As for as I can recall, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” has never been a philosophical pastime but has, rather, been an essential issue for survival and mental health. Even as a teenager, I intuitively struggled to find a reason for living that would sustain me during the dark days of poverty and depression. As a young man, I was in earnest search of a special calling to which I could dedicate my life with passion and perseverance against all odds. In my adult life, all my research and practice was centered on the mission of achieving a deeper understanding of meaning and helping others find meaning in their lives. Now, in my old age, when I go through the valley of losses and death, I have the comfort of knowing that I have lived a meaningful life and can still contribute to new generations through my teaching and writing. Thus, to me at least, meaning is as essential as oxygen for my survival and well-being.
In this long journey of my search for meaning, I have learned many lessons, which have been recorded in my numerous publications. Here, I will share a few findings that may be most helpful to others:
- Regardless of one’s epistemology, we can all conclude that we are by nature meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures, and that the meanings we attribute to events affect us more than the events themselves.
- Belief matters. We are more likely to discover the hidden meaning, beauty, and goodness around us and our calling and mission if we hold the worldview or global belief that life has inherent meaning, as opposed to the view that life has no meaning. Thus, a meaning-mindset has adaptive functions.
- Meaning has to do with values. Our lives are more likely to be meaningful and fulfilling when we pursue the self-transcendental value of serving something greater than ourselves, as compared to the pursuit of egotistic values.
- What we actually do is more important than what we think. If we are actively engaged with life, doing what really matters and what actually contributes to society, we will experience meaning in our lives.
- Relationships matter. We are living in a relational world, and we are all interdependent to various degrees. When we care for others and matter to others, such relationships will endow life with meaning.
~Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Professor Emeritus of Trent University and Adjunct Professor at Saybrook University. The story of his lifelong quest for meaning can be found in his autobiography, which is being published in online installments. He is a Fellow of APA and CPA and President of the International Network on Personal Meaning and the Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute. Editor of the International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, he has also edited two influential volumes on The Human Quest for Meaning. The originator of Meaning Therapy and the International Meaning Conferences, he has been invited to give keynotes and meaning therapy workshops worldwide. His latest Meaning Conference will be held in Toronto, July 28-31, 2016 (meaning.ca/conference). He is the recent recipient of the Carl Rogers Award from the Society for Humanistic Psychology (Div. 32 of the APA) and a member of a research group on Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
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