Why a meaningful life might be right under your nose

When Lauren Laverne became a DJ, she was concerned that her job wasn’t meaningful enough. Then she realised that sometimes silliness can save your life

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By Lauren Laverne on

In case you ever need to find him, the happiest guy in the world works round the corner from The Pool offices. I mean, I assume he isn’t happy all the time. I assume he has the same array of emotions as the rest of us. It’s just that he’s so good at making other people feel good when he’s at work, you’d never know it. London is a wonderful city, but it’s not at its best during a freezing rush hour, before anyone has had their morning coffee, and this tricky interlude is the time during which I have observed him, in our local cafe. Every morning, without fail, this particular individual greets me – and everyone else – with a smile and a small, but significant, cheerful human interaction. On grey days, juggling multiple orders, while navigating the crush behind the till and monitoring the passive-aggressive jostle that can build up in front of it when people are waiting, each expecting a beverage that is as as complicated as it is caffeinated to be produced especially for them within a minute or two. 

It’s a small thing, perhaps, to start someone else’s day by smiling and saying something kind or funny. But, one day, I mentioned him to one of the girls in the office and it turned out she instantly knew who I meant. Everyone in the office did. Each of us had thought we were the only one to notice what a nice bloke he seemed, and that he always sent us on our way feeling slightly better than when we arrived. It got me thinking: what is the exponential impact of that amount of goodwill? The cumulative consequence of – conservatively – 200 tiny-but-positive conversations per day in our little corner of Fitzrovia? Look at that job on paper and you might think there’s a guy serving coffee and sandwiches all day – a necessary role, but unremarkable. Except that, the way he does it, it is more than remarkable. It is meaningful.

We’re all looking for meaning in our lives, sometimes so hard that we miss it when it’s right under our noses. The phrase “a meaningful life” sounds pretty grand after all. It implies heroism, altruism, pioneering achievements and bravery. A zen-like attitude that has been acquired after a long, arduous spiritual journey. Which is all very well but, if it is all those things, then that leaves most of us out, right? It would certainly exclude me. When I was young with more time on my hands, I worried about this. I wanted to have a meaningful life. I looked at my friends and family: teachers, carers, nurses, charity workers – the contribution they made was valuable and obvious. I was enjoying myself, but I worried I was wasting my time faffing around in London, where I’d just started working as a presenter and DJ.

Now, on one level, being a DJ is really silly. The job spec (sitting alone in a dimly lit room, playing records and talking to yourself for hours on end) reads like a nervous breakdown. It is literally ridiculous, as Alan Partridge and Smashie and Nicey have proved with great success. They are horrifying, memorable and funny, precisely because of the ludicrous nature of jockdom. 

I was a distraction, a bit of company. A cheerful presence in the corner during an ordinary day. I didn’t realise it at first, but I was making small, invisible connections with people I didn’t know, day after day

It was therefore quite a surprise not only that I fell in love with my job, but that it also ended up providing the meaning I was looking for. Initially, this wasn’t to do with deep or intense experiences. My early radio gigs were very much the Smashie and Nicey variety – tunes and chat. I was a distraction, a bit of company. A cheerful presence in the corner during an ordinary day. Or a difficult one. Or a great one. I didn’t realise it at first, but (just like my friend in the cafe) I was making small, invisible connections with people I didn’t know, day after day, and that turned out to be incredibly rewarding. 

People started to get in touch. I got to know my regular listeners and I began to understand that, sometimes, a bit of silliness can save your life. Some days, a five-minute distraction is the only thing that gets you through. I learnt the power of playing a song that reminds someone of the first time they fell in love, or the happiest day of their lives. I can’t describe how it feels to play a track you love and find out that someone, hundreds of miles away, has had to pull over in their car to cry, or to dance, or call a friend and say, "Are you listening? They’re playing our song." 

The huge moments came later and I will never forget them. The listener (now a friend) who heard music for the first time live on my show – 12 hours after having cochlear implants fitted. Being able to send a grieving father the audio recording of the day his son had been a guest on our programme, choosing his favourite records just before he died, so that he could hear his voice again. The babies born while we were on air in the room. Whenever we dedicated someone’s favourite record to them one last time. The break-ups survived (sometimes discussed on air, in all their painful glory) and (last month) the couple who got engaged after meeting online talking about our show. But, while I love those moments when they happen – like comets streaking across the sky – the everyday stuff is just as important. 

I know my limits – I’m not a brain surgeon or an inventor. I’m not a poet or a great scientist. I’m a DJ who has made peace with their inner Partridge, given their inner Smashie a hug and acknowledged the presence of their inner Nicey (though I try to keep him under control). If I can find meaning doing their job, maybe anyone can?


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Lauren Laverne

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