Symptoms: You feel just plain empty.

Cause: No sense of meaning.

Remedy: Add connection and purpose. Repeat when necessary.

There's a joke about a man who gives up everything—wife, kids, work—to seek the meaning of life. He travels the world, tries every religion and experience, and is finally directed to a lonely peak in Nepal where a wise yogi holds the secret. He climbs the peak and, near death, asks the master, "What is the meaning of life?"

"Life," replies the yogi, "is a rope."

The guy blinks, thinks—and finally explodes. "You mean I gave up everything in the world to hear that life is a rope?"

After a pause, the yogi says, "You mean life is not a rope?"

What makes that joke funny to me is not only the seeker's frustration but the tenuousness of the yogi's answer. Whatever metaphor you choose (rope, fountain, roller coaster), life needs meaning. And no one can give it that but you.

Kirshenbaum finds it crucial to make time for something transcendent. She and her husband both love classical music, and they decided to listen to every composition by every major composer in chronological order just for the joy of it. "I don't know how to say this more clearly," she writes in Emotional Energy: "Figure out what for you is the beautiful and the sublime, and make it your mission to turn that into a major part of your life."

For Loehr, life is about purpose. What he saw in great athletes was that their almost superhuman efforts were guided by a clear goal—winning the ring, the gold, the title. "What are the things you want to be extraordinary at?" Loehr asks. "What's going to define real success for you?" When you know that, you can begin to craft a mission.

Sean Elder's essay "The Lock Box" appears in The Bastard on the Couch (Morrow).

Give Yourself an Emotional Checkup