by Robert Wheeler
Sooner or later we all get involved with some aspect of the “big question” that involves something more in my life than what I experience in daily activities. This could start on a clear night when you look at the stars and wonder “what’s out there that I cannot see?” and progresses to why am I here, where did I come from, what is my purpose in life, maybe what is the purpose of life in general, or what started it all? These questions form an innate need that was either created in us or a need that evolved through adaption. Most people are exposed early in life to ideas touching on these questions through learning from family, friends, school, church, and community culture. The provided answers may or may not be satisfying, however most people continue to harbor the question with varying degrees of intensity. The pursuit of answers is less pressing than the pursuit of more immediate needs such as food, comfort, and entertainment; and is usually pushed into recesses of the subconscious mind where it simmers in the background and is not of major concern.
For me, it started when, as a kid. I wondered if there really was a God or a Heaven where people go after death. It seemed kind of outlandish to me but since others around me accepted it, I did too but with reservations. This focus probably occurred because of my father’s death when I was 4 years old and it continued despite unpopularity of the topic. I grew up in a middle-class suburban community where most people affiliated with one of the many churches, but religion was not an issue and rarely discussed outside of church. For most of us, the “big questions” were pushed out of awareness and left simmering in the subconscious mind.
I was interested in science and was planning to be a physicist, but World War II attracted me to the military and little time was available then to pursue big questions. That is, until the Army sent me to a university for graduate engineering study in preparation for work in aviation research and development. The academic environment was exhilarating and provided opportunity to pursue my big questions. That was only for two years, though, so it was eight more years before I could retire and continue the big question pursuit. I dabbled in many fields: philosophy was too general, theology was too narrow, and psychism was too fuzzy. Psychology seemed most suitable for formal study, and the academic setting I got in to was once again exhilarating and led to fascinating research, learning, teaching, and health promotion work.
I found that the answers to most questions about God and Heaven were the product of human interpretation of revelation and supposition based on faith and belief. This top-down subjective approach could not be investigated directly by objective methods; however, psychology was producing some reliable information about its role in human well-being with research about “purpose-in-life” (PIL). I found this was not about the purpose in life, but was about what people thought about it, their sense of purpose. It had been related to mental health and spawned a number of therapeutic treatments. It seemed that questions about God, Heaven, and purpose in life were at the present time objectively unanswerable. Furthermore, the nature of these ultimate topics was not as important as the view people had about them and the effects of that view.
To investigate this, I developed a measure about one’s “sense-of-purpose” (SOP) consisting of four components: 1) framework–the degree I think there is a PIL; 2) Commitment–the degree to which I am concern about PIL; 3) Perspective–the degree to which I am succeeding in learning about this framework; and 4) Values–the nature and quality of my PIL framework. Results supported SOP as being related to personal health, well-being, and performance. It also supported SOP as being related to concern about something bigger and greater than daily activity to meet immediate needs, something “more” that involved what is known as spirituality. Spirituality, as used here is a concern for something more than the self, a power transcendent to oneself. This concern seems to be an enduring trait we all have but are aware of in varying degrees. It is a basic motivator that energizes motives to pursue more immediate needs. It is also the basis for religions that have traditionally provided answers to big questions as well as many other benefits such as social support, stable ethics, acceptance, salvation, immortality, and something to believe in.
Because of our current culture that emphasizes consumerism, wealth, and power, the basic motivation to pursue answers about big questions has been subjugated to motives for meeting more immediate daily needs. The influence of religion with its benefits has decreased for various reasons, particularly because of conflicts with modern experiences and scientific findings, and the increases in health, enjoyments, and comfort. But, the incidence of anxiety, depression, suicide, and criminality has increased, and some research indicates that the diminished influence of traditional religion is a major cause of these adversities. Regardless of cause, a change in our culture that emphasizes the basic motive of answering big questions would divert emphasis on current materialistic influences and alleviate many problems for individuals, communities, and nations. How different life would be if our media, politicians, educators, and leaders emphasized the basic need to search for meaning and purpose in life. It would renew awareness of the big questions and encourage more satisfying pursuits. Cooperation would subjugate competition and contribution would subjugate self-gratification. More people would have a sense-of-purpose and satisfaction in life reducing anxiety, depression, suicide, and crime. If this occurred globally, terrorism and war would decrease.