Meaning and purpose
Sooner or later we all have to face the fact that we are mortal beings. Only human beings have vivid insight into our own mortality and the stressful nature of our existence. We all discover that bad things can happen to good people and that, often, life is simply not fair. So stress reactions like worrying and depression are a vulnerability we all share, regardless of how mentally well equipped we are to deal with unexpected personal disasters.
Some people, however, seem able to cope better than others and the one thing that carries them through the tough times, more than anything else, is their sense that behind all the unfairness of life there is a core of meaning to their existence – something to live for that is above and beyond the problems they are tackling. They rely on this foundation of meaning to carry them through, round or over any obstacle, whatever emotional turbulence it is causing them. Someone with meaning in their life therefore has a high level of psychological robustness – which they can use to weather the storms of life, with all its ups and downs, sadness and loss that happens to everybody at some point.
There are three main ways in which we stretch ourselves to get meaning into our lives:
- To serve others – to have people who need us provides a great sense of meaning and purpose. Hence raising a family is always meaningful, looking after grandchildren or elderly grandparents, having friends who value your support, work colleagues you can’t let down, patients or clients you must keep appointments with, students you must keep on teaching or people less fortunate than yourself who you can help. Pledging time contributing to the community for free, for example doing any sort of voluntary work, supporting a football team, or being a member of a Parent Teacher Association, is stretching. Even looking after animals that depend on you for their survival is service.
- Learning and problem solving – being involved in activities that challenge and stretch us. Active problem solving is good for us. Your brain must be stretched like muscle as when it is bored and slack, it is an unhealthy brain. Viewing life obstacles as problems to be overcome is the most healthy way of dealing with them, and this is because we thrive on challenges that focus our attention and give us something to work towards. For example, you might hear a successful businessman say, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when my company went bankrupt and I lost everything. I was right down in the lowest place possible but I learnt lessons I wouldn’t have learnt otherwise and then built myself up again. I wouldn’t be the strong person I am today if that awful situation hadn’t happened to me.”
- Commitment to coherent philosophy of life greater than yourself – People who have a committed religious practice have better mental health and live longer than those who don’t, but you don’t have to be religious to get the same result. Some people would not call themselves religious but nevertheless have a ‘spiritual orientation’ and open-mindedness towards any quest involving the possibility of a greater intelligence system in the universe. Secular people who consider themselves to be on an active quest for ‘scientific truth’, ‘justice’ or ‘better education’, ‘saving the environment’ or improving the ‘quality of life’ for others, also gain the beneficial effect of a coherent philosophy of life.
Further info: Clip 3 at the Listen page of this website is on meaning.