Research shows that we – people, human beings – need to feel we have purpose in life, that life must have meaning for us in order to feel truly happy and satisfied. For psychologist Martin Seligman this is what he calls a meaningful life. A meaningful life is a deep sense of fulfilment reached by employing our unique strengths for a purpose greater than ourselves. Brené Brown calls this being wholehearted or living a wholehearted life. What’s clear for both of these researchers is that at the core of a meaningful or wholehearted life is connection whether directly to other people or in a way that goes beyond. For Seligman human connection exists on both a pleasurable, hedonistic and individual level as well as a level beyond ourselves. Likewise for Brown she talks about the importance of connection for well being but also the transcendence even of ourselves on a spiritual level – the belief that we are connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves – that is grounded in love and compassion. For some this is God for others nature, art, even human soulfulness or simply love.
We all need and crave human connection – it’s part of our hardwired survival mechanism – and disconnection from other people causes us emotional, psychological and physical pain. The worrying thing is that we are getting worse at human connection. In the UK certainly our focus is on the individual rather than the collective. We talk about success as an individual pursuit, whether it’s success at school or at work the focus is on the individual. We pursue financial independence and we aspire to individual financial wealth as opposed to spiritual wealth which is a form of connection that goes beyond the individual. Even in our emotional lives we’re encouraged to deal with things alone, to be stoic, to put on a brave face, to be grown up. And if we do share how we feel we’re seen as emotional, as over sharing, ‘OMG TMI!’
We medicate people for feeling down, for grieving the death of a loved one (an entirely necessary process) or for depression that’s caused by problems in our environment (i.e. situations we are able to influence or change) rather than simply holding space for people while they overcome life’s challenges through the support of and connection with family, friends, colleagues, our communities and society.
Personally I understand a wholehearted or meaningful life to mean a number of things. Firstly I need to be connected to myself in order to understand what I truly feel and what I really need and through doing this I realise that I feel connected to things bigger than myself in a number of ways. I need to feel connected i.e. have healthy and meaningful relationships with my family. This is – in the main – my parents, my siblings (two brothers), my husband and my son although good relationships with other family members are also important. I also need to have meaningful relationships with my close friends and to a lesser extent acquaintances and neighbours. I also feel the need to be part of a community as well as of society as a whole. I need a sense of purpose in each of these relationships too. To feel that I’m contributing in a positive and meaningful way to each. And even beyond this I need to feel connected to something greater than society and even the world – a more spiritual connection. I need to feel connected to humanity, to nature and even to the universe. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in a transcendental being but I do feel a connection to something bigger even than humanity and feeling this allows me to flourish and to overcome challenges in other relationships.
For Brené Brown meaning comes from living a wholehearted life and the main component of a wholehearted life is human connection. In her research on human connection two main themes emerged: vulnerability and shame. According to Brown a wholehearted and meaningful life is only possible if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and that it’s only through vulnerability that we connect with other people in a meaningful way. In order to truly open up and connect with someone else we need to feel that they are authentic, genuine, sincere and trustworthy. If someone appears inauthentic we close up in order to protect ourselves.
Now here’s the catch. Ironically, we often hide who we really are. In our desire to connect to other people we often hide the authentic self that others seek believing that our true self is not worthy of connection. Instead we show up with a persona that, in fact, causes people to want to recoil from us rather than embrace us. This feeling of inadequacy is shame. Brené Brown describes shame as the fear of disconnection. It’s the fear that if I show my true self there is something about me that makes me unworthy of connection should other people know it or see it. She calls this the culture of scarcity: of not being enough. I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m not attractive enough, I’m not wealthy enough, I’m not smart enough to be worthy of connection with others.
Brené Brown on shame
It’s universal; we all have it. The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough,” — which, we all know that feeling: “I’m not blank enough. I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.
Brown’s advice is to work towards being enough, towards believing I am enough. In order to do this and in order to show up authentically and connect with others in a meaningful way we it’s not enough to just experience vulnerability because vulnerability is just a fact of life. Our jobs and therefore livelihoods are vulnerable, we are rejected at work, socially and in romance. We fall ill, we age and eventually we die. Life is in itself precarious, uncertain and therefore vulnerable which means that feeling vulnerable is inevitable.
When we believe “I’m enough” we stop screaming and start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.
The key is what Brown calls leaning into vulnerability, leaning into the discomfort that vulnerability brings. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable and in Brown’s research it is often described as excruciating, as if physical pain. So uncomfortable that we have a tendency to avoid vulnerability and negative emotions altogether and to engage in behaviours that Brown calls numbing. We turn to shadow comforts such as food, alcohol, drugs, TV, keeping ourselves busy and we avoid spending time alone. However in numbing negative emotion we also numb positive emotion. Psychologist Susan David points out that having the goal of zero negative emotion is the goal of dead people. She encourages us instead to see negative emotion as data or information about ourselves that we can learn from and act on rather than something that controls how we feel and behave.
The wholehearted accept vulnerability as part of life and they lean into it – they don’t necessarily enjoy it but they accept that it’s something they must do to experience a full life. In order to do this we must show courage. By leaning into vulnerability, really feeling it and living with it as our true selves and not hiding it from others we are showing up authentically to life and to our relationships.
Brené Brown’s chosen definition of courage is from the Latin word “cor” meaning “heart”. She says the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
According to Brown vulnerability, courage and human connection are all part of a wholehearted life. In addition vulnerability is the birthplace of many things such as: creativity, innovation, joy, belonging, love, connection and without vulnerability these things simply don’t exist. So avoid vulnerability at your own peril.