Crying out for a sense of well-being is about more than simply smiling or expressing gratitude and the warm contentment of seeing someone; a meaningful life needs to be lived in a way that creates its own realities. This was described in 1980 by the philosopher and Nobel Prize winner, Albert Einstein.

Having more time, money, and people to share with help brightens the landscape of happiness. But Einstein defined a sense of well-being as looking for common ground and making contacts with those around us to reap the benefits of other people's actions and personalities.

This seems an obvious way to describe emotional development and its role in individual functioning in a way that matters, but Freud disagreed. In his work as well as in his characteristically good humor, Freud held that a person's primary goal should be to provide meaning to life by becoming a collector, rather than a doer of the things needed for meaning to exist.

Here we'll review some previous literature on how to understand the expansion of a person's sense of well-being, and include some examples of how that process may play out in our day-to-day lives.

Thinking positively

It's easy to look at a flag and see "our country" next to it or a sparkly star surrounded by branches. Sounds a lot like yelling "the tree of knowledge" with an index finger, though, doesn't it? Those are good ideas for America — but most everyone would agree that they don't really create meaningful lives.

One of the things that has been proven to make life meaningful is thinking positively. In a recent interview with my dear friend, the science writer and screenwriter Tom Franklin, he described himself as a "positive" guy. And he's absolutely right.

The best kinds of thinking are those that make people say, "Wow!" Feeling good is a great start, but dwelling on that feeling brings us back to reality. And sometimes we have to have the experience of being actually rewarded for playing and creating a good game or story, as well as finding that special someone to kiss and spend time with.

Without a sense of meaning, there's no sense of connection to the things we've created, no sense of belonging to the community that we are part of, no sense of pleasure we get from playing with our children or grandchildren or from viewing the sunset with our spouse. That may not be at the top of everyone's list of aims, but positive thinking does lead to moments of satisfaction.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that how well you think about a situation has more to do with the feeling of positive feelings than with an actual outcome. In others words, you may think you're making a good deal when you're actually probably not.

Regrets are a great thing

Making someone laugh is great, but that's not enough. When the universe rewards our willingness to be inclusive by gifting us moments of laughter, we've done our part. So it's important to consider what happens next: What was this for, the one positive thing we had done the day before, the one gesture toward kindness we made yesterday, the gesture we're going to make today?

Understanding the ins and outs of our understanding of what made a life worth living in the first place can help us determine how to build our lives so they leave a positive impression.

The way it works in the work world is that a shared sense of purpose motivates individuals to work hard toward success. So don't just think of it as about going to work. That's all well and good, but think about what you have to do to get a project through and what you have to do to get promoted or to lead a team. That will help you define what things are worth doing, and those are the kinds of things that motivate people.

These days, being productive seems to go hand in hand with making high-fives. Good productivity depends on being organized and being able to plan. A sense of the actual objective behind a task makes you able to build momentum. That's why planning, on a daily basis, is so important. The practice of connecting with other people around you and making contacts — something that should be fairly routine — creates a sense of meaning. It's not as if you're playing a game, but it's still worthwhile to stop sometimes to make that extra effort. Doing the things you love to do makes a meaningful life.


Thomas Goetz is the Dean of the School of Arts and Letters at the Chicago Film and Television School.