Emma Thompson Reflects on Life, Loss, and Resilience


Death, Meaning, and Your Morning Coffee

Spending time contemplating death, as Thompson plans to do in her 60th year, may not sound appealing. But in her research, social psychologist Laura King, PhD, has found the opposite: After reminders of death, people value life more highly and find more meaning in it. “When we remind people of the idea of death, it makes life seem more wonderful, more precious,” says King, curators’ professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

To find meaning in life in the face of the fact that it’s inevitably going to stop one day, you might imagine the need to achieve something great — a lasting contribution to the world. “But 1,000 years from now, all our lives will be as if they never happened,” says King. “So our meaning has to be located in our present circumstances.”

Indeed, Thompson’s description of a recent “perfect day” has nothing to do with receiving her damehood from the Queen of England or getting an Academy Award. “I got up and pootled in my kitchen, and then I went for a long walk and had a coffee in a glass in one of my favorite food shops. I bought my mother some biscuits and then walked home and had a cup of tea with my mum and my sister.”

King suggests seeking your own meaning in a similar way:

Don’t aim for the gigantic achievement. Seek meaning in everyday, trivial moments — like Thompson’s cup of tea. “We’ve found that just being in a good mood, playing with the dog, having an enjoyable meal with friends, can promote the sense that life is meaningful,” she says.

Love your routine. That regular morning coffee, the after-work walk with your dog, the glass of wine after dinner? They’re more than just mundane. “Everyday habits bring a structure and rhythm to your life that has meaning. They’re about the stamp that you put on your day,” says King.

Take time to notice. When you’re doing your spring cleaning or watching snow fall from your front porch or talking to a friend in the carpool line after school, take a minute now and then to be present. “You don’t have to hire a life coach or find that perfect self-help book,” King says. “Your life is already meaningful — you just have to see it.”

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