A meaningful life

Kathryn Crawford Saxer A Little Kindness

“I have discovered my purpose in life,” I wrote on my social media. “Fostering puppies!” I was joking, of course.

Well, mostly.

I began my puppy fostering career just a week before sitting down to write this column. The two small, shivering little creatures arrived from Texas and my house — and heart — will never be the same.

Within 10 minutes of arriving in our lives, the 8-week-old puppies were romping about. They had just endured a 48-hour road trip in a crate, assaulted by unfamiliar sounds and smells — frightened baby animals adrift in a big world. And yet, here they were, playing and exploring within moments of finding safety.

But this puppy story is not an extended metaphor about resiliency. I want to write about well-being: about purpose and meaning.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the positive psychology movement, focuses on “exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living” in his 2011 book “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.” (Puppies are clearly an enabling condition of a life worth living.)

“The content [of positive psychology] itself — happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships — constitutes human flourishing,” Seligman writes. “Learning that you can have more of these things is life changing.”

Specifically, Seligman outlines five elements of what he calls well-being theory:

  • Positive emotion: pleasure, ecstasy, comfort, warmth, etc. Happiness.
  • Engagement: time stops, and you are completely absorbed in your task. Flow.
  • Meaning: belonging to or serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.
  • Accomplishment: the pursuit of winning, achievement, and mastery for its own sake.
  • Positive relationships: “We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested,” Seligman writes.

Puppies tick many of these life-changing, well-being theory boxes.

Positive emotion. We sit on the floor and laugh as the puppies tear around the room, ferocious Tasmanian devils who suddenly whimper when things get too rough and come climbing into our laps for reassurance.

Meaning. With all the trauma in the world, caring for two puppies is admittedly a small thing. And yet, knowing that I am helping build a bedrock of trust and love in these little creatures, rescued from a kill shelter, so they grow up to be good dogs who bring joy and comfort to their people: that, to me, is a meaningful contribution.

Accomplishment. Puppies are a tenacious nuisance. They are pee and poo machines and their teeth are very sharp. And yet, these puppies leave for their forever homes this weekend. And that is an accomplishment — as bittersweet as it will be — worth doing for its own sake.

Positive relationships. Seligman was talking about positive relationships with other people, but I have found that doing a kindness for these small beings — a warm, clean crate; yummy food and fresh, cool water; lots of toys and attention — has filled my household with well-being. (Admittedly, chaotic well-being and nothing else is getting done!)

To flourish in our careers and our lives, we have to actively care for our metaphorical puppies. Sometimes my coaching clients will tell me that they want to figure out their purpose in life (a goal that has always struck me as way too much pressure — like, what if we get it wrong?!).

Now, when clients tell me they want to figure out their purpose in life, as we explore what makes life worth living, I expect we will start talking about puppies.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.