Much like how beauty and art is in the eye of the beholder, so is meaning and purpose. That’s why we often can’t find the same sense of fulfilment in the things that give other people that feeling. Finding meaning in life is as personal as it gets.
Terror Management Theory’s Take On Finding Meaning
The idea of finding meaning and purpose in ones life has given me the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite theories, terror management theory. So I’m not going to let that opportunity pass.
According to Ryan and Deci (2004), for the longest time, terror management theory was one of few theories that investigated under the surface of goals and cultural values to try and answer the existential concerns that comes with being human. And there’s nothing more existential then needing to find meaning and purpose in life. It allows us to feel connected.
The basic premise of terror management theory, is that humans are acutely aware of death, and that awareness causes death anxiety. The theory then goes on to tell us about how we manage our death anxiety by using psychological buffers to this fear, such as believing in an afterlife.
However, Juhl and Routledge (2016) suggests that another of these psychological buffers of our death anxiety is for us to find meaning and purpose in life. If we perceive that our life has worth, then it can help us to transcend that of the corporeal self, and that our existence has a broader enduring purpose and significance.
Juhl and Routledge (2016) also explained how terror management theory emphasizes that our meaning and sense of purpose is based in our worldviews. Worldviews ground individuals in their values, much like our core values. Our worldviews are where we get our self-worth from, so if we live by our worldviews then we can grow our sense of meaning.
Ryan and Deci (2004) argued that a search for meaning isn’t just about defending against our death anxiety, but is a significant part of our intrinsic developmental processes. They added that self-esteem consists of a sense of meaning and significance, that aptly explains certain defensive forms of self-esteem. However, they also state that self-determination theory suggests that the healthy development of self is more (unfolding of intrinsic growth tendencies) significant than our defensive self-esteem. These tendencies toward autonomy, competence, and relatedness can fuel our feelings of meaning and purpose.
In other words, Ryan and Deci (2004) believe that terror management theory’s well-documented work on people’s feelings of significance when reminded of mortality isn’t enough to explain the process of growth and finding meaning.
Nevertheless, the study performed by Juhl and Routledge (2016) found that people with low perceptions of meaning of life had higher death anxiety than those with high perceptions of meaning of life. Which could explain why people with conditions like depression, can struggle with feeling empty, joylessness, and lost.
Your Identity And Finding Meaning
Because of how the world works, must of us are in jobs that might not give us the sense of meaning and purpose we’d like. For some people that can be a quite an issue, whereas for other’s it doesn’t really matter. They work to live rather than live to work, although that’s an over simplification. For those of us that define ourselves by our careers, then getting meaning and purpose from our work is a significant factor in the satisfaction they experience or don’t experience (Kosine, Steger, and Duncan, 2008).
Miller, Townsend, and Grenyer (2021) found that when someone feels disconnected from their sense of self, a feeling of chronic emptiness grow around their lack of identity. This lack of (or unstable) identity would affect their self-direction, values, and goals.
Because I endured a childhood full of racism, my identity was in pieces and I had no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life. As my identity became more stable, I found my meaning in life, and that was to help people to avoid ending up like me. The scars of my childhood will be with me forever, and although I can still feel lost and empty from time to time, my meaning in life remains the same.
BuzzFeed reported on someone having a similar story, whereby someone experiencing anxiety, depression, and OCD since the age of 15 managed to find meaning and purpose. They found this meaning and purpose when returning as a camp counsellor to a camp they went to as a child. Previously, they’d struggled with connecting with other people, but this wasn’t the case when they were working as a camp counsellor. Being a mentor and support system to these children gave them their meaning and sense of purpose, making them feel “happy, confident, and valued”.
Kosine, Steger, and Duncan (2008) argued that identity is a critical component of our personal meaning systems, which affects our development of goals and purpose. It’s hard to have a sense of purpose and meaning when your identity is unstable.
The issue with identity and finding your meaning in life and your sense of purpose, can be hard for young people as they transition through childhood to adulthood. According to Schippers and Ziegler (2019), people often find themselves trapped in the social media game of, ‘living the perfect life’. Resulting in people trying hard to make their lives look perfect on Instagram and Facebook, often with the reality being very different, instead of living up to their core values, life meaning, and purpose.
One of the most common complaints about people who are experiencing poor mental health is how other people seem to have it all figured out, referencing social media sites like Facebook. This is why I often go on about how making comparisons is bad for us. For starters, comparisons often doesn’t make sense if you don’t have the same core values.
I want to help others, but there isn’t very good money in that. Comparing myself to someone who’s rich but doesn’t care about how their behaviours after others, is just a waste of time. Even if you do have the same core values, you’re still not going to feel good about the comparisons you’re making. It’s a lose-lose thing to do.
This is best emphasised by a story created by Schippers and Ziegler (2019). This story is about Brian, a CEO of a bank that seems to have it all. They have a great salary, a fantastic house, and a family. Yet, Brian isn’t happy with their life. Just because Brian has money and status, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re finding satisfaction in that life. Brian eventually realises that they’ve been living a life their parents wanted for him, rather than than what Brain wanted for themselves. How many of us can relate to this?
Unfortunately, although our parent’s think what they’re doing might be the best for us, that doesn’t mean it actually is. And in some cases, this pressure to live the life our parent’s want for us can be incredibly toxic.
Because our identity plays such an important role in finding meaning and purpose for us as individuals, Kosine, Steger, and Duncan (2008) suggest there should be a reciprocal relationship between the development of identity and the development of purpose throughout adolescence. However, they argue that this should be done to help young people find a line of work they can attach their sense of meaning to, so they can better fulfil their work roles.
I’d argue that this shouldn’t just be about work. In fact, education shouldn’t just be about making us good little workers either. We can find meaning in life that doesn’t have to be bound to our jobs, and still live a fulfilled life. It’s simply not possible for everyone to work their dream job that gives them meaning and purpose their whole lives. But we can all hopefully find that meaning and purpose outside of work if we can’t get it from our work.
Why Finding Meaning And Purpose Is Important
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 42 is the meaning of life. And to a computer, that could very well be the case. No one can really tell you what the meaning of life is, so 42 is as good an answer as any.
Although no one, or no thing, can tell you what the meaning of life is, that doesn’t mean it’ll be impossible for us to find out for ourselves. Finding meaning and purpose is a very personal experience, and can be very important to our quality of life (Kosine, Steger, and Duncan, 2008), especially in the long run.
Why is finding meaning and purpose important? Well, according to the University of Minnesota, having a sense of purpose will guide your life decisions, influence your behaviours, shape your goals, offer you a sense of direction, and create meaning. In short, it gives you a reason for being and to do things (Cambridge Dictionary).
Finding meaning and purpose is considered so important, that people like Schippers and Ziegler (2019) argue that finding meaning and purpose is a fundamental human need. A view shared by Längle (2004) who said that people are fundamentally searching for a greater context and values for which they want to live.
This is supported by Kosine, Steger, and Duncan (2008), who found that finding meaning and a sense of purpose providers people with a way to connect their present to their future aspirations, accomplishments, and goals. In their article, they claimed that there’s substantial evidence that shows that people with a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life have fewer psychological problems and experience a greater sense of happiness.
Furthermore, Kang, Strecher, Kim, and Falk (2019) stated that those of us with meaning and purpose in our lives are better at self-regulating when making decisions. They also experience less conflicts regarding making health-related decisions. The result being that having a sense of purpose and meaning leads to better health and mental health outcomes.
A lack of meaning and purpose can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental wellbeing issues (Schippers and Ziegler, 2019). Therefore, having a sense of purpose can have a protective affect in avoiding poor mental health and recovering from it.
It can help to think of finding meaning and purpose in life as being like having a core value (Kosine, Steger, and Duncan, 2008). This core value then becomes the foundations that you build on throughout your life.
For example, if you got your sense of purpose and meaning from helping others, then helping others would be your core value that shapes how you go through life trying to fulfil this. This could lead you to donating money, volunteering, adopting, being a supportive friend, or even working in the caring sector. Using your life meaning and sense of purpose like this, will also help you glow up.
Finding meaning and purpose isn’t just about discovering what you like, but rather finding out what’s important to you. Finding what’s important is better at igniting your passion than just doing what you like (Schippers and Ziegler, 2019). People dedicate their lives to what they think is important, which brings a sense of meaning and purpose to a whole new level.
It should be noted that just because someone may realise they’re lacking meaning and purpose in their life, that doesn’t mean they can’t live a good life. It also means that the journey to find that sense of purpose and meaning isn’t always going to be an easy one (Schippers and Ziegler, 2019).
How To Go About Finding Meaning And Purpose
An article by Längle (2004) talks about Logotherapy, where they outlined how personal existential meaning comes from several key areas in life. These areas are: the real world in which we live in and it’s potentiality; the networks we form with people and the feelings they create; existing as our unique selves; and the future we shape through our development and activities.
In short, having the right people in our lives, taking action to shape our futures the way we want them to turn out, and living true to ourselves, are all we need to live a life of meaning and purpose. They’re also the best ways to live a life where we feel happy and in control.
For a while now, psychologists have been talking about the significance of meaning in life for positive psychological functioning (Schnell and Becker, 2006). Resulting in Schippers and Ziegler (2019) creating what they call “life crafting”, which is an evidence-based approach to finding meaning and purpose. Life crafting, is a positive psychology approach to interventions, whereby they want to support and enhance wellbeing, rather than tackling the cause like you would a disease.
They outlined seven interventions, which could be done as journal tasks.
1. Discover values and passions
Write about the things you like to do, what relationships (private and work) you’d like to have, what career you’d want, and about your lifestyle choices/preferences.
2. Reflect on current and desired competencies and habits
This is one of the few times you can kind of make a comparisons because it’s self-improvement is the focus. Write about the qualities you admire in others, what they might do well that you’d like to do too, and write about what good and bad habits they have.
3. Reflect on present and future social life
Write about what relationships have a positive and negative affect on your life, what relationships does and doesn’t boost your energy, what kinds of friendships you’d like in the future, and what your family and social life would look like.
4. Reflect on a possible future career
Write about what you find important about a job, what you’d like to do, what kind of colleagues you’d like, and what kinds of people you’d like to meet through work.
5. Write about the ideal future
Write about your best possible self and the best possible future you could have if there were no constraints (self-imposed) and compare that to a future where no changes are made to make that better future happen.
6. Write down specific goal attainment and “if-then” plans
7. Make public commitments to the goals set
Make a public statement to others about your goals and create a vision board.
If you’ve ever experienced a feeling of emptiness or feeling lost, then you’ve likely had a period of time where you’ve lost your sense of meaning and purpose. You might not have even realised it at the time, you might not have realised it at all, but not having a reason to do something can be detrimental to our wellbeing.
Having meaning and purpose is massively important to how we live our lives. When you have a total lack of meaning and purpose in our lives, that lack of a reason can stop you looking after yourself, and in extreme cases, lead to suicidal ideation and attempts.
I know some of your might be thinking that you don’t have the luxury of finding meaning and purpose in life. But let me say this, finding that sense of meaning and purpose has far-reaching affects on not just your happiness and wellbeing, but of those around you as well (Schippers and Ziegler, 2019).
Furthermore, children learn by the examples we set them, so ditch the do as I say, not as I do mentality, and show them that finding your meaning and purpose can be a great way to live, by doing it yourself.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with finding meaning and a purpose in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Juhl, J., & Routledge, C. (2016). Putting the terror in terror management theory: Evidence that the awareness of death does cause anxiety and undermine psychological well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(2), 99-103. Retrieved from https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/385875/1/Terror%2520in%2520Terror%2520Management.pdf.
Kang, Y., Strecher, V. J., Kim, E., & Falk, E. B. (2019). Purpose in life and conflict-related neural responses during health decision-making. Health Psychology, 38(6), 545. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/manuscript/2019-21849-001.pdf and https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000729.
Kosine, N. R., Steger, M. F., & Duncan, S. (2008). Purpose-centered career development: A strengths-based approach to finding meaning and purpose in careers. Professional School Counseling, 12(2), 2156759X0801200209. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2156759X0801200209 and https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael-Steger/publication/327629826_Purpose-Centered_Career_Development_A_Strengths-Based_Approach_to_Finding_Meaning_and_Purpose_in_Careers/links/5c4b9d95458515a4c740eb31/Purpose-Centered-Career-Development-A-Strengths-Based-Approach-to-Finding-Meaning-and-Purpose-in-Careers.pdf.
Längle, A. (2004). The search for meaning in life and the existential fundamental motivations. International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology, 1(1). Retrieved from https://www.meaning.ca/web/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/93-13-457-1-10-20171212.pdf.
Miller, C. E., Townsend, M. L., & Grenyer, B. F. (2021). Understanding chronic feelings of emptiness in borderline personality disorder: a qualitative study. Borderline personality disorder and emotion dysregulation, 8(1), 1-9. Retrieved from https://bpded.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40479-021-00164-8 and https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s40479-021-00164-8.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Avoiding Death or Engaging Life as Accounts of Meaning and Culture: Comment on Pyszczynski et al. (2004). Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 473–477. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.473 and https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2004_DeciRyan_CommentPysz.pdf.
Schippers, M. C., & Ziegler, N. (2019). Life crafting as a way to find purpose and meaning in life. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2778. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02778/full.
Schnell, T., & Becker, P. (2006). Personality and meaning in life. Personality and individual Differences, 41(1), 117-129. Retrieved from https://www.uibk.ac.at/psychologie/mitarbeiter/schnell/docs/article_pdfs/as2485531466792961436271096683_content_1.pdf.