What gets you out of bed every morning (besides your alarm clock or your children)? What motivates you and keeps you going every day? What do you feel truly passionate about? Everyone is unique, and we will each answer these questions in different ways. Maybe your love for your family is what gives your life the most meaning. Perhaps it’s your career or volunteer work, or even your pet, that gives you a sense of meaning and purpose. There are no right or wrong answers, and no one can give us the answers. Nonetheless, they are important questions for each of us to ask ourselves.
We need purpose to keep us moving forward each day. In addition to purpose, many of us want to find or create meaning in our lives. There are numerous books and articles out there today about the importance of purpose, and how to find it if you’re uncertain. In our quest, we may ask ourselves the “big questions”. Why I am here? What should I be doing? What does it all mean? Why do bad things and suffering happen? Finding meaning in life and having or discovering purpose are not just philosophical musings separate from our daily life of kids, work, and cooking dinner. It turns out that meaning and purpose may actually be essential for our mental health and wellness.
The Importance of Meaning and Purpose
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledge, in their definition of psychological wellbeing, that a sense of purpose is an essential component of mental health. They believe that people with good mental health have qualities like: “ self-acceptance, openness to new experiences, optimism, hopefulness, purpose in life, control of one’s environment, spirituality, self-direction, and positive relationships” (Mental Health Basics, 2013).
Some of you may be familiar with the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Swiss Psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. It’s not only a story about one man’s experience inside a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, but it’s also a story about Frankl’s theories about what helped some survive while many others perished. No doubt, the physical and environmental conditions were horrible, with lack of food and the threat of disease. However, the emotional state of the prisoners was also a factor in whether they lived or died. In fact, Frankl believed that our thoughts and beliefs about a situation are something we can always choose, regardless of our circumstances (Frankl, 2006).
Very simply, Frankl believed that the ability to find meaning could mean the difference between living or dying in the camp. He believed it made the difference for him, as well as for some of his fellow prisoners. In his book, he says, he knows the "why" for his existence, will be able to bear almost any "how." (Frankl, 2006). Finding and holding on to meaning and purpose can help us to overcome even the most difficult situations and challenges. Finding meaning can be challenging at times, but it can make suffering more bearable.
Happiness vs. Meaning
So, it makes sense that meaning and purpose can help us feel fulfilled and happy, while also helping us to navigate the tough times more successfully. However, simply seeking happiness in life does not seem to provide the same kind of real satisfaction as finding true meaning and purpose. A study of 400 Americans ages 17-28 found leading a primarily “happy” life was more associated with being a “taker”, while leading a meaningful life is associated with being more of a “giver” (Smith, 2013). Now, being happy is not a bad thing! However, one can have a happy life, without necessarily having a meaningful life. For most of us, being happy means things are going well, we are in good health, and we can buy the things we need and want. When we’re feeling happy we generally have a low stress level. According to the researchers, happiness tends to be about getting what we want, and avoiding what we don’t want (Smith, 2013).
On the other hand, meaning is less about our own personal needs, and more about giving and sacrificing for others. Having more meaning in your life is associated with activities like getting presents for other people, taking care of children and even arguing with others (Smith, 2003). Have you ever heard someone say that they cared enough to fight about it? Conflict can actually be a sign that something, or someone, is very meaningful to us. People may even seek meaning in their lives when they know it may decrease their happiness. There is something bigger than themselves that is more important to them than their personal happiness or comfort. Happiness may come and go, but meaning tends to have more enduring effects on our lives.
Often, happiness is a byproduct or side effect of living a life of meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, according to a poll by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 4 in 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose
Finding What Matters
When we lack a sense of meaning and purpose we can become anxious, depressed, or feel empty and “blah” inside. We may feel like we are just going through the motions and like there is nothing in our life to feel passionate or excited about. These feelings could be a sign that you are experiencing meaning-deficiency! In fact, some people become quite distressed and experience what’s known as existential depression. While this may feel pretty awful, it’s actually not a bad thing. It can be a sign that something needs to change in your life.
Sometimes, life transitions such as starting college, divorce, retirement from a long career, or children leaving the nest can cause us to question the meaning of life and our purpose. Other times, we are young, and just trying to understand what’s important to us and how we can best share our talents and skills with the world. The author, Anais Nin, puts it very well when she says,
“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” (Quotes, 2014).
Regardless of what may be causing a crisis of purpose, there are things you can do to find what brings meaning to your life.
· Talk with a counselor. Explore what is really important to you, and what is not meaningful. Clarify your values, and what you want to do with your time and your talents. Counseling can also help you to process and give meaning to difficult things, like trauma and loss.
· Think outside the box: We often trap ourselves in roles and define ourselves in very specific or narrow ways. If you could do anything, what would you do?
· Notice what you get really excited or passionate about. Are you investing yourself in these things?
· Develop awareness about your real likes and dislikes. What drains you, and what gives you energy?
· Who is really important to you? Do they get your time and energy?
As we’ve discussed, no one can tell someone else what their purpose in life is, or what will give their life true meaning. These are very individual things that come from with a person. However, if you are feeling confused, and a bit at a loss, these are some ways you can begin to uncover what is really important to you and what makes life meaningful for you.
Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Mental health basics. (2013, October 04). Retrieved August 11, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/basics.htm
Quotes about the meaning of Llfe. (2014). Retrieved August 11, 2014, from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/meaning-of-life
Smith, E. E. (2013, January 09). There's More to Life Than Being Happy. Retrieved August 10, 2014, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/