“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose” Viktor Frankl.
Viktor Frankl was a prominent Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he wrote of his personal experiences in Auschwitz. He saw that prisoners who, even in the face of unimaginable conditions, could believe in some meaningful purpose – were more likely to survive than those who didn’t. He witnessed that the more meaning and purpose an individual can have, the greater their perseverance and endurance. They became focused on possibility and solutions by maintaining a determined and courageous attitude. They were driven by the vision of a better tomorrow. As their confidence and commitment grew, they established enough momentum to sustain hope and survive.
Studies in the United States also showed there is a link between one’s sense of purpose and mental well-being. Research carried out during the 1970’s and 80’s, found that meaningful purpose was related to higher self-esteem, more resilience and less depression. Generally, they concluded that what gave people a broad sense of meaning and purpose in their lives was a combination of: HAVING, DOING and BEING.
There is meaning and purpose associated with having things like: enough food to eat; clean water to drink; somewhere to live; family; friends; employment; faith; hope etc. People also find their purpose through doing things such as: creating; serving; helping; healing; exploring; teaching; parenting; leading etc. In addition, people said they had meaning and purpose through feelings of being, like being loved; being happy; being healthy, free, powerful, famous, peaceful, authentic, valued and respected. Interestingly, the majority of those surveyed associated meaning and purpose more with having and doing, rather than being. It seems human beings are more inspired by having and doing, than being!
For many people, their work gives them meaning and purpose and their life can seem empty without it. They become so busy making a living, that they lose sight of making a life, worth living. The studies concluded that only a minority felt their life’s meaning and purpose was about being. Being happy, being loved and being respected was more important to this group (10%) than the material things they had acquired.
Listed below in alphabetical order are the most common things that were highlighted, in the study, as contributing factors to meaning and purpose in people’s lives.
( ) ACHIEVEMENT – setting and achieving goals and having high standards.
( ) ATTITUDE – developing a positive mind-set and facing fear with courage.
( ) ART – expressing inner feelings through writing, music, dance and visual art
( ) CAREER – finding meaning and purpose through work and having a career.
( ) CREATIVITY – obtaining fulfillment through innovative ideas and inventions.
( ) FAITH – having a religious faith and spiritual beliefs
( ) FAME – being well known and famous
( ) FREEDOM – to live and work without fear of oppression, injustice, inequality or tyranny.
( ) FRIENDSHIP – sharing companionship and affection
( ) HAPPINESS – joy, laughter, fun and striving to be happy
( ) HOBBIES – losing oneself in a hobby, sport, interest or leisure activity
( ) LEADERSHIP– being influential, recognised and respected as an authority
( ) LOVE – experiencing love – truly, madly and deeply
( ) NATURE – being close to animals, nature and the natural world.
( ) PARENTHOOD – having children and raising a fine family
( ) PEACE – finding inner calm and peace of mind
( ) POWER – having control of events and others
( ) SENSUALITY– enjoying the pleasure of food, drink, music, sex etc.
( ) WEALTH – having a great deal of money and possessions
( ) WELL-BEING – enjoying good health, in mind and body and spirit
( ) WISDOM – life-long learning, knowledge and wisdom.
What gives your life meaning and purpose?
What is the central theme?
Is it mostly having, mostly doing or mostly being?
These are challenging questions that we don’t often stop to think about. Think back to times when you felt most alive, most joyful, most helpful and most giving. Recall times when you felt in touch with your higher instincts, with the feelings of others and the soul of life. It is times like these that will provide clues about what has meaning and purpose for you. Make a list of all the things that give your life meaning and purpose, include people, places, possessions, passions and pleasures. Then rank them in order of importance to you. What are your top three?
Some people are born optimists. They believe in better. They believe they are here for a purpose and everything happens for a reason. Other people are pessimists. They believe in nothing. They believe they have no purpose; life is meaningless and without reason. Most of us tend to fluctuate between degrees of optimism and pessimism, during our lives, depending on circumstances.
Without some sort of meaning and purpose in our lives we have nothing to shield us against the gloom and doom of despair. The ultimate reality is that our lives are largely what we make them. We can just as easily make them meaningful and purposeful, as make them meaningless and worthless. Believing strongly in one’s Life Purpose reinforces that purpose and helps to make it a reality. Similarly, believing one’s life is meaningless and worthless helps reinforce that likelihood too.
In reality, the enormity and complexities of life, the universe and everything are probably beyond human logic and understanding. But living our lives with meaning and purpose brings hope. That hope is not a guarantee that everything we do will turn out well. Instead, it is the foundation for living our best lives, with passion, belief, commitment, courage and perseverance – no matter what happens.
Why believe in nothing when you can believe in something wonderful?
BEYOND PERCEPTION’S REACH is a collection of brief thoughts and reflections on the complexities and challenges of life’s mysteries. The weekly blog will explore some of the questions and personal challenges we face in our uncertain and confusing world. How do we bring a bit more joy, purpose and fulfillment to our “one wild and precious lives”?
© Denis McBrinn 2021