Are you wondering about the meaning or purpose of life? It’s a question we all ponder from time to time.
Erik Klinger at the University of Minnesota believes the search for meaning results from the way the human brain is organised. He believes that the human brain cannot sustain purposeless living. It is not designed for it.
In his words, “When [the brain] is blocked, its systems deteriorate, and the emotional feedback from idling these systems signals extreme discomfort and motivates a search for renewed purpose and renewed meaning.”
In short, the search for meaning in life is a part of being human. Something you can’t escape.
But what do we mean by meaning? And how can we find it?
Allow me to explain:
When we discuss meaning in life, we could be talking about many different things. Psychologists classify meaning in different ways. Some of the most common ways people find meaning are assimilation and mastery of our environment, purpose, relationship, and transcendence.
Read through this post and see which ways resonate with you.
Choose one or two to explore or develop further.
You don’t need to feel anguish at not knowing the meaning of life. You don’t need to wake up feeling at a loss. Explore the topic of meaning more fully and you’ll soon find the answers you seek.
Are you ready?
Let’s begin with assimilation (also known as embracing change).
Life is constantly changing. In order not to feel disoriented, you need to be open to the experiences it brings you.
That means that the things you find meaningful also need to be flexible and open to reframing and revaluation. What may have been significant in one chapter of your life can cease to be so in another. In this new chapter, new meanings spring forth.
Because your thoughts, feelings, and external personal circumstances change over time, you will face many challenges to your existing beliefs and living styles. With each experience comes the opportunity to learn about new values, ideas, and ways of seeing the world. Some of these you will integrate and make your own. You’ll bring them into a harmonious relationship with other aspects of yourself.
The unique way you do this is crucial. Psychologists argue that autonomy – your capacity to be self-determining and independent, even if it means going against conventional wisdom – is an essential part of meaning.
For this reason, when I’m counselling, I make sure to focus on my client’s ability to remain open and non-defensive in the face of change.
Take a Little Action
The capacity to manage everyday life is also a part of meaning in life. It’s not enough to have needs and values; you must also have at least some ability to create an environment where you can meet these needs and values.
If you’re feeling your life has no meaning, it could be because you feel helpless to change your situation. To feel psychologically healthy, you must feel you can be effective in acting on the world. You must believe that your actions can bring about change. And you must hold that you can master challenges and build the skills needed to prosper.
If you think you may be struggling with your confidence and self-belief, then counselling may help. I often work with clients to challenge critical thoughts and provide a cheerful, encouraging voice in their lives — providing constructive feedback and sharing ideas on how they can build their competence in different areas.
If you’re struggling with a sense of helplessness, the trick is often to start small. When a client of mine had a work-related breakdown and became afraid of going outside, the first task he had to master was spending a few minutes in his garden. Only when he tackled that with ease did we gradually move to walk around the block and so on.
Regardless of where you are currently, take stock. Look for the small areas where you can take action, and meaning is sure to follow.
Think for Yourself
As you grew up, you most likely learnt and adapted to living in your local society, yet you may have done so passively without much thought. When this happens, the social practices and values to which you’re exposed are internalised and made a part of you, often without you noticing.
Many of us follow the script of school, job, car, marriage, house and kids. These things are not bad in and of themselves, but you may be unaware how much society has influenced your choice in these matters.
It’s time to get critical.
Ask yourself if you express behaviours or subscribe to meanings to gain a sense of approval, avoid guilt or shame, or receive social rewards? Do you only do what is socially acceptable? The danger is that you adopt certain ways of thinking and behaving without ever truly accepting these values and behaviours as your own.
When you act for external reasons, the output of your actions is worse than when you operate from your internal values. You're also likely to feel less satisfied. For example, studies show that students whose reasons for learning are external display more imperfect conceptual understanding of the material are less happy and report more significant anxiety about failing than students whose motivation is more internalised.
That’s why part of my counselling work with clients is to discover what they value in life, giving them the space to decide which values they accept and reject and which values they want to own and promote in their life.
When the process of internalisation is complete, you’re likely to feel a profound sense of psychological health and well-being, including greater vitality and self-esteem.
Be With Others
Most experts believe that relatedness is a core element of living a meaningful life. If you think about it, encounters with at least a few other people will probably provide a sense of meaning for you. And when you think about your meaningful activities, you’ll probably find quite a few of them involve a relational or communal aspect.
Researchers Arthur Aron and Elaine N. Aron go beyond this and state that “caring for others is central to meaning.”
They believe that as humans, we need to care for something beyond ourselves. They note that: “Social units, whether families or businesses, small towns or whole countries, tend to survive better if they emphasise cooperation, altruism and sharing, and the general sense that the group is more important than the individual.”
Other people matter.
Aron and Aron believe you can transcend a narrow concern about yourself and come to see a relationship as more important than your personal needs.
Not surprisingly, given the centrality of relationships to how satisfying and meaningful we find life, part of my work as a counsellor includes discussing relationships: How to maintain them and what to do when things go wrong.I also talk to my clients about transcendence in general terms. With them, I explore the ways humans invest themselves in something larger than themselves. Some people give this the label of spirituality, the pursuit of significance in what is sacred about life. This relationship with God or the universe, or energy, is another way people find meaning.
Get a Goal
Finally, having meaning in life also involves a sense that what you’re doing is valuable and vital. When you feel like this, you have a sense of direction in your life, and you see meaning in your present and past life.
Having a purpose is possibly the most critical component of meaning in life as it serves several functions. It is the engine, fuel, and steering wheel. Purpose includes goals, directions, incentives, values, aspirations, and objectives. It’s concerned with questions such as:
- What does life demand of me?
- What should I do with my life?
- What matters in life?
A purpose-driven life is an engaged life committed to pursuing a preferred future. Purpose determines your life direction and destiny.
Your life purpose must be consistent with your life calling and highest values.
An essential part of having purpose is goals. Goals reflect a concrete plan to meet specific ends through commitment and engagement. Researcher Ray Emmons says that “development of goals that allow for a greater sense of purpose in life is one of the cornerstones of well-being.”
If you’re unsure of your purpose in life, talking it through with a counsellor may help. You don’t have to have a single, grand purpose or necessarily have lofty or ambitious goals. But ideally, you want a general sense of direction in life and at least some short-term goals and objectives to reach.
Meaning’s Not What You Think
There is no single meaning to life. Instead, there are certain things that people tend to find meaningful and character traits that make meaning easier to find.
As professor Klinger states, you are a meaning-making machine designed to find purpose in your environment. When that search for meaning is thwarted, you can feel trapped or helpless, and depression often ensues.
Staying open to your environment, absorbing different experiences, and allowing what you find meaningful to change with time is essential -- as is taking a critical approach to what society tells you should be meaningful. Rather than quickly accept these without critically reflecting on them, take time to decide if they are really for you. If you do, then you’re likely to find the activities you engage in more meaningful.
Finally, don’t forget a core aspect of meaning that applies to most people: having goals that you are purposely striving for, no matter how small, and a relationship with an individual, community, or God. Or even a relationship with a transcendental ideal like environmental protection.
Although it’s normal to have periods where life feels empty, the stress, anxiety and depression meaningless causes may prompt you to seek help, set off on a journey of self-exploration, or both.
As a counsellor experienced in helping clients find meaning in life, I know what it can feel like to feel lost - the sense of being unmoored from your locations, in an alien environment, without being sure where safety lies.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Reach out if you want any support on this journey; I’d be happy to help.
Don’t give up. A meaningful life awaits those who are brave enough to explore this path.