This week’s post asks us to think about the meaning of life from different perspectives–it’s own meaning and why it matters. Enjoy this popular post from the archives!
What is the meaning of life? Big question. If you asked Douglas Adams (creator of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series) he would answer “42”. If you asked Thomas Merton (monk, writer, social activist and mystic) he would reply that “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”; and if you asked Dr. Seuss (writer), he would tell you that “sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple”.
How would you answer? What gives your life meaning? Is it your partner, your family, your passions? Perhaps it is your spirituality or how your beliefs lead you to interact with the world. While your meaning may be similar to that of others, it will be as individual as your own fingerprint.
No matter what gives your life a sense of meaning, the key is that you have discovered meaning, and it’s something that you have to find yourself. No one else can tell you your meaning of live.
The Importance of Meaning
When we haven’t found a sense of meaning in our lives, or have lost our sense of meaning, we run the risk of wandering aimlessly. We drift from one thing to another–looking for purpose in random activities. We can experience feelings of disillusionment as we are never quite satisfied by our activities. In our pain, we may become selfish. Some people try to self-soothe with substance use, retail therapy, etc. Ultimately, we can reach a place of asking “What’s the point?”.
Alternately, when we’re in touch with our meaning, we operate from a sense of purpose. We focus on what we believe to be important, and this belief helps us to structure our activities, allocate our resources and provides contentment and a sense of accomplishment. We believe that we are on the earth for a reason.
Searching for Meaning
If you are struggling with a lack of meaning in life, a wonderful resource is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was a recognized Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and published author when, in 1942, he and his family (wife, parents and two siblings) were deported to the Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto and ultimately to various other camps. Only Dr. Frankl and his sister survived.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” is Frankl’s description of his time in the camps and his observations.
Based on his experiences, Frankl believed that people are primarily driven to find meaning in their life, and that it is this sense of meaning that enables people to overcome painful experiences. Dr. Frankl makes a key point, that while we cannot choose what happens to us, we can choose our reactions.
Meaning and Psychological Resiliency
Psychological resiliency is the ability to bounce back from negative events and stressors. Having a sense of meaning in life increases our level of resiliency. Dr. Frankl discovered that prisoners who had been able to attach some meaning to their camp experience (whether through helping a friend, or staying alive in order to reconnect with loved ones) were more resilient to the horrors of camp live. Those with greater resiliency choose how to view and respond to their experiences in the camps. As their sense of meaning rose, so too did their ability to choose their responses. Ultimately, their resiliency increased.
Frankl also observed that once someone had lost their sense of meaning (perhaps when learning of the death of a loved one), their resiliency decreased, they ‘gave up’ and soon died.
How Is This Helpful?
Most of us go through periods when we feel that we have lost our sense of meaning and purpose…when we wake up in the middle of the night wondering ‘What’s the point?’. It’s important to recognize that this is normal. One of the wonderful challenges of being human is that we develop and learn. In doing so, we can outgrow our current sense of meaning and then need to look for a new purpose–in a continuing cycle.
By recognizing the importance of meaning and resiliency, we can choose not to give up or fall into the trap of aimless wandering. Instead we can choose to spend time exploring what has given us focus in the past and look for new versions of those activities or beliefs. We can be mindful of our levels of resiliency and aware of what our struggles teach us.
We can continue to evolve.
If you are curious about Douglas Adams’ answer of ’42’, here’s a quick peek at a snippet of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enjoy!