Meaning-In-Life

By Robert Wheeler

Are the things you do meaningful? Yes, if they were not, you wouldn’t do them. You climb out of bed in the morning, trundle off to work, struggle to meet goals, and hopefully find time in the evening to relax in front of the TV. These all have meaning because they have purpose. You may think the purpose is only to have a paycheck coming in each month, but there is a lot more to it. The underlying reason you do these things is to exist effectively and comfortably. It is not just because you are here and need the money, it is because you have within you an innate need not only for meaning in daily activities, but also to reach out for a meaning beyond that of your daily mundane activities of existence to meaning for your very existence. This is called “meaning-in-life” (MIL).

                This innate need to reach out there for something bigger and better than personal day to day activities can easily be subdued by the more pressing needs of daily life, and they may ferment in suppressed recesses of the mind where they can cause feelings of dissatisfaction or bubble up to cause feelings of depression and anxiety. However, this need for something bigger and better was so important in history it became a major social issue that stimulated the advance of civilization. It is the foundation for religions that in various forms have dominated societies throughout known history. Religious beliefs tend to fill this need, and they even affect non-believers also because of their cultural influence.   

                Meaningful is defined as having meaning or purpose. So, even though going to work each morning is not reaching out for something bigger and better beyond daily activity, it is meaningful but not completely satisfying because its purpose is limited to an immediate activity rather than to that something bigger and beyond. This has become known as “purpose-in-life” (PIL).

                It was the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl that popularized PIL as a result of his experiences in Nazi prison camps during World War II. He noted that those prisoners that had a goal beyond daily existence were more able to endure the rigors of captivity and to survive. After the war, he related this to his medical practice and became famous for his statement and support about the difficulty of over one-third of his patients as being caused by lacking a goal that gave them a sense of purpose for their life. To treat this, he developed Logotherapy that has been effective particularly for depression, anxiety, and alcoholism.  

                For Dr. Frankl, it does not make much difference what the person’s goal is as long as there is one. Research at St Louis University demonstrated that the nature of that goal is also important and is related to the person’s health, well-being, and performance. The most effective goals were aimed at something outside of the self, that made a contribution, and involved a search for understanding. This has been supported by other research in psychology started by Martin Seligman and George Vaillant, and related to MIL by Roy Baumeister.

                        There is now reputable objective support that for greatest well-being,  a person’s daily activities should be meaningful based on purposes related to a long range sense of an externally oriented PIL. That, in turn, provides a satisfying sense of MIL.  How much better our society would be if our media, politicians, and educators emphasized these things, and less about wealth, power, and aggression. People would be more aware of their most basic innate need, thus reducing that unsettling feeling of dissatisfaction. Depression, anxiety, and suicide would reduce for individuals and for nations, cooperation would replace competition and violence.