Striving to be ourselves, it’s not just an ambiguous notion for many highly sensitive people and high sensation seeking highly sensitive people. The need to find meaning in life is one of the most significant aspects that HSPs and HSS/HSPs have communicated to me over the years.
The sensitive sensation seeker is one who thrives in an optimal range of stimulation where boredom is kept at bay, novelty and new experiences provide fresh stimulation, and where we choose it autonomously, even if it goes against the norms of society. Sensitive sensation seekers are a creative group who do best in short-term situations: projects with a definite ending date, situations that we know have a finite life, and where new stimulation will always be on the horizon. Now, you might say that boredom is a sign of laziness or weakness and that one simply needs to “get busy” and there will be things to do, hence alleviating boredom, but if you are a sensitive sensation seeker you know that boredom is more than a mere annoyance; for many it has been described as a “worst enemy.”
Boredom susceptibility is one of the four key aspects of the personality trait known as Sensation Seeking, a trait described and delineated by research psychologist Marvin Zuckerman in the late 1960s. Since that time, sensation seeking has been researched and applied to the treatment of addictions and other risky behaviors, to the gifted population, and to the well-functioning of those who are able to express the trait in a more moderate sense. Moderate expression of any trait is more advantageous than extreme expression. For example, a truly high sensation seeker might take poorly conceived risks that end in his death or jail time, simply because he is an expression of the trait at the extreme high end. This brings us to the interplay between Sensation Seeking and Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a complex personalty trait with four key dimensions:
Depth of processing of all stimulation and experience, meaning we spend more time in reflection and consideration of what something may mean or in rumination over events.
Overstimulation, in some highly individual circumstances. No two highly sensitive people are alike but may experience issues with strong smells, loud noises, temperature swings, scratchy fabrics, or other sensory irritations. Many may also have Misophonia, which is a strong aversion to repetitive noises like chewing, clicking, tapping, or other unexpected sharp noises. Such instances can cause a rather visceral and strong reaction of anger (even rage) that is out of proportion to the stimuli. Lest you think that highly sensitive people are fragile, weak, or simply complainers, consider for a moment that many are quite successful in their chosen fields and have attained high educational status and reputation. Many HSPs learn to manage their tendencies toward overstimulation, in time.
Emotional responsiveness and high Empathy. HSPs have a wider possible range of emotional expression than those without the trait, simply meaning they might experience not only the joy in an event but the sadness and everything in-between, all at once. HSPs might also be highly empathetic and have a deep capacity to enter the realities of other people, even if they do not wish to. No, they are not psychics or anything paranormal but HSPs may find that empathy leads to compassion and apply that orientation to solving real-world problems that affect real people. Many HSPs are employed in the “helping” professions and derive great meaning from their work. Others strive continually to manage how much they feel from other people and what to do about it.
Sensitivity to subtle stimuli. HSPs are exquisitely finely tuned and may notice subtle smells, noises, or visual cues that others overlook entirely. This sensitivity can be a great advantage, though it is a costly in terms of time and energy. Many HSPs find it quite necessary to recharge in quiet after a day of too much stimulation or that they must arrange their lives to work in sync with their natural bodily rhythms and needs more than conventional situations.
The highly sensitive person, then, is one who thinks and feels more deeply than others, may need to withdraw to recharge or avoid becoming unpleasantly overstimulated, notices subtleties others miss, and who innately have a capacity to assess the emotional and affective states of other people.
Highly sensitive people are about 30% of the overall population, according to the latest research, which postulates that sensitivity is inherent in the human species as a general personality trait, just in varying amounts. The range of highly sensitive would likely contain a variety of people along a continuum with proportionally fewer at the extreme high end, again, because extreme expressions of traits tends to not be advantageous to the species. Some 30% of the highly sensitive population are also high in sensation seeking, which might seem completely the opposite of sensitivity (and it is), but let’s consider how they seem to interact and overlap.
Boredom susceptibility seems to be an issue with the highly sensitive and the sensation seekers. In that way, they overlap, but in other ways, they tend to be quite different. For example, seeking physical thrills would not be descriptive of the highly sensitive person, but in those who are both sensitive and sensation seekers, thrill and adventure seeking may be present. One way that sensitivity mitigates high sensation seeking is in the pause to reflect aspect where one stops to think or gather more information prior to taking an action. You might just consider that the risks are simply too great and not jump out of that plane!
Similarly, the sensitive sensation seeker may be a highly creative individual who has a real and pressing need for continual reinvention. Such a person moves from career to career, likely never staying at any one point for too long before the need for novelty and new stimulation become too great. This restlessness can be a defining issue of life for sensitive sensation seekers but it can also be one that propels us to great heights.
In the person who needs to feel a sense of meaning in life, especially the sensitive sensation seeker, happiness is indeed a fleeting moment, a mental illusion that one feels as a transient state, and, as articulated in this video, is less satisfying than simply seeking meaning in life. A meaningful life, what does that mean? It may mean seeking meaning through career for many, but meaningfulness in career is not always possible, due to a variety of factors within and not within our control. Meaning, then, may take the form of finding ways of engaging with ourselves and the world that bring our capacities to bear on challenging tasks with the possibility of growth and development. Such experiences are called Flow experiences~
Striving to be who we already are is a bit of a fool’s task, yet we engage in it because we come of age largely having no idea who we truly are. Our superficial and shallow culture promotes a generic vision of identity at any given age we may simply “wear” like a ready-made suit, only changing every ten years or so. Many people also do not know how to think well; many do not understand how to think rationally or creatively, yet both are integral to effective thinking and doing in the world. The Zen Buddhists take the approach of moving us toward an ever-elusive goal only to learn that the reward was always within us the entire time, that we are already whole and complete as we are, that, even if we somehow were able to attain spiritual enlightenment and find absolute serenity and contentment, we would still be just as we are right now in this moment. There is only the present moment and only that opportunity to choose how we will live, what we will do each day, and how that contributes to feeling as if we are experiencing a meaningful life.
Bear in mind that what is meaningful to one person may be less so to another person, yet both are equally as valid since we all come from very different life narratives. For example, that graduate who stands and is recognized as a first generation college graduate may not seem unusual, but you may not know the incredible improbability of that person being where they are at that moment having achieved something no one may have expected or thought possible. We never know what is meaningful for another person but we do know, or can learn, what is truly meaningful for us, but it does take some experimentation and a willingness to take risks, and possibly to fail.
You are the universe personified and experiencing itself through your very eyes. You are the universal creative force that created the galaxies, stars, the planets, and all life that exists throughout the expanse of space and time. You are a partial expression of a complete idea that only comes into focus when we think of life as a whole. You are neither above or beneath nature; you are nature… As such, you are whole and capable of many inborn instincts and actions, as well as some you may choose yourself. There is no imperative to seek happiness, as we have learned, yet so many are under the illusion that if we only reach X, Y, or Z we will finally be “happy.”
Happiness and meaning go together, hand in hand and one for the other. Feeling as if our life has real meaning, that we engage our often significant capacities while growing from the experience, is happiness! It’s the striving of the process that is the real enjoyment of life, as well as the small moments when we pause to reflect on how far we’ve come.
Seeking meaning in life my friends, not happiness…
Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career