What is the meaning of life? Does anyone know the answer beyond a doubt? One can speculate, but how can one truly know? It may be helpful to think, rather, about meaning in life as opposed to the meaning of life.
Human beings are meaning seeking and meaning discovering/making. When we have experiences we do not understand, we try to reframe them in a way that we can comprehend. This is especially apparent when people face adversity, whether it involves day-to-day challenges or whether it involves perceived life threat. In the latter instance, consider, for example, a natural disaster, such as a tornado or an earthquake, or an incident of mass violence, such as a shooting at a school. When such an event occurs, we ask questions: “Why/how did this happen?” “What do I/we do now?” “Where do I/we go from here?” We try to make sense of our experiences. Such events can challenge the worldviews and beliefs of the individuals who experience them (e.g., “The world is not as safe of a place as I thought”; “I never thought something like this could happen”; see for example, Park, 2016, as well as Weathers, Aiena, Blackwell, & Schulenberg, 2016).
Fortunately, we have the capacity to choose how we respond. Even in unchangeable circumstances, we can change our attitudes, that is, we can change ourselves. The significance of such themes is evident throughout the writings of Viktor Frankl, whose name is most often associated with the book, Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1959/1985).
Frankl asserted that there are three kinds of values associated with the discovery of meaning, creative values, experiential values, and attitudinal values. Creative values are what we give to the environment, experiential values are what we receive from the environment, and attitudinal values involve the stance one takes toward one’s circumstances (Frankl, 1959/1985; Schulenberg, Hutzell, Nassif, & Rogina, 2008). Frankl also talked of self-transcendence, which “denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter” (Frankl, 1959/1985, p. 133). Each moment affords opportunities to encounter meaning potentials, via valued causes or valued relationships.
No one knows what will happen in the course of one’s life. Life is wonderful, but challenging and uncertain. We do not know how much time we have, yet we often do not spend our time wisely. We speak of “killing” time, as if we have moments that we do not need. Often we are caught up in the details, the small concerns, things that do not matter when considering the larger perspective. We often spend our time and energy, our precious resources, worrying about things that do not happen. We often doubt ourselves and the decisions we make. We look forward to experiences we may have in the future, oblivious to the wonder of present moments (and often we miss out on those future moments when they do occur, as we are thinking of still other things). Such mindfulness to one’s surroundings, to one’s thoughts and perceptions, is critically important and something to be valued in and of itself. Mindfulness enhances experiential values, and it affords opportunities for one to express creative and attitudinal values in given moments. Simply, mindfulness is a way to be present to one’s life. In so doing, one is better able to recognize what is valued, what is important, and make decisions that are consistent with those values. In this manner, via mindfulness and value-behavior congruence, meaning in life may be perceived.
Given we often spend precious resources worrying about the future, trying to make the uncertain, certain, the unknown, known, it is easy to forget that the uncertainty of life is a beautiful thing, something to be embraced. Uncertainty makes life all the more interesting. Uncertainty is an antidote that fosters intrigue, enhancing what would otherwise be a predictable (and potentially boring) life. We do not know what will happen, but life has a way of unfolding as it should, despite our best intentions.
What do you value? Are you living your life in a way that is consistent with your values? If so, then chances are you will perceive meaning in your life. If not, there is still time to think about things differently, to do things differently. Perceiving meaning in life is essential to human health and well-being. These links are well supported in the research literature. However, this meaning cannot be given, it is something that people must discover for themselves. If we know why we get out of bed in the morning, if we have a purpose that we value, a meaning to our life, then we are bolstered, whether confronted by day-to-day stressors or by life-threatening circumstances. Challenges awaken us to our strengths and realign our perspective as to what is truly important. Are we spending our time in ways that we genuinely value? These are the personally meaningful experiences to cultivate, to savor, “the good stuff” as foundation for “the good life” (see for example, Peterson, 2013), that is, the meaningful life.
- Frankl, V. E. (1959/1985). Man’s search for meaning (Rev. ed.). New York: Washington Square Press.
- Park, C. L. (2016). Meaning making in the context of disasters. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 72, 1234-1246.
- Peterson, C. (2013). Pursuing the good life: 100 reflections on positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Schulenberg, S. E., Hutzell, R. R., Nassif, C., & Rogina, J. M. (2008). Logotherapy for clinical practice. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 447-463. doi:10.1037/a0014331
- Weathers, L. N., Aiena, B. J., Blackwell, M. A., & Schulenberg, S. E. (2016). The significance of meaning to conceptualizations of resilience and posttraumatic growth: Strengthening the foundation for research and practice. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyany (Eds.), Clinical perspectives on meaning: Positive and existential psychotherapy (pp. 149-169). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.
~Stefan E. Schulenberg, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in the state of Mississippi, a Professor in the University of Mississippi’s Psychology Department, and a Diplomate in Logotherapy. Dr. Schulenberg serves as the Director of the University of Mississippi’s Clinical-Disaster Research Center (UM-CDRC), an integrated research, teaching, and training center with emphases in disaster mental health and positive/existential psychology. His research interests include perceived meaning/purpose in life, clinical-disaster psychology, resilience, and posttraumatic growth.
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