What is the most important resource in our lives, but, paradoxically, the one we can never find more of? Many great thinkers throughout history have answered that question with a single word: time. Time marches on, as they say, no matter what anyone does. Even as scientific breakthroughs add years to our lives, they reveal how infinitesimally small a sliver of history we occupy. As medical advances cure one mortal threat, another is discovered.
The eternal question of how to spend our limited time is as pertinent today as it was thousands of years ago. How can we make the most of the time we have here on Earth? What is it that makes life meaningful? And, at the end of our lives, how can we look back with satisfaction on what we have done? In a world of 40-hour (or more) workweeks, careers determine how you spend the majority of your waking hours. A career can mean many different things: it can be a typical 9-to-5 job, freelance creative work, or raising a family. Some people even make a “career” out of avoiding all of the above.
When we say something is “meaningful” — we imply that it is somehow connected to a larger purpose, being part of a bigger picture. Finding meaning is different from thinking something is important. Meaning goes beyond rationalization and logic, touching upon the emotional and even spiritual sense.
Many jobs are filled with important work. But when work is meaningful, it goes beyond being important. From a physiological standpoint, we might say different brain and body systems are stimulated when we find something meaningful. We feel it in the heart as much as in the head. How could this feeling, this sense of meaning, affect the function of our brains?
The writer Neale Donald Walsch describes the brain as a kind of transformer that allows consciousness to manifest in the physical world as energy. Electrical energy in the brain, as we all know, indicates the presence of consciousness. Many people, from scientists to psychics, talk about the close relationship between consciousness and energy. It could be said that consciousness is determined, at least in part, by the depth of meaning in life. Depth of meaning is not always easy to measure. What is meaningful for one person might not be so for another.
Similarly, at different times in your life you might find the same activity has a different meaning. But, generally speaking, we can imagine meaningful activities to be things like raising a child, or taking care of an elderly person, or working to save the environment. If you care deeply about your work, it is more likely that you have an active, alert, and motivated mindset. As you take action day after day to achieve goals in your meaningful work, this mindset becomes your habit, to the point where we can say that it becomes your consciousness.
Consciousness creates and affects the energetic workings of the brain. The resulting energy, which activates the trillions of brain cells, is very different when someone has meaningful purpose, compared to when they do not The same brain, activated with different energy, produces different cognitive results. In short, consciousness matters. The funny thing about consciousness is that it cannot be changed by understanding alone, at least not for long.
Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that left you feeling energetic and inspired to take action? How long did that feeling last? If you’re like most people, you might be lucky to keep the feeling more than a few days. This is why choosing a meaningful career can be such a powerful way to affect consciousness. Your career will require consistent and focused action, day after day, month after month. When you commit to a career, you don’t have the luxury of following feelings. In order to succeed, you must become a master at reigniting passion and purpose, habitually. This is the way to change consciousness and, in the long run, brain function.
There are some careers, however, in which it can be easier to find meaning on a daily basis — that have come to greater public awareness in recent times — careers as nurses and nurse practitioners. What is a nurse practitioner, you might ask? Essentially, it’s someone who looks after a variety of people — both old and young — who resolves that essential need we all have for meaning — every day of their lives through their employment. Very few nurse practitioners go into work in the morning, wondering what life is all about. They’re too busy ministering to the sick and caring for others — to focus on “existence” or “meaning.”
Are some people just destined to find more purpose in life? Is it something you’re born with? Perhaps. But evidence suggests that by consciously choosing a meaningful career, you are probably doing something good for your brain. A meaningful career might pay a little less than another job, but, in the long run, brain health is a significant form of wealth.
So follow your gut instinct and find a career that means something to you. It might not add as much money to your bank account, and it might not even add years to your life — but it will almost certainly add life to your years.
This article was first published in the print edition of Brain World Magazine.
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