Seek meaning, service in life

June 10th, 2009 by Admin

From The Washington Times, Wed., May 20, 2009

As millions of American students graduate from high schools and colleges in cap-and-gown ceremonies both solemn and festive this spring, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on their prospects for successful living and working. Of course, those entering the working world are doing so at a time of great uncertainty and financial distress, with tight employment and credit markets.

It’s possible, though, that the recession could be a fleeting concern compared to a more personal and lasting challenge they face: finding their moorings amid a sea of choices in a culture that sends them profoundly mixed messages. Decades ago, the life and career paths of the young largely were spelled out in advance, but today’s youth must forge their own path. That can be liberating and unnerving for young people without much basis for making such vital decisions.

Graduation speakers across the land already are dispensing lessons learned and wisdom earned. What have we learned in recent decades about how to live – about how to lead productive, successful, rewarding and fulfilling lives?

Fortunately, a lot.

Not long ago, a sea change swept through the field of psychology, flipping the focus from debilitating conditions and diseases (i.e., what makes people suffer) to happiness and success (i.e., what makes people thrive). The emergent “positive psychology,” led by such luminaries as Martin Seligman (author of “Authentic Happiness”) and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (author of “Flow”), resonates not only with new research on youth and adult development, but also with surveys of key factors leading to success in life (from books such as “Success Built to Last”) and studies of people in their twilight years reflecting on how they lived. It also gibes with ancient ideas of happiness dating back to Aristotle and his concept of “eudaimonia,” or a full flourishing of self through excellence and virtue.

One could synthesize this convergence of research and thinking with two key words: meaning and service. That is, find ways to have meaningful connections with and make significant contributions to others. Meaning and service.

Fortunately, there is evidence that the rising generations get this. Countless surveys have indicated they are civic- and service-minded, and that many are not only “life shoppers” – searching for a lifestyle that suits them – but seekers of meaning and connection as well as success and wealth.

Take, for example, two high school seniors who recently received AXA Achievement scholarships: Joshua Wortzel and Brittany Bergquist. Mr. Wortzel started the Garden of Giving, which grows and donates organic produce to local homeless shelters via a solar-powered greenhouse located at a Pennsylvania retirement home, with 20 students and 10 senior citizens running it. The project fosters intergenerational connections while serving homeless people and cultivating environmental stewardship in the community.

Ms. Bergquist started Cell Phones for Soldiers with her brother, Robbie, when they were 13 and 12, respectively. To date, they have raised almost $2 million and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers overseas. The project started when they were getting ready for school one morning and saw a TV report about an Army Reservist in Iraq who unknowingly racked up a cell phone bill of more than $7,600. Outraged, they ran upstairs, drained their piggy banks, hit up their friends at school for donations, and got to work. (continued…)

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