As a child I remember that I was often immersed completely in the experience of playing and exploring nature. Later on, when my abstract thinking developed and I started reading books, bigger questions came to mind. It started with “why.” I was obsessed with trying to figure out the reasons for everything that surrounded me. I do not remember when, but the big Why came one day. What is the purpose of all of this? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Is there one universal meaning?
The meaning of life is an important subject that many great philosophers have wondered about: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Weber, Scheler, Sartre and Camus are some of the names worth mentioning in this context (Ritter & Gründer, 1995). In Eastern philosophies the search for meaning has been taking place for thousands of years. In particular, the world’s religions have been trying to construct meaning of what we are here for. The cultures we live in are providing us with their meanings and values, and those are preserved and re-shaped throughout the generations by family, educational systems, governments and so on.
In addition to these systemic questions that we are immersed in, we also grapple with personal meaning. Psychology is the study of the human mind, and as such it should be interested in the meaning of life, because personally, my sense of meaning in life is directly related to my views and actions. Considering this, though, when looking into the “psychological literature concerning life concepts, readers make an interesting discovery. There are an amazing number of publications under the heading ‘meaning of life.’ Despite this, the meaning of life is not one of the topics treated in psychology textbooks” (Auhagen, 2000). Because it is often overlooked in psychology, it is important to continue exploring the subject of the meaning of life and its connection to the human psyche.
What is the meaning of life?
To “solve the riddle” of the meaning of life, we first need to define meaning. Viktor Frankl was a famous psychologist who did make the meaning of life the center of his therapeutic approach. He provides a definition and also suggests an answer for my question if there is such a thing as universal meaning of life:
Meaning is the concrete meaning of a concrete situation. It is the particular challenge of the hour. ...Every day, every hour presents a new meaning, and a different meaning awaits each individual person. Thus there is a meaning for each and every person, and for each and every person there is a particular meaning. (1995, p. 157)
If each moment possesses a different meaning, does our life, which is the sum of all these moments, have one big meaning? Baumeister (1991) writes that “a meaningful life is one that has a sense of purpose, and second, a meaningful life is one that matters or possesses significance” (p. 2). The sense of purpose is personal, but to have a meaningful life also implies that the personal purpose contributes to others’ lives.
Heintzelman & King (2014) write that “the meaningful life makes sense to the person living it, it is comprehensible, and it is characterized by regularity, predictability, or reliable connections” (p. 2). Benefits of believing that the person’s life has a meaning according to Heintzelman & King (2014) are numerous: Better quality of life, especially when you are older, including self-reported better health, as well as decreased mortality. Having a meaning in life correlates with less age-related cognitive decline and lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Having meaning in life lowers the frequency of psychological disorders and suicidal ideation, even in individuals with depression. Having a meaningful life allows for more effective coping strategies and easier adjustment to new work environments. An added bonus is that people who have a strong sense of meaning in their life are likely to have a stronger social network.
Sasha Raskin, a therapist in Boulder, provides individual and family therapy / counseling in Boulder, Colorado, and worldwide via video and phone calls, drawing from over ten years of clinical experience. Schedule your free 20-minute phone consultation with Sasha Raskin