In a previous post, I looked at how to derive a sense of meaning and purpose from your studies. Given that you spend a large amount of time each week studying, it would be great if that investment in time translated into feeling you were doing something meaningful.
What I didn’t do in that post was break down the construct of ‘meaning and purpose in life’. I want to address that in this post, or at least start to address it. Given that ‘meaning, purpose and identity’ is one of my 9 areas of mental fitness, it seems fitting that I explore the concept in more depth.
For this post I am drawing on a couple of older articles (from the 80’s) by Gary Reker and Edward Peacock who developed the Life Attitude Profile (LAP), a self-report measure of ‘existential meaning and purpose in life and the strength of motivation to find meaning and purpose’. Don’t worry if that doesn’t make much sense to you right now. It will hopefully get clearer as I go.
According to Reker and Peacock, ‘meaning and purpose in life’ is not a singular construct, but instead is made up of different dimensions. Let’s take a look at each of those dimensions in turn.
If you have life purpose, you feel like you’ve discovered your reasons(s) for being alive. Somehow, amongst all the chaos of life, you have managed to work out what you are supposed to do with your life. If that is you, congratulations!
Some people are aware of their life purpose from a young age. For others it develops over time. I’ve had two periods in my life where I felt I had a clear purpose. The first was after I graduated, and the second was when I started my eMental Health Project Officer job here at Flinders. For some, life purpose arrives like a blinding flash of insight. For others it is developed over time through continuous exploration, hard work and commitment.
Not surprisingly a sense of life purpose comes with a whole lotta positive feelings: excitement, zest for life, fulfillment, contentment and life satisfaction. Life purpose is also powerful in providing comfort during difficult times, as reminds you that there is a bigger picture to your life, beyond the stressful aspects of everyday life.
Although it may sound like the most recent release from Dyson, an existential vacuum essentially describes the opposite experience of having life purpose.
It is the lack of, (or the lack of need to find) real meaning and purpose in life. It can be experienced as a kind of apathy (‘oh well’), a kind of anxiety (‘I must find my purpose’) or a kind of sadness (‘there is no meaning in my life’).
Individuals in an existential vacuum report that it feels like something is missing from their life, and although they have a feeling they are destined to accomplish something important, they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is.
A vacuum of meaning can leave individuals disconnected from their daily work. They quickly lose interest in new activities and regularly daydream about a starting a new life and/or identity. Many realise they need to set clearer goals, but don’t know what those goals are.
Life control (freedom to make life choices, exercise of responsibility)
If you have life control, then you believe it is your actions and decisions that largely determine what happens in your life. You sometimes hear this talked about as an ‘internal locus of control’.
Individuals with life control experience a sense of:
- being able to make life choices;
- accomplishments being determined by their own efforts;
- the importance of being able to direct their own lives;
- ability to live their life on their own terms;
- responsibility in shaping their own future.
An internal locus of control is commonly associated with better psychological outcomes. To grasp why, consider the opposite. Those with an external locus of control feel like their happiness/wellbeing is at the mercy of fate, luck, or chance, which is a very powerless place from which to operate. How motivated would you feel if you thought you had little control over your life outcomes?
As you might imagine, life control is not just determined by the beliefs of the individual. It is also strongly determined by the environment and culture in which a person is raised and lives.
For those who’ve experienced significant uncontrollable disadvantage during their lives (particularly during childhood), it might be much harder to imagine a life where their own desires and wishes can be realised through action. If this is you, I quite like this article in terms of how you can wrestle back a sense of control (note: this article is written with men in mind, but I think tthe ideas contained within are relevant to all).
No-one who is thinking deeply about their meaning and purpose in life, can avoid the topic of death. Death is an inevitability that needs to be factored into our thinking. It is an end-point after which we can no longer achieve our ‘earthly plane’ goals and wishes.
Feelings and beliefs about death can interact with life purpose in interesting ways. For some, it is the anxiety and fear of death that motivates them in the present moment to live as fully as they can – to take all the opportunities presented to them and to try to leave a positive legacy behind.
For others, the fear of death is paralyzing. It leads to the most extreme form of procrastination, where the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ makes making decisions an arduous, emotional process.
And for others, death is just another step in a longer journey, one that is informed by spiritual and religious beliefs. They don’t fear death as much because of a belief that death is a transition, not an end. In these cases, it is other spiritual or religious beliefs that drive their behaviour in the present moment.
Different philosophies and cultural practices suggest meditating on the reality of death is a pathway to appreciating and living life more fully. It is not so much that the fear of death goes away, but that you learn to harness it as a motivating, rather than disabling force.
Will to meaning
So this dimension, I believe is particularly relevant to younger students (e.g. those coming straight from high school).
We know that life purpose tends to increase with age, because people can draw on more experiences in defining their individual purpose. I, for example, have a greater sense of meaning and purpose now in my 40’s than I did in my 20’s.
Because of this I try not to pressure young people (~17-25) into clearly articulating their meaning in life, as this can be unfair to them if they’ve not yet had the experiences necessary to generate such meaning.
However I do try to instill a sense of curiousity and readiness to at least consider the concept of meaning in life. That is what ‘will to meaning’ is about.
Will to meaning is the extent to which one is seeking, thinking about, and pursuing meaning in life. It reflects an openness and readiness to find or develop life purpose.
I don’t want to tell you what your meaning in life is, but I do want to encourage you to start exploring what your meaning in life might be.
How do you start that journey? – try connecting more closely to the things you are doing right now.
Goal seeking (desire to achieve new goals, be on the move)
Whilst for some, meaning in life appears as a blinding flash of insight, a ‘calling’ that they can’t ignore, for many, meaning in life is developed through the persistent pursuit of goals and wishes.
Not surprisingly therefore, one dimension of meaning in life is goal seeking.
Goals are the representation of an individual’s desired future. If I set goals, I have a vision of a future in which something that I want has come true and I am committing to engage in the actions required to make it true.
Goals represent a powerful product of how human brains work. We can visualise a better future, identify the events that need to happen to increase the likelihood of us getting there, and then modify our own behavior to make those events happen. When we set and pursue goals we are manifesting our personal wishes, values and wants in a powerful way.
Seeking goals (i.e. actively pursuing new goals to add to our life) reflects an underlying restlessness and a desire to experience new and exciting things – to have adventures. Seeking goals is more pronounced in younger people but are relevant at any stage of life.
I’ve never actually been very good at setting goals, although I can generally describe how to do it for other people. Even if you just start with reflecting on what you’d like your life to look like in 1, 5, 10 years, it will start you on the journey to visualising your future self.
Future meaning to fulfill (determination to make future meaningful, acceptance of future potentialities)
‘Future meaning to fulfill’ is the recognition that the future holds great potential, and the personal ambition to make greater use of that potential.
Being future focused means thinking that the greatest potential for meaning in life lies in the future. Not surprisingly this is usually higher in younger people who statistically have more ‘future’ ahead of them.
To some extent this dimension captures whether an individual’s meaning lies more in the present moment (i.e. I am living my life purpose now) or the future (i.e. the greatest meaning is yet to happen). An individual may not feel much meaning and purpose in the present moment but is hopeful and optimistic that such meaning can be found in the future.
For those who are struggling to define their meaning and purpose in the present moment, this is a mindset that can help you remain vigilant to finding meaning in events as they happen. It is like being told in the morning that there will be free chocolate throughout the day. It primes you to be on the lookout.
What was the purpose of going through all of these?
Each of these dimensions provides a starting point for self-reflection on whether you have meaning and purpose in your own life.
Do I have a life purpose or am I in a bit of an existential vacuum?
Do I feel I have control over my life?
How do I feel about death and does this motivate or paralyse me in terms of making life decisions?
Do I find the concept of ‘meaning in life’ relevant or is there another way of looking at it that resonates more with me?
Am I actively setting and pursuing goals or just letting life happen to me?
Am I hopeful that the future has meaning in it for me?
These are not necessarily easy questions to ponder. Just getting by on a day-to-day basis is challenging enough, let alone questioning the bigger picture. However I believe there is significant value in doing so, even if you are very early in your life.
And I am not the only one. In fact, some of the most interesting studies that have looked at the impacts of asking people “What do you hope to achieve in your life and what kind of person do you want to be?” have been with university/college students. What they find is that this simple guided self-reflection process leads to better academic outcomes and lower attrition rates, and this effect is more pronounced in students that are struggling.
So go back over this article. Read the different dimensions again, and see if you can get a better grasp on whether you have meaning and purpose in your life. If yes, awesome. Keep moving forward.
If no, don’t fret. It is not a sign that you are broken or faulty. It might be as simple as you’ve never really thought about the concept before. Or it might be that you need some more life under your belt in order to know.
Also, take comfort in the fact that the kinds of activities required to help build meaning and purpose are not complex. Revisit the blog post I mentioned at the begining of this article. Take a look at my self-care guide, which contains a number of self-reflective activities that will help.
And finally, if you feel lost in terms of meaning, remember that a common place we find meaning is in our relationships with other people. Connect with friends and family. Talk about this topic. Write about it. I’d love to see more people talking and meaning and purpose in life. If you don’t feel comfortable chatting it out with friends/family, consider counselling.
This definitely won’t be the last time I write about meaning and purpose. I consider the search for meaning a fundamental human need, and I suggest that the research supports its pivotal role in happiness. I hope this article goes some way to helping you better understand the concept and if you feel like discussing it more, feel free to join the Wellbeing for Academic Success group over in FLO.