinger: [00:11:26] Yeah, well, and there’s still myths that we cling to. So, you know, the idea that being rich is going to make us happy, it’s going to make us feel like life is meaningful, turns out not to be true. And we study it. And we have good data, not just in our study. Many studies. Right? That making more money does not make you happier once you get your basic material needs met. So I actually a study recently said about $75,000 a year annual household income is what you need, and that beyond that, you don’t get much of a bump in happiness as you make more money. People are amazed at that. You know, young people starting out still say, I got to be rich. Similarly famous. I mean, think about all the people who are famous for being famous, all the emphasis on fame and, and, uh, glitz and presentation. It turns out that that doesn’t make you happier. And in fact, fame sometimes makes you less happy, as it turns out, because you lose some of the freedoms you have when you’re an anonymous person walking down the street. So as much as we think, oh, it’s going to be great to be famous, it turns out not to be true. And then a third myth is, gee, if I work really hard and get all these awards, you know, and if I eventually win the Nobel Prize, that’s going to do it for me. Turns out that’s not the case either. So yes, accomplishing things that are important to you, that matters and that can lead to a sense of fulfillment. But the accolades, the awards, they don’t really do it for most people. And the reason why it’s important is that we keep getting these messages that that this is what we’ll do it for us. And so part of why we wrote this book and part of our work these last ten, 15 years has been to say, look, we do know what makes people happy. We know what makes people thrive. It’s just not all those things in your Instagram feed.
Jonathan Fields: [00:13:27] So these things like that we’ve held up for so long as like these, these are the measures of success. They’re not it. Um, the study does, however, not just leave you hanging, right. It points you pretty fiercely in one very specific direction. Yeah, take me there.
Robert Waldinger: [00:13:45] So in the 1980s, we began to find and many other studies began to find this crazy thing, which is that when we wanted to predict who was going to stay healthy, not just happy, but who was going to stay healthy as they went through life, it was the people who had warmer connections with other people and at. We didn’t believe it. Like, you know, okay, we know the mind and body are connected, but how could the quality of your relationships actually get inside your body and make it less likely that you’ll get coronary heart disease, or less likely that you’ll get arthritis or make you live longer? How could that possibly be? So we’ve been now studying the mechanisms by which this happens, but initially we didn’t believe it until many other research groups began to find the same thing. And now we know that, in fact, being socially isolated is really bad for our health and happiness. That being lonely and 1 in 3 people will tell you on any given day that they feel lonely. Being lonely is dangerous to our health. So what we find in our study is that relationships confer this amazing health benefit and happiness benefit both, and that the people who were the the most connected were staying sharper, their brains stayed sharper, and they were the healthiest as they went through life. And what we find is that investing in our relationships, taking care of our relationships, building them, making them stronger. It’s a practice, and that it involves little decisions you can make every day, every week, and that you want to keep making as you go through life. That’s not easy. It’s simple, but not easy. A lot like my meditation practice. Simple but not easy.
Jonathan Fields: [00:15:41] I’m with you there, but it also it requires a buy-in to a certain value set. Yeah. You know. Right. Because those things that we were talking about before, you know, like money, those other things that we work towards. So how many folks like step into adulthood, they say yes to a job because we feel like, okay, that’s going to give us the security and the the status and the money and, and maybe they’re in an early relationship, then maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re recently partnered. I’m thinking about myself, you know, like you make the assumption, oh, that relationship will be there, whether it’s with a romantic partner or like, your old friends or like your, your chosen or family of origin. I feel like we take for granted the fact that these, these people and relationships will just be there when we need them and that they won’t take a hit. They don’t need anything, and that the more important thing is to go for the golden ring, which is money and status. And we don’t realize, like you’re saying, you know, there’s no sideways in relationships.
Robert Waldinger: [00:16:45] Yeah. And what you’re saying about we assume that our friends will always be there turns out not to be true, that perfectly good, warm relationships will wither away and die of neglect if we don’t connect, if we don’t reach out, if we don’t see each other, if we don’t call each other right. And so suddenly people will turn around, you know, in their 30s or 40s and say, I don’t have any friends. I’ve fallen out of touch with my college friends, with my school friends, whatever. And so what we find is that the people who are better at maintaining these connections and making new ones are the people who really thrive. And this can happen at work as well. They’ve done some pretty good research. Now on whether you have a friend at work. Right. You know this. And like 1 in 3 people will say they have a friend at work, meaning somebody you could talk to about your life, your personal life. Those people are so much more engaged in their jobs. They’re better performers. They’re happier. There’s less likely to leave their jobs because they have something to look forward to every day in the personal realm when they go to work.
Jonathan Fields: [00:17:56] And certainly back to the notion of value shift, you know, like you’ve got to buy into the value that relationships are equally, if not more important than these other things I thought really matter because it takes effort. Oh, yeah. You’ve got like, if you have a finite amount of emotional and cognitive and energetic bandwidth on any given day, you know, and I think most of us are already feeling like we don’t have enough as it is. And then you’ve got to make a conscious decision that says, I am choosing to effectively invest less of that bandwidth in the pursuit of security and status, and more of it in the deepening of relationships and the sustaining of these relationships. That’s a tough call for a lot of people.
Robert Waldinger: [00:18:41] I think it is a tough call. You know, there’s an analogy that that I heard once that that just came to mind, as you were saying, that, which is that if you think of life as like, you know, a beaker and or this big container and that you’ve got some boulders to put in and you’ve got some smaller rocks and then you’ve got pebbles, and then you’ve got sand, and the boulders are the things that you can’t live your life without. And the sand is the trivia, right? How do we make relationships one of those boulders that has to fit in first? Because what it means is that then everything else fits in around it. The smaller rocks, the sand. Right. You know, how do we do that with relationships? When our guys were in their 80s, we asked them, look back on your life and tell us what you’re proudest of and tell us what are your biggest regrets? The biggest regret that most people named was, I didn’t spend enough time with the people I cared about, and I spent too much time at work, and the thing they were proudest of was to do with relationships. I raised good kids. I was a good friend. I was a good mentor. Right. So this big boulder that we want, what we want to recognize as a centerpiece of our life, needs to be these connections. What we do know is that the people in our study, so we have many life stories in the book. The names are disguised to protect privacy, but we have these stories of lives. And what you see is that the people who really were connected and prioritized those connections were just so much happier than many accomplished people who were miserable. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields: [00:20:27] You mentioned this, this phrase social fitness, which you share in the book and it really it does. It introduces the idea of building social connections as a practice, as an ongoing thing. Take me a bit deeper into what this practice looks like.
Robert Waldinger: [00:20:42] Probably it starts with taking stock of what’s in your life already, in your relationships, and what you’d like some more of. So relationships provide us with all kinds of different things that we need. Like, you know, some relationships are fun and we play together some relationships, you know, somebody comes over and loans us a tool to fix something. And some relationships are, you know, as we asked our men at one point, who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared? Some relationships are the people who have your back and always will. And so the first step is to kind of take stock of who you have in your life and what they offer and what you give to them, hopefully. And then what might you want more of? And then think about, well, where might I be able to build those kinds of relationships or shift a current relationship so that I get some more, some more fun or some more ability to confide in this person, whatever it might be. But really, first taking stock and then really being active in reaching out in changing the mix. So a friend you’ve always done one set of things with, see if that friend will do some different things with you. See if that romantic partner will go on a date and do something completely different with you then you’ve ever done before. You know, change it up. Um, so it’s it’s activity, as we were saying, it’s it’s activity in the service of, uh, having more of what nourishes you in these relationships. It doesn’t have to be in one relationship. You know, one of the myths that we sometimes have is that, you know, our romantic partner is supposed to give us everything. So not true. And many people don’t have romantic partners, and you don’t need a romantic partner to get these benefits. You need some people in your life who are there for you. They don’t have to be people you live with. They don’t. You don’t have to have a marriage certificate. None of that.
Jonathan Fields: [00:22:49] Yeah. I think that’s such an important point also. Right. Because talk about one of the other sort of mythological aspirations for, you know, like a good life. You check the box of like finding that perfect person, you know, this is your romantic, intimate person. You’re like you. It’s love at first sight. And then you stay together for life.
Robert Waldinger: [00:23:08] And you never need anything else because that person provides it. All right?
Jonathan Fields: [00:23:12] That legendary phrase like, you complete me and I can, like, be on rare occasion, but rare.
Robert Waldinger: [00:23:18] Really rare.
Jonathan Fields: [00:23:19] Right? Like, the research is pretty clear. Like what you said. Like, we need people like different types of people to play different roles in different contexts and different ways. And, and then mythology is really limiting. So I’m glad you sort of like you talked about that because it also it’s permission-giving. It says like there are so many different ways to solve for this. Absolutely. It doesn’t mean that you have to have this one person or this one person, like everyone has a unique circumstance. Exactly. You know, and that gives a lot of freedom and agency.
Robert Waldinger: [00:23:49] There’s another myth that that’s probably worth naming here, which is the myth that you’ve got to be an extrovert to get these benefits. So all of us, you know, are somewhere between really shy introverts and party animal extroverts. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. And, you know, many of us have both shyness and extroversion as part of us. And so there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert. Absolutely. Introverts are just people who need more alone time for refueling, and those people may just need 1 or 2 solid relationships in their lives, and that being with more people could be exhausting and stressful. On the other hand, extroverts really derive a lot of energy from being with more people, so I think it’s worth naming that you can have good, solid relationships and be an introvert. Be a shy person, not a problem.
Jonathan Fields: [00:24:46] Yeah, and it’s not necessarily a volume game. And you talk about this is you know, there’s the frequency and the quality that and these are these two sort of like features that you talk about when you’re thinking about like the people that you might bring into the mix that would really make for a nourishing life. You know, volume wasn’t a part of that equation.
Robert Waldinger: [00:25:06] Right. Exactly.
Jonathan Fields: [00:25:07] You have an interesting exercise around this. Also, I think you call it the, um, the Social Universe experiment.
Robert Waldinger: [00:25:13] Well, it’s a it’s a set of circles, concentric circles. And, and we ask people to make a little dot and write the name by it of a person who’s, where are they in your universe? So many people choose to. Their nearest and dearest in the inner circles. And then some people put, you know, they’re more casual relationships in their outer circles, and it can really be helpful just to see, well, how many people are your nearest and dearest and how many people do you have in those outer circles who are more casual? And by the way, casual relationships are great for us and they matter? You know, the cashier at the grocery store who you say hi to and exchange some pleasant words with every week. That’s a little hit of well-being that you can give each other. The person who you know makes your coffee for you at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. You know all that. Turns out the research shows that those casual ties, as they’re called, matter and they’re good for us. So not to be discounted.
Jonathan Fields: [00:26:18] Part of what you’re talking about here also, is you’re also kind of recognizing moments to reflect, moments to take stock. And it doesn’t have to be this big, heavy like sit down deep intense conversation or analytical thing. And this I would imagine also, you know, this was reflected in the work from the study over so, so long from my understanding is every couple of years participants would also get I guess it was a questionnaire. Yes. That would basically that was pretty in-depth. And I wonder if there’s data on not just what you got from those questionnaires, but the value of that questionnaire as a mechanism for reflection to the people who got it.
Robert Waldinger: [00:26:57] Yes, we asked them. We literally asked the question on one of our questionnaires, what’s it been like for you being part of this study? Has it affected your life? Most people said this has been really important because it gets me to take stock of where I am in my life, and otherwise I wouldn’t do that. It turns out that these, as you say, moments of reflection, um, matter a lot in terms of getting us to stop and say, huh, here’s where I am right now. Where would I like to go next? And that’s what our people did and continue to do. We’re actually collecting data right now as we speak on the next generation.
Jonathan Fields: [00:27:39] Yeah. I’m curious also, you know, while there’s probably a lot of value in that for people because I don’t think many of us create on our own periodic recurring mechanisms to check in and just kind of say, how am I doing, you know? So on the one hand, it’s probably really interesting and valuable to a lot of people, but I wonder if also it’s a bit of a gut check. You know, it’s sort of like, huh? You know, I’ve been heads down cruising along, like doing this thing, kind of thinking I’m doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing, feeling the way I’m supposed to be feeling. This is life. And now, like, doing, like actually sitting here and being present and reflecting in a detailed way. It’s bringing up a reality that I’m actually not happy about.
Robert Waldinger: [00:28:22] Yes, yes. And actually part of what we do in the book is, is put these exercises in hoping that people will use these as ways of reflecting on their lives and that they can come back to those same exercises over time.
Jonathan Fields: [00:28:37] Would you share 1 or 2 of those if they come to mind?
Robert Waldinger: [00:28:40] So we have a set of questions about where am I in my what am I like in relationships? Do I feel I can be myself? I can be authentic? Do I feel like I can be reciprocal? Can now that I can give to other people in the way that they give to me, sort of those kinds of reflective questions. So it’s a and the question is structured such that we ask you, how are you now in relationships? So for example, can I be authentic. And then how would you like to be what do you aspire to. And so what we do is we get them to rate, we get people to rate how I am now and what I want for myself. And then you can look at the the gaps. If there are gaps and you, you can look at places where you’re just where you want to be. And it’s those kinds of reflections that might lead you to, to do some things differently in your life.
Jonathan Fields: [00:29:33] I love that because I don’t think we’re given many tools for that sort of inquiry. So I love the fact that there are all these exercises kind of built into your process in the book that we can kind of step into, you know, you’re using the word friend a lot, and you also reference some of the, the, the questions and the exercises that you shared, which really spoke to this notion of being known beyond the superficial. Yeah. And you shared that like it actually, you know, these loose relationships actually do add value. They quote count. But in the context of having friends, you know, I think a lot of us would probably say we have friends. But if you really said, do they really know you? Right. A lot of us would probably say, not really. Yeah. And I wonder, like whether there’s a way to tease out the distinction between where you feel truly seen and known. Is that a different. Friend then sort of like the friend who, like, we may just kind of hang out with casually. Like, sure, we know each other, we kick around, we mountain bike, we whatever it is. Yeah. Is there a difference there?
Robert Waldinger: [00:30:37] There is a difference. And both are important. Like your mountain biking buddy is really important, right? But many of us, I think, you know, most of us want to be seen, want to feel like somebody in the world gets us. And if we’re lucky, we have somebody who does maybe more than one, and maybe people who get us in different ways. You know, maybe somebody gets me as a worker and in a different way than my wife gets me as her husband, you know. But but I, I feel seen by a few people. And what a blessing when I have that. I remember I didn’t have that along for a long time growing up. And then actually it was getting into a good psychotherapy where I had a therapist who I thought, oh my gosh, this person gets me. And it was like this experience of being seen was just so liberating. And we don’t have you don’t have to be in a psychotherapy to have that. There are these places and these people in our lives who can do that, but it’s worth the it’s worth the search for people who can get you in that way.
Jonathan Fields: [00:31:48] But, I mean, at that moment and by the way, like, people can’t see it, but like, you were just smiling a lot when when you said that there’s like there was something embodied there. I wonder if if in that moment there was something in you that also said, I’m gettable?
Robert Waldinger: [00:32:03] Yes! Often when we don’t feel seen, we also feel like, oh, I’m kind of an aberration. Like nobody’s quite like me. I’m kind of odd in these ways, and no one’s really going to get me. And then to to have somebody get you for me has just been you can just feel this outpouring of gratitude. I mean, that’s why you saw me smiling there because I was remembering what it was like. So I think that it’s one of those wonderful special experiences that we can have in relationships if we’re lucky and if we keep working at it. Part of it also involves being vulnerable. I mean, you got to you got to take the risk to share stuff and including sharing stuff you’re not always proud of. You have to find people you can trust and people who won’t be hurtful in any way as you do. Let yourself be vulnerable and hopefully people who can be vulnerable to you in return.
Jonathan Fields: [00:32:59] Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s that that whole notion, you know, you can’t be known unless and until you allow yourself to be known. Yeah. Which can be really scary. Um, it’s one of the reasons I love, you know, Arthur Aron’s work, which was popularized as the 36 questions around sort of like developing intimacy, where it’s, you know, this, this, these three sets of questions that start on a fairly superficial level and then just, you know, the idea is, is progressive, mutual revelation, which requires, like each person to answer a set of questions, starting as strangers and, you know, first fun, topical and then like by the end, it’s like questions like, like, have you ever had a premonition about how you were going to die? Yeah. You know, like this kind of deep, scary thing.
Robert Waldinger: [00:33:41] Deep scary.
Jonathan Fields: [00:33:41] Yeah. And it’s mutual. It’s like what you’re describing. It’s not one-sided. You’ve got to step into a place of being like, this might land weird with this other person who I don’t know, but I’m going to go there and, you know, like, his lab found that these people, strangers running like on students 45 minutes after this, you know, like intervention, often reported feeling closer to this former stranger than they were to people they had known for years. So I like the notion of being able to create experiences like that. Like I love the idea of taking a modified version of that inviting, you know, like eight friends over to dinner. You know them all, but like, they don’t know each other and then have some sort of like version of something like that. So we can create mechanisms to bring this into people’s lives.
Robert Waldinger: [00:34:24] One of my Zen teachers is quoted as saying, attention is the most basic form of love, and I think that’s a really powerful statement because it’s true that probably the greatest gift we have to give to another human being is our full, undivided attention. And it’s increasingly rare that we do that.
Jonathan Fields: [00:34:47] Which is a bit tragic. Yeah. So fascinating. You and I, I think could go in a lot of different tangents. We could with respect for our time. And I think we’ve sort of like made the point of, you know, like massive data set like decades and generations in the making and clear as day, like, people matter, you know, and all the distractions and the taunts of all the other things that we think matter and and the way that we’re wired to, like, engage with technology and sometimes just disconnect from the human beings around us. I feel like we’re in a moment of of both reckoning and reimagining. Good place for us to come full circle as well. So I always wrap these conversations with the same question, have for a decade now, and I’m particularly curious what your answer is. And I have a sense I’m going to know what it is. Um, release a piece of it. And the question is simply if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Robert Waldinger: [00:35:40] Being engaged in things that you care about with people who you care about.
Jonathan Fields: [00:35:48] Thank you. So appreciate Robert’s take. I love how he’s bringing rigor, nuance and scientific grounding to the exploration of living a good life. His decades of research provide powerful wisdom to counter our culture’s myths and status around things like wealth and happiness, and sharing transformative insights that compel us to reflect deeply on what matters most. So now I want to bring you into a conversation with Matthew Croasmun. Imagine if you could tap into profound wisdom from history’s greatest thinkers to illuminate your path forward and toward purpose. Well, Matthew is the director of the Life Worth Living program at Yale University, who has devoted himself to the quest for meaning in his deeply illuminating book, Life Worth Living A Guide to What Matters Most. He explores insights from philosophical traditions worldwide to uncover timeless truths about living with purpose, and he really prompts us to challenge assumptions and reflect deeply on how we can move beyond society’s superficial measures of success. You’ll discover how the pursuit of life’s big questions can itself be a source of joy and significance. It’s not always about the answers Crosman shares, really, ideas to help you continually reconnect with your deepest values so you can live each day with intention, meaning, and purpose. And this part of the conversation really provides profound wisdom to guide you on the journey towards a life rich in meaning. Here’s Matthew I’m always fascinated around the conversation between the happiness versus living a good life. Tease this out a little bit for me.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:37:31] Yeah, it can be natural to assume that a good life is a happy life, that those are even that you can meet in one of two ways either that a good life, whatever else it is, it is also a happy life. Or we could draw an even tighter distinction and suggest that a good life simply is a happy life, that they’re exactly the same thing. There’s nothing else that can be said about a good life, that it is happy, and that anything else that it happens to be is just in order to make it happy, right? Looking across the scope of human history and across traditions around the world, it seems that, uh, at least we can say this. Not everyone has thought that that’s not a universal human instinct, that the happy life and the good life are the same thing, or even necessarily that the good life is always a happy life. So we like to pull those apart a little bit. When we ask about a good life, maybe we’re asking about at least three things. Maybe we’re asking about, yeah, how a good life might feel. Maybe there’s maybe happiness comes in there, though there may be other ways that we would describe a good life feeling. Maybe a good life is a life of contentment. Or Oscar Wilde makes a case. Maybe a good life is a life that’s full of sorrow, because that’s just the way the world actually is. And that’s what it would be to respond rightly to the world. But we could also ask about what does it mean for us to lead our lives well, well, what should we? Maybe a good life is about what we do or how we seek to show up in the world.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:39:03] But we could also ask about what does it mean for life to go well and we could think about life’s circumstances. So all to say for us, we’re inclined to think, uh, at least in principle, to try to leave everyone in the conversation. We’d want to broaden out the question of the good life to include, yes, feelings and emotions and affect, but also circumstances and agency, and to let different voices put the emphasis in different places and even sort of define each of those aspects or each of those dimensions differently. And part of what we’re trying to do with the book is to say, again, is as obvious as it might seem. Well, what is a good life? Well, I mean, it’s it’s good, right? How does it feel? It feels good. All of these answers can feel really sort of simple at first blush. And again, you’ve been exploring this for years. So you know just how complex this is. These these actually are contested questions. And it’s really important for each one of us to therefore take responsibility for answering these questions for ourselves, because otherwise we can get caught up in that game and just and just lots of confusion about, hey, why does I think I’m finding my way into really what life is all about, but to I mean, for our undergrads who we work with, you know.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:40:12] But to my parents, this looks like failure. To my advisor, this looks like failure. Or maybe to some part of me that’s still invested in some old ideal. It feels like failure. But we just have to be deliberate and intentional about what are our definitions of success? What is our vision of a good life so that we can attend to these gaps and just know? Well, not everyone maybe is going to see it this way and maybe, maybe have things that I can learn from them. Maybe there are ways that I can maybe, maybe they do see more rightly than I do what a good life truly is. But at some point we. Maybe we just need to put a stake in the ground and say, as far as I can tell, this seems to be the substance of a good life. And this is what I’m going to chase after and somebody else doesn’t recognize it. That just may be a tension I have to live with. We start the book in a way not dissimilar to the way that we start the class, which is to say, I tell all my students on the first day of class, you know, this course could wreck your life. Um, you know, you could end up finding that you have different intuitions about what really matters in life than you’ve been building your life around to this point. Now, of course, our sense is that that would ruin the life that you thought was worth building beforehand, but it might sort of rescue your life from another point of view.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:41:34] Right? Looking back on it, you might say, oh, no, this this was the course that sort of saved my life, as it were. But, I mean, you ask a really good question about why students find their way into the class. And I think for many of our students, you know, coming to Yale occasions what is sometimes called like a quarter life crisis, because just as you said, there’s been so much investment. You’ve got students who have sacrificed a whole lot, who have cashed it all in for access to this space and are kind of just asking, like, is that it? Is that what this is all for? Is that what my whole life was for? Now what? Well, what really does matter at the end of the day? Is it on this path that I’ve been going on and I just need to run faster and harder? But for I think for most students it’s like, no, no, there’s something else. There are deeper sources of meaning than, you know, the résumé virtues, to use David Brooks’ language, the résumé virtues that I’ve been putting together to get in, to get access to a community like Yale. But what are those things? No one’s really helped. Many of these students think carefully about what else might be sort of worth wanting in life, or much less what it would look like to build a whole life oriented around something else or something more. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields: [00:42:52] There is a certain joy in knowing that you are in pursuit of a set of questions that will very likely morph and expand over time and take you the entirety of your life to pursue. And maybe it actually never gets fully answered, but there’s a certain joy in just pursuing the question itself that I think we just don’t think about. We don’t center that as something that is, again, even, I think, add meaning to our lives, just the pursuit of meaningful questions and even like, what are the meaningful questions? So that was really interesting that you’re very upfront about the fact that, like, this is not about giving you the answers. This is about taking you into a life of question, which kind of counterintuitive and counterculture to a certain extent. Mhm.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:43:37] Well, I appreciate you picking up on that in the book. I mean, it really was I mean, this part of the reason why it took us almost ten years of teaching the course before we felt like we could write this book, because the pull always felt like, well, you got to write a book of answers. And we just kept persistently feeling like that’s that’s just not that’s not what this course has been about. That’s not what this experience has been about for us as facilitators, instructors of that, of that course. Um, it has been about the questions. And really, I think for us it comes from a commitment to the dignity of the reader, as it is a commitment to the dignity of our students, to just say, you have a responsibility here to answer these questions for yourself, that it would be inappropriate and ultimately a profoundly unhelpful for us to try to take over that responsibility for you. You know, things that we don’t. You have intuitions about the worthiness of our shared humanity that we don’t have. We don’t have it as authors. And even as we bring to the table all of these ancient voices from various different religious and philosophical and cultural traditions, you have insights, maybe, that are even that aren’t found there. And even more importantly, you have this responsibility of just because you’re you, you have to answer these questions for yourself. And so I hope what we’re doing in the book is not just piling on question after question, but also helping chapter by chapter. If you understand what are the stakes of this particular question, what are the possible kinds of answers that folks across the ages have offered? What do you get when you go that way? When you go right versus left, what do you get when you go up versus down? And then, yeah, every chapter ends with that your turn section where you just say, hey, yeah, this is not for us to answer, as it happens that us three authors, we’re all Christian theologians.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:45:25] So our answers are probably, well, we diverge probably in some important places, but but our answers are going to be in particular directions. But we want to know what’s your take? Where are your intuitions? What do you think is is worth giving your life to when it comes to each one of these questions that we take up chapter by chapter, on the first day of class, I tell my students like this is this responsibility. To answer this question is both inalienably yours? There’s no getting out of it. You could try to like, give the responsibility for answering it to someone else. But even in doing that, you are exercising your responsibility, right and handing it off to somebody else. So it’s inalienably yours. And it’s also like fundamentally like above your pay grade, especially at a university where in a lot of places, at least in the university, the sort of instinct is like you’re just going to develop expertise and you’re going to go take a bunch of courses and eventually you are going to become an expert at whatever it is that we’re studying. And we just have to let let our students down on day one.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:46:27] You are not going to become an expert in the good life. I’m not an expert. I just think that’s just not possible when it comes to this sort of realm of knowledge, which is probably better thought about as wisdom rather than knowledge. When it comes to wisdom, it’s not about cultivating expertise. It’s about maybe sort of trying to enter into a process aimed at sagehood of some sort. Right. But you’re that’s a very different sort of thing, right? Than like, oh, I’m just going to like, you know, get this certification and that certification and, you know, check off that prereq. And then eventually, like, I’ll understand whatever, you know, quantum mechanics is probably going to end up mysterious at the end of the day. Anyway. This is a different sort of thing, but those two things are still both true. Even though you’re never going to become an expert, you still are going to remain responsible to have to choose. And so the course and I hope the book are these offers of help, mostly not from us, but from, again, these these, you know, from the Buddha, from Confucius, from the Muslim tradition, from philosophers across the ages. Just some help so that we can choose wisely. As amateurs, we’re never going to be experts, but we can take seriously as amateurs, as people seeking to grow in wisdom, we can take seriously the inalienable responsibility we do have to choose, not just. Individual choices in our lives, but choose the vision of life that we’re trying to live into or live towards.
Jonathan Fields: [00:47:58] Yeah, as you’re describing it, I love the notion of reframing a life of being an amateur or a beginner, not as something that your job is to get past, but as something that your job is to live into. So you’ve kind of teed up the big question that leads into the book, that leads into the course that you explore, which you phrase in a lot of different ways what is a life worth living? What is a good life? But within that, you also start to invite people to explore these sub-questions. And it feels like some of the sub-questions are really where you really get into. One of those that jumped out at me was what’s worth wanting. Mm. Take me into this a bit.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:48:38] Yeah. I mean for me, well I should say first of all this, this question I think I got from Andrew Delbanco, who teaches in the Great Books program at Columbia and has written a great little book about college, what it was, what it is, what it still should be. I think it was a student reflecting back to him on their an alum many years later, reflecting back to him on their time at Columbia, saying, Columbia helped me figure out what not just what I wanted, but what was worth wanting. I thought about our work and tried to explain it to folks over. Over the years, I often found people would sort of too quickly nod along and agree. When we were still at the stage where we were talking past each other, but it felt like we were agreeing. So I kept trying to like, find like, what was the language that would help surface those disagreements because I thought they were important. Right. And so in the book, we lay out these different sort of three layers of reflection, right? We talk about the sort of strategic level of reflection where we ask, you know, is what we’re doing, getting us what we want. Right? And we’re just trying to like, tune strategies and come up with like, better plans to get where we’re trying to go. But that’s a different question from a sort of self-awareness question. Right. Which is this first question the Columbia alum mentions for Delbanco.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:49:55] Right. Which is what do I actually want in the first place? Forget. Like, I can have a really well tuned strategy that gets me something I thought I wanted. But then, you know, sometimes you you get exactly what you thought you wanted and then you realize it’s not it wasn’t actually what you wanted in the first place. So that’s that’s an important sort of question, right? The self-awareness question. What do I really want? Not just what is my life like de facto oriented around, but what am I really after? But then there’s this third, deeper, different question, right, that says even if I got what I wanted and even if what I wanted really, I had sorted out that really was the thing that I was after. There’s still a possibility that that what I really wanted wasn’t actually worth having. I mean, this happens to me all the time when it comes to like, you know, foods that I choose, right? The problem with eating another bowl of ice cream isn’t that I finished the bowl of ice cream and then think to myself, oh, that’s not really what I wanted. It was exactly what I wanted, but it just wasn’t worth wanting in the broader picture of my holistic health. Right. And and I think in more fundamental ways, with the whole shape of our lives, that question about the worthiness of our desires, I think, is one that is easily glossed over, but is a really, really important question.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:51:17] It’s one that, again, the philosophers, the theologians, the mystics over the ages, they have returned again and again to this question. And I think really often in our modern world, we miss this level. We just ask, what do I want and how can I get it? And we skip over this question of of is what I want actually worth wanting? That has for me become a little bit of a shorthand of like, of a way to try to get to this distinction of what these philosophers and mystics and theologians are really offering to us compared to often what we are pursuing in our own lives, as I said, usually rarely gets much deeper, at least in my life, rarely gets much deeper than just strategy and desire. Right? This is more at the level of truth, right? We could be right or wrong about what’s actually worth wanting. And it’s a crazy thing, but it’s I experience it as a real thing in my life that I actually just want things that I think in the ultimate, from the ultimate perspective, just aren’t really worth it. And admitting that possibility of that gap, I think, is actually that’s a necessary step to opening ourselves up to the sort of wisdom that I think, again, the sort of great wisdom traditions are trying to offer us.
Jonathan Fields: [00:52:39] Yeah, I mean, the question resonated so deeply with me. I started just thinking about a lot of similar things in my life. And then of course, I started thinking, well, how do I even answer this question? Like, what’s the process for? Me to answer this question. Immediately, I start to turn to external sources, but then I’m answering what somebody else would be like telling me should be worth wanting in my life. And that can’t be it. I mean, that’s almost the antithesis of what we’re talking about here. Yeah, it’s got to come from the inside, which is where it gets hard. One of the things you also kind of circle around to towards the end of the conversation in the book, is this exploration of trying to figure out what actually matters, and this idea that what matters most may not actually be the thing that you’re attuned to, which is a little bit frustrating, because I think a lot of us would like to think that we can pick out what actually matters most and then, like, say yes to it and take the actions and develop the practices and allocate resources behind it. That’s the one thing we can figure out is what actually matters here. But that’s not entirely true all the time. No.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:53:44] And in part because we are awash in a world of influences and voices that are constantly giving us, I think, misinformation about what matters most. We’re I mean, especially I mean, this this happens to us constantly with our students. I mean, an environment like Yale within the sort of elite world that Yale offers access to. You’re just awash in folks that are constantly telling you that if you if you make a bunch of money or you have a bunch of influence, or you get a bunch of, you know, fame or people, you know, get a sort of reputation of a certain sort, that’s exactly what matters most. And for a lot of us, at least in the final accounting, when we’re able to quiet ourselves as we’ve been talking about and take a step back and listen to some of the wisdom traditions or even that sort of voice from the outside, those things don’t seem like they’re really what matters most. What matters most, maybe, is something more like, again, I don’t want to bias it. I’m not here to give you the answers, right? But it seems like often it ends up in a constellation of things that look more like relationships, more like deep senses of belonging and investment and projects and communities that were that we really care about.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:54:55] It has to do with with futures that we will never see, but that we can build towards and hope for. It looks like, you know, for me as a teacher, it looks like the lives of my students, where I am entirely off-screen. That’s not going to redound to my reputation. Right. But it’s maybe what matters much more what one of my students does. You know, in 30 years, in the quiet moment of their life, to to choose for or against what really matters most? That’s what maybe matters most for my life, right? But that’s not going to clamor for my attention. It’s not I’m not going to be giving pats on the back. I’m not going to get likes on my social media or whatever. Right. So we’re just we’re awash in these influences that are consistently inviting us to tune our entire lives around things that in the final accounting, may actually be trivial, but they don’t feel trivial because of all these all these folks around us who are constantly cheering us on or or on the on the flip side, you know, telling us we’re worthless because we don’t have those things or whatever it might be. We’re just in these perverse cultures of value, right? Where we’re in cultures that I think have gotten value wrong, aren’t able to recognize what’s what matters most and what is trivial.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:56:20] They’ve got, in some cases, those things exactly backwards. And so it takes a lot of discipline to routinely. And that’s where we end the book is to say to folks, it’s not over. It’s going to it may have taken a lot of exertion to start to formulate some of our intuitions, or maybe even start to write them down. But we say those insights, they’re like buried treasure in a desert. You may have uncovered it, but the sands, the winds are going to blow those sands back over it, and it’ll be lost before you know it, unless you routinely come back and come back to these questions yourself. Build a community. Build sets of practices that are going to help you sort of like build that resistance against, you know, the flow of the river, as it were. That, again, at least in my estimation, I think many of the rivers I find myself in the midst of flow, in the direction of triviality, in the name of great importance. Right. And it takes a lot of a lot of discipline to to resist that current.
Jonathan Fields: [00:57:20] That feels like a good place for us to start to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up.
Matthew Croasmun: [00:57:30] For me to live a good life is to live a life of love for me, means having that life built on a foundation of knowing myself as loved, hopefully by family and relationships that are really close to me. For me as a theist, that also means like loved by God, loved in some way that. It’s not something I earned or something that I have to worry about, but it’s a really foundation for my life and then a life of love in the sense of being able to offer myself for the good of others, to see others flourish, to be involved in communities of mutual belonging where we are committed to, to modes of mutual flourishing. Robin Wall Kimmerer says all flourishing is mutual, and I think there’s a deep, deep insight there. And so for me, yeah, a good life is a life of love. In what King called the beloved community, a community that is loved, that loves within the community and loves. And hopefully those are ever-growing boundaries of love that eventually encompass the whole human community and indeed the entirety of the creation.
Jonathan Fields: [00:58:43] Mhm. Thank you. So appreciate Matthew’s take. I love how he’s prompting deep reflection on life’s existential questions and really placing incredible value on not just the answers, which sometimes come and sometimes don’t, but on the process of asking better questions and nudging us to challenge assumptions about meaning and purpose along the way. His commitment to pursuing wisdom that transcends temporal success is just so important. Equipping us with ideas to continually reconnect with what matters most. So appreciate Robert and Matthew for this illuminating conversation. I’m grateful that they both shared their hard-earned wisdom about living with purpose and meaning. Their blend of scientific insight and philosophical ideals really provides clarity on how to continually reconnect with what matters. And now, as we will be doing all month to wrap each of these episodes of our January Jumpstart series, I’d love to invite you to say yes to a simple seven-day meaning and purpose challenge. So remember, no one can tell you what is or is not meaningful or purposeful to you. It’s entirely subjective. Maybe you’re already leading a life filled with these experiences. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, or maybe you’re moving through your days feeling very low on meaning and purpose. Either way, this week’s challenge is to pick one simple thing. Maybe it’s a relationship that gives you a sense of meaning and purpose.
Jonathan Fields: [01:00:12] Maybe an activity like teaching or helping or creating. Maybe it comes from moving your body, or being in service to someone else, or expressing a part of your essential nature, like your sparketype, or narrowing in on one of those deep questions that Matthew spoke about, and simply revisiting it every day and writing thoughts around it and seeing what comes out. The invitation here is to pick a single experience, interaction, or activity that gives you or moves you towards these feelings of meaning and purpose. And if you’re not doing it at all, bring it into your days, even just a small bit, or a few minutes worth every day for the next seven days. And if you are already engaged in one of these activities or interactions, well, then center it even more. Give it more energy, more love, more attention and resources for the next seven days, every day. Then after each time, spend just a few minutes writing how it makes you feel. If you are comfortable and you have the ability to write longhand. I know so few of us do that anymore. Even better, and note whether you feel any differently than you did just before engaging in this interaction or activity.
Jonathan Fields: [01:01:29] Start without any expectation and zero judgments here, and just know that not every single time will deliver a noticeable change. And that’s okay. This is all about the cumulative effect of bringing more experiences and activities and interactions that will give you the feeling of meaning and purpose into your life a little bit every day, and the shifts that it will begin to create over time. And if you feel inclined to share, we would love to hear from you. Just email us at support at Good Life Project. dot com. We’ll drop that link into the show notes as well to make it easy. So that’s a wrap for today’s January Jumpstart episode on meaning and Purpose. And if you haven’t already, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss any of this month’s January Jumpstart series. And if you’re inclined, share this episode with a friend who needs a little more meaning and purpose in their lives and rally them to not only listen, but do these fun and impactful weekly challenges with you. Because it’s always so much more fun to learn and grow together. Thanks so much for tuning in. I’ll see you here again soon. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode Safe bet. You’ll also love the full-length conversations we had with Robert and Matthew.
Jonathan Fields: [01:02:42] You’ll find a link to those episodes in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.