What does it all mean?

January 24th, 2020

Why we all need something meaningful in our lives.

Whether my life has meaning, what is meaningful and how I can have more meaning in my life is quite a deep subject. This article, understandably, will just touch the surface.

When we were designing the My Internal World model the people we had worked with for so many years became a source of inspiration to us. With regards to the subject of meaning we were commonly working with people who would describe themselves as, "on the surface we look as if we have everything we need, yet we don't feel that happy."

In talking to them to ascertain how we may be able to help them we would cover areas such as their relationship with stress, their self esteem, their relationship with their feelings and so on. With many, after exploring these and other areas, we came to the conclusion that they were generally in a good place but that their lives, the way they were leading them and where they were putting their efforts was beginning to feel meaningless.

What do we mean by having meaning?

Since time began we have been searching for meaning. Many would characterise this as the meaning of life which is really a philosophical question. In this context I would suggest it is more about what is my meaning and what I bring to this life. These are still big questions.

The Austrian neurologist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl observed as he reflected on his experiences in the camp and on observing others that, "Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'."

In other words having a reason to live is a powerful force for us all.

He illustrated this by saying, "When I was taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, a manuscript of mine ready for publication was confiscated. Certainly, my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in."

The final quote from this great man who gave modern psychology so much was this comment which I see as defining our 21st century developed world problems. He observed that, "Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for."

Another definition, offered by wellbeing researcher Laura King and colleagues, says:

...lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have a significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.

The three things that stand out for me are purpose, significance and coherence. In other words I have goals (purpose), I feel that my life, in some way has worth and it makes sense (significance), and how I behave and conduct myself is in line with my values and beliefs (coherence).

Why do we need meaning?

When things are going well and we are enjoying life it is easy to dismiss another person's search for meaning as navel gazing and selfish introspection. Those of us who have got to a point where we were suffering a crisis of meaning and purpose will understand that having a higher sense of purpose - having goals that are meaningful to us and feeling that these things reference back into our values, beliefs and behaviors - is vitally important for our sense of happiness. More to the point they get us through the darker times when we need to know those things exist.

I think there is a deeper need here. The one that is exaggerated when we question why we are on this planet. The feeling that if all we are is a body that exists for 80 years (if we are lucky) and then disintegrates and nothing more... then why? Why? Why?

Why get up in the morning, the ultimate existential crisis.

In other words, we need a sense of meaning and purpose to get us out of bed.

What gives us meaning?

In my experience what gives us meaning varies from one person to another.

Areas we often cover with people we work with are:

  • Raising money for charity
  • Religious observance or attendance at a church
  • Work / business / career
  • Spiritual pursuits and self discovery
  • Parenthood
  • Volunteering
  • Saving the world
  • Working through a bucket list
  • Involvement in politics / environmental groups / activism that improves the world
  • Running social projects or community interest businesses
  • Membership of a choir / orchestra / band

This list is not definitive.

If you are looking at that list and your brain is giving you the message that life doesn't feel that it is meaningful or purposeful, yet you have no time to build any of those things into your life then you are in a genuine conflict. If all you are doing is working and sleeping, or you have no time for yourself and for activities that sustain you and help you keep going, then you are on a steep emotional slope. Not doing anything about it will only cause it to get steeper.

What can I do if I feel like this?

If you are not sure whether it is this that is bothering you or something else then I urge you to join us, become a member and get a full assessment. Just taking the questions in our assessment could stimulate thought that will help you, and the report you get is really helpful.

Maybe reflect on what gave you a sense of meaning and purpose in the past. Is that still present in your life? If you increased its presence would it help?

Maybe consider the areas above and whether one of those would give you the sense of meaning and purpose you need. If so we have a great action planning section in our meaning and purpose pathway that can help you start and continue to build meaning in your life.

The positive side to all of this introspection is that the fact that you are thinking about this is a great start and things are already changing, albeit slowly and subtly, in your mind.

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