Finding Meaning

Meaning making is one of those BIG topics… some of us propel ourselves toward it and others shy away from it. Some of us really want to feel the effects of meaning-making but somehow can’t find ourselves doing things that will truly contribute to this process. Carl Jung said, “Absence of meaning in life plays a crucial role in the etiology of neurosis…”. Looking at that word –neurosis— can be helpful here because that word alone can be unnerving. A general way to describe neurosis is any mental state in which one is experiencing imbalance or distress. So, we are basically all alike in this aspect because the very “stuff” of life creates neurosis.

So what do we do about neurosis and lack of meaning?

Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, and highly acclaimed author, together with Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist and best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning, are two distinguished existentialists who devised these paths toward meaning:

  • altruism,

  • dedication to a cause,

  • creativity,

  • self-transcendence,

  • suffering,

  • God/religion,

  • hedonism and

  • self-actualization.

This post will touch on these aspects and I invite each of you to ponder these points and discover for yourself what has brought or could possibly bring [more] meaning into your own life.

Altruism. Serving others through kindness and unselfishness. Examples of altruism are sharing of things in all forms including kindness, compassion, generosity, volunteering and donating money. Altruism can create meaning in your life by benefitting you as long as it does not feel mandatory… so really check in with yourself here to see if the altruistic choices you make are coming from a place of freedom within yourself.

Dedication to a cause. Dedicating yourself to political, religious, medical, familial, scientific or other causes with the purpose being to take you beyond yourself (the opposite of being selfish). This can take many forms and can be really integral in finding out more about who you are. If you have ever wondered what your personal interests are (maybe you haven’t had the time to figure this one out yet), finding a cause to dedicate yourself to can be two-fold… you are helping others and also learning more about yourself.

Creativity. Choose to create something beautiful, powerful and meaningful… you get to decide what that “something” is. If you have not yet felt the power of your own creative source, this can really send you down a path of experiential bliss. If you need some help finding out what your creative outlet might be, take a look at this article for some ideas to try and then put them into action:

Self-transcendence. Doing what is needed to transcend your own guilt, depression, personal salvation and other self-oriented goals to pursue selflessness. Personal therapy or life coaching is a big player in this arena. Having the space and professional help to really look within and make movements toward that self-transcendence can be the greatest gift you can ever give yourself.

Suffering. Face suffering with optimism, dignity and integrity. There is a Buddhist flair to this point. Buddhism maintains that suffering is a part of life’s experience, and the more we try to deny our suffering, the more pain and suffering that we inflict. So, practice some mindfulness and acceptance of what IS rather than trying to whisk it all away today. You might just find yourself settling into something that makes a little more sense to your body, mind and soul.

God/religion. Focus on serving God (if you're a believer) or your religion/spiritual beliefs instead of serving yourself or pursuing material goals. This may be an idea that you are really familiar with, however, if you find yourself in the middle of a faith crisis or transition, maybe you can give yourself some permission to pursue beliefs that are aligned with what feels right in your heart. Maybe this comes from your religion or spiritual belief that you’ve had your whole life, or maybe this suggestion provides you the opportunity to go read that article, book, visit that church or join that meditation group that has always piqued your curiosity or lies “outside the box” of what you’re used to.

Hedonism. Choose to live life to the fullest each moment… drinking up the joys and the sorrows of daily life. Hedonism is defined as the pursuit of pleasure or sensual self-indulgence. This topic may feel quite contrary to a life of selflessness yet this does bring meaning for a lot of people. Maybe you can give it a try in doses and see if this works for you.

Self-actualization. Dedicate yourself to self-improvement and meet your potential. Finding those places where you can feel good about working on yourself can be so rewarding.

[*Special note to reader: it can be helpful to pay attention to whether you are feeling energized and better because of this search for meaning or whether this pursuit leaves you feeling like you’re “never good enough”. For this to provide meaning in your life you want it to be something that adds to you rather than detracts.]

Where do you find yourself in these suggestions for finding a life full of meaning? We are all in this journey together and it can be helpful to share what works for you. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, and happy “Meaning Making”.

Emily Celis, LMFT specializes in adult individual mental health services for anxiety, depression and mood disorders, religious transitions, LGBT+ related issues, body image, substance abuse, self-esteem, and gender specific issues. She offers in-person and online services for adults and is also trained to work with couples, families, children and adolescents.

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