Finding meaning in things that we do not enjoy

It’s no secret that I have been struggling lately with finding moments of “joy” and “happiness” in my life these days, even though I am well-aware that I have so much to be grateful for. Not only am I fortunate to have many privileges, including a well-paying job and relative financial security, but I have such a wonderful personal and professional support network. I am very blessed in my life.

And yet, I’ve been feeling this sense of depression for a while now. I know it will eventually pass, if I just keep moving through it. And I actually HAVE been doing better, after starting this blog and feeling connected to more people again. But I have been doing a lot of reflecting on my life. And just this past weekend, I was thinking about a conversation that I once had with a former undergraduate student in my lab, back in 2016. That conversation was one of the most impactful and memorable conversations that I ever had with a student. It changed how I thought about life, actually. 

See, for many years, probably from the moment I became a professor, I believed in the ”power of positivity.” I focused on the good, just about all the time. I either expressed happiness and joy or I pretended to express happiness and joy, almost ALL the time. And I tried to spread that positivity to everyone around me. (I now realize that while being positive is great and beneficial, it is important to allow for negative feelings too and not always suppress them.)

I used to say to students that were in my lab, if you don’t LOVE working in the lab, then you should go find something else to do with your precious time. 

But one day, during a conversation with this student, he basically told me that he politely disagreed with me. And that just because he didn’t LOVE coming to lab, just because it didn’t bring him happiness and joy, did not mean that he did not value it or find meaning in it. Some things in life are worth doing, even if you don’t love them.

And I thought about what he said. And I realized that I agreed with him.  

Thus, after our conversation, I changed what I said to prospective and current students in my lab. I changed it to –  If you don’t love or find meaning by working in the lab, go find something else to do. I say that to students all the time.

And so, just this past weekend, I was thinking about that conversation from something like four years ago. And then, out of the blue, the student emailed me! And he wrote, “I think back sometimes to some of our conversations. Do you remember when we talked about how sometimes it can be valuable to pursue/continue doing something for a long time even though you don’t enjoy it (or something along those lines…)?”

I was so delighted to hear from him, and I was struck by the crazy coincidence of his email with my own thinking. I mean, this is a student that left my lab after he graduated over three years ago.

Anyway, I replied to him that yes, I did remember our discussion. And yes, sometimes, we do things even when we don’t enjoy them. I still think it is important to make sure we are FINDING MEANING in the action/experience, and not just doing it because we are “supposed to.” 

But just because we aren’t enjoying it does not mean that it isn’t giving us meaning. I definitely appreciate pain and suffering and struggling now in a way that I did not, before. After all, it is not possible to fully appreciate or understand the meaning of light if you do not also experience the dark sometimes. 

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