Are You Searching For Meaning?

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

The subject of finding meaning in your life is perhaps one of life’s most serious questions. In one respect, religion is a response to this search for meaning. Philosophy is virtually dedicated to answering the deepest questions of meaning. In the most stressful, traumatic of times, people crave to find some meaning for their pain and misery. That’s what led Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl to write his landmark book, Man’s Quest For Meaning.

It may not take a traumatic event, however, to trigger a deep longing for answers. Now, almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century, you may simply have a nagging but enduring feeling that demands an explanation. Writing for Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Joshua Hicks and Laura King look for a practical answer: “Feeling that your life has meaning is fundamental to the experience of being human, and people who feel this way tend to be healthier and happier. Given the importance that most people place on meaning, how might we cultivate the feeling that life is meaningful?”

Upon reflection, you might say that you find meaning in the basic but immensely important roles you take on: in being a parent, a spouse or lifelong partner, a son or daughter, a friend. One indication of how important these roles are is the feeling that you have when you lose one of those relationships. It’s not only painful but can be life-changing. Is there a way, however, that you can find meaning beyond fulfilling the roles you have in life, however satisfying those roles generally are?

Hicks and King look to answer that question by offering three ways you can maintain or enhance the feeling that you are leading a meaningful life.

“The experience of significance in life.” It might be tempting to think that only people who have changed the course of history in some way are truly “significant.” But, if that were true, far fewer that one percent of all people could cite significance as the root of their meaning. “The feeling that your life is significant is related to more than feeling that your actions are influential to others,” write Hicks and King. “Significance is augmented when your behaviors, or experiences more broadly, matter to yourself. This aspect of significance is related to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s idea of finding beauty and meaning in life through lived experience. For example, the experience of meaningfulness can be found by enjoying riveting musical performances, being in awe of natural beauty, or simply appreciating an authentic interaction with another person.”

“Sensing coherence.” There is a rhythm to the natural world, and our lives in response to that rhythm, that we may rarely think about but makes life orderly. We have our morning routines, our week divided into work and recreation, annual holidays that recur in a reassuring pattern. This orderliness can also be described as coherence. “Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense,” Hicks and King say. “For most people, most of the time, understanding life isn’t a problem requiring a solution. We are natural sense makers, automatically comprehending most situations effortlessly. In fact, a likely reason we don’t think about meaning in life too much is that our lives simply feel right (that is, things simply make sense).” That’s why a disruption in that orderliness can raise the question of meaning. One way to find meaning is to consciously recognize or create a rhythm to life — whether that is celebrating sacred time or intentionally connecting with a loved on a regular basis.

“Imbuing life with a sense of purpose.” Purpose may seem to be a synonym for meaning, but on further reflection there is a subtle difference. Having a purpose begins with establishing a goal, and understanding why you are pursuing that goal. Your actions in achieving that goal naturally follow. Then, and this is where the subtle distinction becomes clear, you find meaning in taking action to achieve your goal.

Hicks and King sum it up nicely: “The overarching reason for existence can be found in ‘God’s plan’ or a life calling, but a sense of the why of behaviors is not limited to such grand experiences. Taking time to reflect on your life dreams — to write the next chapters of your life story — can help to connect everyday life and daily goals to broader aspirations. Instead of wandering aimlessly, having ‘clear eyes’ gives you a sense of direction and the motivation (a full heart) to help you achieve your goals and allow those accomplishments to imbue your life with meaning.”