Questions of meaning and purpose
There are times when we question the meaning of life or the purpose of life. Such questions may come up when we have time on our hands and we are wondering what to do with ourselves. They may also come at times when we are extremely busy. With life passing us by so quickly, we wonder whether we’re busy with the really important things or are we missing the point of life.
These are times when we may feel empty or that life is meaningless. We may feel alone and experience the anxiety of this isolation. We may find ourselves questioning what the point of life is and it may feel frustrating to not arrive at an answer. At such times, we may begin to look within and around for answers to our questions of meaning and purpose.
According to existential philosophy and therapy, these moments are universal, in that everyone experiences such feelings to greater or lesser degree. It could be in the form of a mild restlessness to a deeper anxiety about the purpose of life.
Soren Kierkegaard, considered the father of existentialism, talks about how becoming human is a project and our task is not so much to discover who we are as to create ourselves. The significance of our existence is never fixed, we are continually recreating ourselves through our projects. We continually question ourselves, others and the world. Questions such as, “Who am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “What should I be doing?” tend to come up in different stages of our lives.
Since existentialism includes the search for meaning, purpose, values and goals as one of the basic dimensions of the human condition, it is relevant to consider some of its propositions when thinking about questions of meaning and purpose:
- The capacity for self awareness: As human beings we can reflect and make choices because we are capable of self awareness. The greater our awareness, the greater our possibilities for freedom.
- Freedom and responsibility: Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading figure among existential philosophers and writers, claims that we are constantly confronted with the choice of what kind of person we are becoming and to exist is to never finish with this kind of choosing. We are responsible for our lives, for our actions and for our failures to take action. We are our choices. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Assuming responsibility is a basic condition for change.
- Striving for identity and relationship to other: We strive to create our identity and our relationships or connectedness with others.
- The search for meaning: We struggle for a sense of significance and purpose in life. Because there is no obvious meaning or purpose to life, we are faced with the task of creating our own meaning.
- Anxiety as a condition for living: We experience anxiety as we become increasingly aware of our freedom. This is seen as a constructive form of anxiety and is a potential source of growth.
- Awareness of death: The awareness of death provides the motivation to live our lives fully and take advantage of each opportunity to do something meaningful.
Multiple sources of meaning
It is commonly believed that people can find a single source that will satisfy all their needs for meaning. The question about life’s meaning is usually phrased as if the answer is singular: What is the meaning of life? Research on meaning, however, indicates that people’s lives usually draw meaning from multiple sources, including family and love, work, religion and various personal projects. Having multiple sources of meaning in life protects the individual against meaninglessness.
The experience of being human and creating meaning for ourselves is subjective, i.e. it varies from person to person. As the author, Anais Nin says, there is no one meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our lives, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person. To explore your own unique answers to questions of purpose and meaning, you could talk it over with a counsellor.
Corey, G. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks Cole.