Reading my philosophy thesis was like receiving an email from my 25-year-old self.
“You don’t find meaning; you create it,” was my answer to the question, what is meaning?
Drawn in by the unforgiving directness of the existentialist philosophers, I was (perhaps naively) attempting to respond to the question that Albert Camus said must be answered before all others: Is there meaning in life? Or, to state it more clearly: Is a life worth living? (Camus, 1975).
This article explores a few of the questions central to the vast and complex topic of meaning and purpose in life and introduces techniques and tools to help clients find answers.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free. These creative, science-based exercises will help you learn more about your values, motivations, and goals and will give you the tools to inspire a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.
This article contains:
What Is the Purpose of Life? A Philosophical and Psychological Take
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus (1975), when faced with what he saw as the meaninglessness of existence, suggested we live life to its fullest rather than attempt an escape.
For Camus, as with his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism concerns itself with the uniqueness of the human condition (Sartre, 1964). According to the existentialist formula, life has no inherent meaning. We have free choice and, therefore, choose our values and purpose.
But where did existentialism come from?
The sense of freedom that existentialism offers is crucial – jolting us out of a comfortable malaise. It builds on Friedrich Nietzsche’s thinking that there are no universal facts and that man is isolated. He is born, lives, and dies – alone (Nietzsche, 1911; Kaufmann, 1976).
Rather than dictating how the reader should live, Nietzsche tells us we should create our values and our sense of purpose.
And yet, if cast free, how do we create meaning and purpose?
Existentialism is indebted to Edmund Husserl’s work on perception to answer this and other questions. Writing in 1900, Husserl regards meaning, along with perception, as the creation of the individual. Meaning is not objective – to be found in the external world – but built up from our mental states (Warnock, 1970).
Martin Heidegger – often described as the first true existentialist – picks up on this idea in the heavy-weight Being and Time, written in 1927. For us to be authentic – following a state of anxiety born out of a realization that we are free – we must take responsibility for our actions, our purpose, and our meaning (Heidegger, 1927/2013).
Existentialism and the struggle for meaning
Sartre continues this line of thinking in Being and Nothingness (1964):
“…every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man.”
Separate from the world, we must realize the horror that we are free to do and create meaning. And yet, to avoid bad faith (or inauthenticity), we must accept that we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for all people.
To the existentialist, our sense of meaning and purpose comes from what we do.
But can science and psychology help us find either? Yes, probably.
Meaning and psychology
Increasingly, psychologists have begun to realize the importance of meaning to our wellbeing and happiness.
Recent research suggests that people with increased meaning are better off – they appear happier, exhibit increased life satisfaction, and report lowered depression (Huo et al., 2019; Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016; Steger, 2009).
Nevertheless, meaning is a complex construct that can be approached from multiple angles; for example, cognitively, appraising situations for meaning, and motivationally to pursue worthwhile goals (Eysenck & Keane, 2015; Ryan & Deci, 2018).
While there are many definitions of meaning in psychology, Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, provides us with the following useful description (Heintzelman & King, 2015):
Meaning in life “may be defined as the extent to which a person experiences his or her life as having purpose, significance, and coherence.”
Whether meaning is derived from thoughtful reflection or only as a byproduct of cognitive processing, it is vital for healthy mental functioning. After all, we only attach importance to an experience and see it as significant if it has meaning. Similarly, a sense of meaning and purpose is crucial to create an environment for pursuing personal goals.
A fascinating study in 2010 took a very different perspective, bringing us closer to our initial, philosophical discussion. The realization that there is only one certainty in life – death – can cause great anxiety for many.
The Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that features that remind us of our mortality are likely to heighten fear around death (Routledge & Juhl, 2010). However, TMT also suggests that a life “imbued with meaning and purpose” can help stave off such angst.
Philosophically and psychologically, it is clear that meaning is a fundamental component of our human existence.
How to Find the Purpose of Your Life
Though often used interchangeably, meaning and purpose are not the same.
Meaning refers to how we “make sense of life and our roles in it,” while purpose refers to the “aspirations that motivate our activities” (Ivtzan et al., 2016).
The terms are sufficiently close to saying that in the absence of either, our life lacks a story. As humans, we need something to strive for and a sense of connectedness between the important moments that make up our existence (Steger, 2009).
Sometimes, seeing the bigger picture or recognizing our place in the broader scheme can bring great insights and even play a role in our experience of meaning in life (Hicks & King, 2007).
Share the following ideas and insights with your clients:
Mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam
In 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to spin the Voyager 1 Space Probe around to take one last look at Earth as the probe left the solar system. The picture it took was unlike any other before or since. Roughly 3.7 billion miles away and traveling at 40,000 miles per hour, it captured Earth as a small pale blue dot against a band of sunlight.
The image either leaves you with a sense of deep horror at our insignificance in a vast, uncaring universe or a sense of wonder at how we came into being in such a “vast cosmic arena.”
This realization is captured beautifully in Carl Sagan’s words and this stunning computer simulation.
Broadening the mind
Alternate points of view that broaden the mind may help an individual experience an increased sense of meaning in life (Hicks & King, 2007). With that in mind, work with your client to widen their outlook and experience others’ thoughts to challenge what they know and think.
Ask your client to:
- Read widely.
Explore new ideas and beliefs that reach beyond your comfort zone.
- Widen your group of friends and contacts.
Seek out those who have unique ways of looking at things – positive people who will encourage you to grow.
- Learn the methods of evidence-led, scientific thinking.
Rational thinking can provide the opportunity to free yourself from biased judgments.
Finding meaning through growth
Adopting a growth mindset can also lead to increased purpose in life. Help your client move away from a fixed mindset and open up to finding new purpose through exploration and challenge (Lee, Hwang, & Jang, 2018; Smith, 2018).
Work with your client to:
- Find and build on their strengths. Try out some free online questionnaires such as the Values in Action Inventory or the CliftonStrengths Assessment. Once identified, see how they can use their strengths more regularly in daily life.
- Explore weaknesses. If they aren’t holding the client back, help them to accept their weaknesses. If weaknesses prevent the client from living the life they wish to lead, try out techniques to build resilience and adopt a growth mindset.
- Help the client understand that the meaning they give to life is subjective and just as valid as anyone else’s.
- Accept that mistakes are part of learning.
- Encourage them to find ways to motivate themselves by building on intrinsic factors such as tasks that they feel related to, autonomous in, and can grow in competence (Ryan & Deci, 2018). After all, meaning is fundamental to motivation (Heintzelman, 2018).
- Help others. Work for charities or provide support where needed.
- Studies have shown that fostering a sense of awe, gratitude, and altruism can help strengthen a sense of purpose.
- Ask the client to listen to the positive things people have to say about them.
- Writing or reading about personal experiences can help develop a shared understanding of meaning. Not only does it build a sense of who we are, but it also makes sense of our experiences.
10 Techniques to Help Yourself and Others
Promotion of happiness themes
The sources of meaning and a sense of purpose in our lives are highly personal, subjective, and will vary throughout our lives.
The following activities and techniques can promote key themes in our lives as sources of meaning (Ivtzan at al., 2016):
- Support others (and receive others’ support) by joining clubs – strengthening bonds and building relationships.
- Share feelings, desires, hopes, goals, successes, and failures with a close friend or significant other to increase intimacy.
- Focus outside yourself on causes, pursuits, and responsibilities to self-transcend.
- Pursue goals and strive for achievement in areas aligned with your values.
- Become comfortable in who you are. Feel the satisfaction of meaning by practicing self-acceptance.
- Express and experience respect and fairness.
- Obtaining materialistic desires can be significant and meaningful for some.
- Working towards professional goals can be purposeful for many.
- Pursuit of pleasure and happiness brings meaning and purpose to many but can be short lived.
Reflect on your sources of meaning
Having shared the above list with your client, ask them to:
- Rank on a sheet of paper their personal sources of meaning (italics above).
- Review which ones are central and most influential.
- Reflect on the opportunities to strengthen the ones that rank less highly.
4 Useful Worksheets
The following tools and techniques are taken from our PositivePsychology.com Toolkit and can support your work with clients in their search for purpose and meaning.
Living a meaningful life can be facilitated by a greater awareness of core values and the thoughts behind them. The insights provided by understanding personal values can help regain a sense of meaning to improve motivation.
Values represent what we consider essential and what we live for in life. They combine both the core psychological needs of the self and society’s norms.
Work with your client to identify what is most valuable to them before they commit to action; for example, being creative, learning, or showing compassion to others.
The Value Cards group exercise provides 42 values (plus some blanks) that can be cut out to form a deck of cards.
Ask each person in the group to:
- Lay the value cards out in front of you.
- Study and reflect on each one.
- Identify the five cards that best represent your core values.
- If comfortable, share your core values with others in the group to see what each person has chosen.
- Once completed, select the card that represents your strongest value.
- Explain to another person in the group why it is your strongest value and offer examples (enjoy this celebration of successes).
- Select another value that you would like to live into more and discuss with another person in the group.
- Select and share your core value with the group.
Some values are specific to life domains. For example, productivity may be more suited to our professional life and compassion in our home life; as our domains change throughout our lives, so too can our values.
A Values Vision Board can provide an excellent visual means for clients to become more aware and connect to their values.
Ask your client to:
- Create a vision board, using pictures cut from magazines and stuck to paper or software such as Powerpoint or Keynote.
- Try grouping the images by domain or in order of overall life values.
- Work on it through feeling rather than rational thinking, with no goals in mind.
- Share your thoughts about the vision board with the therapist or a close friend.
- Place the vision board somewhere it can be seen daily. Regularly return to the board to see if values have shifted and whether life is still balanced with the core values.
Emotion and goal-driven behavior
Despite the importance of our values, they can easily be ignored or even avoided.
Powerful emotions often overtake our values in directing our behavior. We fear writing the book we have always wanted or doubt our ability to commit to a relationship.
While goals can be vital to meeting our long-term plans, they can cause us to lose sight of what is important. We may be so focused on finding a partner, owning a house, or starting a family that we lose sight of enjoying life and building a group of friends.
A Values-Based Goal Setting exercise can help translate values into committed action.
Ask the client to:
- Choose a life domain, for example, parenting, relationship, work, etc.
- Think about what you would like to change in that domain.
- Consider why it is essential to make that change.
- Write down beside each reason what value it underpins, for example, work/life balance, love, etc.
- Use the SMART acronym (specific, meaningful, adaptive, realistic, time-framed) to translate these values into concrete goals.
- Review regularly to confirm that these are your goals (not someone else’s) and that your core values remain unchanged.
Shifting and replacing values
Near-death experiences are frequently associated with a re-assessment of a person’s values, including increased concern for others, an appreciation for life, and a decrease in materialism.
Considering our mortality (while challenging) can improve our awareness of what is genuinely important.
The My Gravestone exercise is a powerful tool for reevaluating how we spend our time on Earth. If appropriate to the client’s circumstances, ask your client to:
- Imagine their life is over.
- Using the shape of a tombstone, write out their name, birth date, etc.
- Write a couple of sentences or phrases that capture how they would like to be remembered and how they would like to have spent their time.
This is an extremely difficult exercise for many and should only be performed if the client is ready and willing to cope with the emotions that may arise.
A Note on Finding Meaning After Trauma, Divorce, and Others
The most painful experiences can often also be the most meaningful.
A near-death experience, serious illness, separation, or loss of a loved one can all shake our sense of who we are and force us to reevaluate our core values, life purpose, and sense of meaning.
Indeed, research on trauma survivors has observed post-traumatic growth and the capacity to extract meaning from adversity (Routledge & Juhl, 2010).
Our Masterclass on Meaning and Valued Living© provides an intuitive and accessible way to apply positive psychology.
This excellent online program is for therapists, psychologists, counselors, coaches, and practitioners who want to help their clients find meaning and discover their values, connecting them to their ‘why’ so that they can bear the ‘how.’
17 Meaning & Valued Living Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others discover meaning, this collection contains 17 validated meaning tools for practitioners. Use them to help others choose directions for their lives in alignment with what is truly important to them.
A Take-Home Message
The meaning we attach to our self, the world around us, and our role within it form our narrative. Our purpose – our aim and goals – motivates the activities that take us through it.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that both meaning and purpose are vital to our wellbeing as well as crucial to who we are.
If we accept the existentialists’ view, then we are free to lead a life according to our values, assign a meaning to what we see as vital, and pursue a unique purpose.
As Sartre points out, this realization may begin with anguish and spiral to a sense of vertiginous nausea before we act. After all, it is like being dropped at a cliff’s edge, without the option of going back and an uncertain future ahead.
Instead, we must choose our values and the meaning we assign to who we are, how we live, and what we do. Our goals are personal, and we must decide whether to follow them or let them drift out of sight.
But failing to act authentically and live according to the meaning and purpose we have chosen would result in a less-well-lived life. So, try the exercises within this article – if only to better understand who you are, your core values, and your place in your surroundings – and explore potential yet to be written.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.
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- Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. New York: Psychology Press.
- Heidegger, M. (2013). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). Malden: Blackwell. (Original work published in 1927 and translated in 1962)
- Hicks, J. A., & King, L. A. (2007). Meaning in life and seeing the big picture: Positive affect and global focus. Cognition & Emotion, 21(7), 1577–1584.
- Huo, J.-Y., Wang, X.-Q., Steger, M. F., Ge, Y., Wang, Y.-C., Liu, M.-F., & Ye, B.-J. (2019). Implicit meaning in life: The assessment and construct validity of implicit meaning in life and relations with explicit meaning in life and depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(4), 500–518.
- Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Worth, P. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Embracing the dark side of life. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
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- Lee, C. S., Hwang, Y. K., & Jang, H. Y. (2018). Moderating effect of growth mindset on the relationship between attitude toward tourism and meaning in life. International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics, 120(6), 5523–5540.
- Nietzsche, F. (1911). Beyond good and evil (H. Zimmern, Trans.). Edinburgh: Darrien Press.
- Routledge, C., & Juhl, J. (2010). When death thoughts lead to death fears: Mortality salience increases death anxiety for individuals who lack meaning in life. Cognition & Emotion, 24(5), 848–854.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.
- Sartre, J. (1964). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology. New York: Citadel Press.
- Smith, J. A. (2018). How to find your purpose in life. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_find_your_purpose_in_life
- Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in life. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 679–687). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Warnock, M. (1970). Existentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.