If you want to live a long life, get yourself a chronic disease

Viktor Frankl is a psychiatrist who spent years in a concentration camp. I’ve found many insights in Frankl's landmark book, Man's Search for Meaning, that can be translated into living with diabetes. The second half of Frankl’s book examines his concentration camp experience with a single question, 'What does it take to persevere and come through a monumental, tragic experience?' Can there be happiness in suffering? Yes, Frankl says, if we have meaning in our lives. 

Meaning in the most personal sense, "What is the meaning of my life at this time?" For us, with diabetes? Frankl believed everyone has a specific, unique mission in life and that we each find meaning through enacting it. Being in service to others or a cause, loving someone or something and turning tragedy into triumph are all ways to live a meaningful life.

Of the more than 150 people I've interviewed who have diabetes, many see diabetes as an opportunity to pursue a more meaningful life: An opportunity to become fitter and healthier, lose weight, follow a dream and or help others. They see diabetes as a wake-up call and are reminded that life is short, life is precious, and it comes with no warranty.

For many years I’ve been writing a blog about living with diabetes on my web site, DiabetesStories.com. Someone sent this to me in response to one of my posts: “Riva, two years ago at age 68 I had a heart attack, a triple bypass and was diagnosed with diabetes all within one week. I'm doing well, have changed my diet and take exercise seriously now.
It hasn't been lost on me that I got a second chance at life and believe me I'm not about to squander it. Someone once told me, if you want to live a long life, get yourself a chronic disease to take care of.  I didn't think of diabetes as much of a "gift" but you are right, it can be. I'm in better shape now than I have ever been.
We all should look at diabetes as a gift - a nuisance and a pain in the neck sometimes, but it really is a gift.”

I figure you can see your diabetes in two ways: 1. Geez, I hate this. It’s not fair. Damn x%$!!! Or, 2. Hmmm…O.K., I’m going to turn over a new leaf, lose those 20 pounds and feel good! What do I really care about? It’s time to make it happen, wow, I’m smokin’! Mind you, these two ways of looking at life are not mutually exclusive; you may find you put on one attitude one on Monday and when Wednesday rolls around, you’re wearing the other. But, you probably live in one of these mind-sets more than the other.

Diabetes can be the very thing that makes you recommit to a healthier, happier and more meaningful life. It can be your motivation to pick up a dream you left abandoned long ago. We get the most out of life when we discover what we care about and do it.

After losing my job at 48 I searched for a way I could use my talents to contribute to the world. This was a desire I’d long had but wasn’t specifically acting on. That urge prompted me to take one small step after another creating my road to here, helping others with diabetes. Since diabetes was my arena, I gained more and more knowledge of it, and it's been reflected in my own better management. But even if diabetes were not my focus, the excitement of waking every day to add new strokes to this canvas I'm painting, gives me tremendous happiness, and an even deeper desire to be healthy and enjoy life.

It mystifies me why the world hasn’t yet realized that attaining wealth, status, a bigger house and the corner office doesn't make most people happy. In fact it leaves many pretty miserable. More people are on anti-depressants chasing these outward status symbols.

Frankl found that camp survivors who looked forward to finding their families again or creating their next great work, persevered to survive. And they actually experienced joy in the agony by treasuring small moments, like finding a forgotten picture of a loved one or getting an extra blanket. In that moment elation eclipsed their suffering.

So here's my advice--see your diabetes and taking care of it as the bedrock from which to create your meaningful life. Even better, see your diabetes tasks as gifts you give yourself, because they will reward you with even greater health, possibly greater than if you’d never even gotten diabetes.

If living a meaningful life is the road to happiness, then use diabetes as a catalyst to create a life of greater meaning. Most people I’ve talked to feel diabetes has not made them any less happy. Rather they find great joy in life, and many find diabetes has enriched their lives, by prompting them to create greater health, appreciate what they do have and help others. Now that’s a meaningful life.