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What Makes Life Meaningful: Michael Steger (Transcript)

Michael Steger at TEDxCSU

Full transcript of psychology professor Michael Steger’s talk: What Makes Life Meaningful at TEDxCSU conference.

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Michael Steger – Professor of Psychology

I need to start with a confession. I learned almost everything I know about life from John Cusack movies from the 1980s. And in these movies the hero just through the sheer force of trying to be a good guy and speaking from the heart wins true love in the end and the widespread admiration of all.

I tried to put this plan into effect – this John Cusack plan – and most importantly came when I met this amazing woman in college, and I fell head over heels almost instantly and nearly as instantly when John Cusack and declared my undying love.

The John Cusack plan took about four years to work in my case but you know, John Cusack also teaches us to be persistent, right? Not creepy but persistent.

And so it got serious pretty quickly, moved from Minnesota out to Oregon together about three years later we’re on a beach in Manzanita, Oregon, leaning back against a weathered driftwood log sitting in the cool dry sand, the Pacific surf had kicked up a haze around us. And in my pocket I had this this contraption I built out of some shells I brought back from a road trip to Baja, Mexico and using tape and glue and the cotton ball, I had — don’t laugh this is serious — I had created this little nestling thing for this diamond ring I brought.

But I realized it’s going to be a little strange if at a beach I pulled a shell out of my pocket. So I need a cover story and I said I’m going to go spelunking and see what’s going on.

And so I got up and I left and she looked at me like many of you are, like this makes no sense but I didn’t care, because I was on a mission. And so I looked at the — I tested the contraption out, it was working. I had my crib sheet of this passionate speech I’ve written and I said I’ve got this.

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I looked around, I tried to memorize every sensation I was experiencing at the time, and I walked back. And I said, hey, honey, look what I got, and she was… oh that’s nice.

So I said now look it opens and closes, because that’s what you say when you find a shell, right?

So she takes it, she looks inside, and there’s the ring. She looks at me. I’m on my knees and I launch into about 92% of my prepared remarks and conclude with, will you marry me? And she looks at me, and she says, beep, I don’t know.

So this was a surprising answer and I’ve thought about this moment many times in my life since then. And I think it’s really an interesting response in a lot of ways, because I was asking something pretty huge. I was saying can you turn your life into our life? And I was asking for the most precious thing that she has, that any of us have, that weeks, the years, the days that we’ve been given.

Life is our moments. We have an unknowable number of moments. All we know is that once we spend them we can never get them back and we can never get more. And I was asking for dibs on all of her moments. That’s a serious thing.

And another thing that was going on around the same time, first of all, John Cusack thanks for ruining my life.

Second, around the same time there was a popular T-shirt and had this spirally galaxy looking thing, and an arrow said you are here and I love this — I love this image, because we are this little speck of dust in the middle of the abyss. We are ourselves, a tiny speck of dust. We live on a speck of dust in the middle of oblivion of nothingness.

And it’s actually worse than that, right, if you think about it, because if you look at images from space we only live on the outer crust of a speck of dust, like the shell of a robin’s egg. That’s where life is for us. It’s incredibly, almost unfathomably fragile and precious.

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And in that life we have all these moments that we’ve been given and we have to make those moments matter. You’re going to meet a lot of people today who go right to the edge of oblivion. They go to the fragility of existence and it yawns and further may be out of a door of an airplane, maybe down the sheer face of a mountainside, the jaws of a shark.

Other people find that fragility of existence in the eyes of another person — a starving child, a bruised woman, a shattered veteran. Other people find it in a damaged and destroyed landscape but these people are going and embracing the fragility of existence and finding ways to enhance what we all have, what we all share, they’re making their moments matter and that’s all we can ask.

How can we find ways to connect and contribute and consider how to make these moments matter?

At the same time there are people out there who discard those moments, like fast food wrappers out a car window, littering the landscape with toxic throwaway moments in life, casual cruelty, thoughtless destruction, mindlessly squandering this one thing that we’ve got.

The contrast between these two groups is a psychological study of meaning in life and in a sense what psychologists are trying to do with this question is turn that from you are here to why are you here. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

Now in the psychological study of meaning, we think that meaning is at least two things. Meaning is purpose and significance. And purpose is the need to do.

The University of Minnesota psychologist Eric Klinger argued that we didn’t evolve from passive rooted organisms that can stand around and wait for what we need to come to them. We evolved from creatures that need to move, we must move to find and seek and obtain what we need in life. And that entails risks but it also entails doing. We can’t just stop; it’s in our very being to do.

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