Submitted by Alex Pattakos & Elaine Dundon*, Co-founders, Global Meaning Institute
Perhaps it is a “sign of the times,” but more and more people have been telling us that they feel stressed, disengaged, disconnected, unfulfilled, fearful, and overwhelmed. Much like Sisyphus, the Greek hero who was ordered by the gods to push a big rock uphill only to see it slip out of his hands at the last moment, living the “good life” for many people has become an endless—and joyless—undertaking.
The notion of the “good life” can be viewed as the human quest for meaning, a formidable challenge that involves both making a living and making a life that really matters, that has significance. To be sure, this seems to be easier said than done in light of the overwhelming evidence that points to the opposite: More people than ever before, in spite of obvious advances in our way and quality of life, appear to be experiencing some kind of existential angst or are lost in an empty space that the world-renowned psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, described as an “existential vacuum.”
In short, the outer trappings of today’s societal affluence and influence are deceptive at best and hazardous to our health at worst. Power, influence, and money, in and of themselves, do not equate with authentic meaning as Dr. Frankl first warned us and as we since have espoused in our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts. The toxic fallout and collateral damage that come from people not finding meaning in their lives, including in their work lives, can be and usually are significant: decreases in engagement and resilience, suffering in health and well-being, and stifling of performance and innovation.
However, in increasing numbers people have revealed to us that they want to feel inspired. They want their lives and work to really matter. They want to find deeper meaning. This desire supported what Viktor Frankl taught us many years ago: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” [Emphasis added]
Dr. Frankl was not the first great thinker to make such a claim about the search for meaning being the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings. Thousands of years ago, the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, talked about the human quest for meaning and living the “good life.” Indeed, Plato made the following observation about human motivation: “Man, a being in search of meaning.” Because we wanted to explore more about this existential foundation, we set off on an odyssey to Greece, the land of philosophers. There we went in search of answers to the existential question that people keep asking us, “How can we live more meaningful lives?”
On our odyssey, we wanted to go beyond the common images of Greece to understand the deeper character and spirit of the Greek people, to understand their attitudes toward life, and, of course, to share in their ageless wisdom. We wanted to understand how the Greeks were coping with, surviving, and even in some cases, thriving during the economic and social crises they have been facing. We wanted to learn how they were finding meaning in their everyday lives and work despite the chaos all around them.
Importantly, we discovered that the ageless wisdom of the ancient Greeks has carried forward to the present day. We discovered that the people in the traditional Greek villages spoke and lived simply but they were incredibly wise about life. They knew how to live with joy and meaning. We also discovered an easy to understand concept that has deep roots in Greek antiquity and that can be meaningfully transformed into a “mantra for living” for the 21st century.
Throughout Greece, we heard the word “OPA!”—a common Greek word that we discovered has ancient roots dating back thousands of years ago to the writings of Homer, revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet and author of the classic works of literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey. You may have even been to Greece and heard the word at various times during your visit.
“OPA!” is much more than simply a word, per se. It also is a concept that carries with it deep and profound meaning. From its ancient roots, the Greek word “OPA!” can be viewed as two sides of the same coin: One side (ΌΠΑ) refers to the uplifting, inspiring, enthusiastic expression that is often heard during some kind of celebration (a manifestation of “kefi” or spirit). Most likely, you’ve heard the word at a restaurant when someone broke a plate—on purpose or unintentionally. Or you’ve heard the word at a wedding or Greek festival when people are dancing. Or, perhaps you’ve watched a Greek-themed movie during which the word is used in some kind of enthusiastic celebration.
The other side (ΏΠΑ) refers to the more serious human need to remain alert, warn ourselves and others, look out for any possible “danger” in one’s path, and be more awake to life’s potential, unlimited opportunities. Like the holistic concept of the yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, both sides of the Greek concept of “OPA!” are interdependent and are needed to achieve our highest potential.
We’ve built upon the ancient roots of this powerful, meaning-focused concept, along with our intimate and broad-based experience in Greece both before and during the country’s crisis, to form an acronym using the Anglicized letters of the Greek word “OPA!” In brief, the letter “O” refers to the basic human need to “connect meaningfully with Others.” The letter “P” refers to the basic human need to “engage with deeper Purpose.” And the letter “A” refers to the basic human need to “embrace life (all of life) with Attitude.” Others, Purpose, Attitude! O+P+A = “OPA!”
Here is a very brief look at each of the core elements of The OPA! Way®, a Greek-inspired paradigm and formula for discovering meaning in life and work:
Connect Meaningfully with Others
Our research focused on the interconnectedness of life in the traditional Greek villages. The focus of life in the village is on the collective “we”; caring for and sharing with others for the collective good. The lessons from this research are applicable to how we interact and build authentic relationships in both our personal and work lives. We should ask ourselves: How many of us would like to live and work in OPA!-style village organizations and communities?
How many of us can truly say that we treat our workplaces like traditional village communities? How many of us treat work as a transaction versus truly caring for—and honoring (an important concept that is rooted in the notion of Greek hospitality)—the needs of our co-workers and customers? How many of our leaders of both organizations and communities truly understand the full impact of their activities on Others (co-workers, customers, society, and the environment)? The OPA! Way can remind us of the important lesson of connecting meaningfully with others. Without these authentic connections, it is difficult to find meaning.
Engage with Deeper Purpose
When we ask people in North America about living “the good life,” most of the conversations revolve around the pursuit of financial and material wealth; but in Greece, the focus on accumulating financial wealth and “material things” is overshadowed by the express need to live life with a purpose. This purpose usually involves sharing special moments in meaningful engagement with others; extending beyond oneself to connect with and be of service to others; and an authentic commitment to values and goals that truly matter and help make a life, not just a living.
Above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi is inscribed the famous Greek saying, “Know Thyself.” In spite of being inscribed thousands of years ago, this saying is still applicable to us today. In fact, it lies at the very heart of the meaning movement. Knowing oneself, knowing others, and knowing one’s world are all basic elements needed to engage authentically with the deeper purpose of our personal and work lives, and ultimately, to live a better, more fulfilled, and more meaningful life. The OPA! Way can remind us of the important lesson of engaging with deeper purpose. Without purpose, it is difficult to find meaning.
Embrace Life with Attitude
Change is inevitable, yet so many people are endlessly striving for “work/life balance.” Such a balance, however, is an illusion. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of the Buddha and Lao Tzu, is famous for his timeless insights about change: “You never step into the same river twice,” and “Everything is in flux.” The river, like life, is always flowing and changing, and we really do not have any control over the river or life. Against this backdrop, building personal resilience—the ability to recover from or adjust easily to change—is more far more valuable and effective at reducing stress than trying to control life’s activities or events. Moreover, although we don’t have control over life’s events, we do have control over our reaction or response to them. The Greek experience has taught us that having a resilient and appreciative attitude is key to embracing all of life: the up and downs, the joys and sorrows, the good times and the not-so-good times. The OPA! Way can remind us of the important lesson of embracing all of life with attitude. Without this kind of attitude, it is difficult to find meaning.
Although our lives may appear to be very different than the indigenous people who live in the traditional Greek villages of today, at the basic human level, we are the same. We are all trying to live the good life, the meaningful life. OPA!
*Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon are the co-founders of the Global Meaning Institute and co-authors of the award-winning, Greek-inspired book, The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work. They are also co-authoring a 3rd Edition of the international bestseller, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work (2nd edition currently available in 22 languages; 3rd edition to be published in 2017).