Can Our Lives Find Meaning in the Modern World?
“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” Viktor Frankl
We are meaning seeking creatures that cannot truly be at peace unless we have something we consider as significant in our lives – something that gives us purpose and a sense of fulfilment. Finding a meaning to life is perhaps the ultimate question for any of us. One of the things that often happens in therapy is that clients begin to search for and find meaning. There is little in the therapy room that I enjoy more than helping them to find (or re-find) it – simply because I view it as so important. The philosopher Nietzsche and the psychologist Jung both made comments about this, the former saying that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” and the latter that “meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.”
Unfortunately, the modern world increasingly makes it hard for us to find meaning. Its fast pace, materialism, stressful environments that make it difficult to maintain relationships, the decline of religion, the difficulty in finding a “job for life” and the almost continual encouragement for us to grasp at instant gratification and every shallow pleasure to assuage our difficult emotions have all played into this lack of meaning. Of course there has always been lack of meaning, but it certainly seems to have got worse in the last few decades – probably post 1960s if not before. Perhaps oddly, roughly at the time when life became so fast and material expectations rose so quickly, inertia, boredom and apathy seemed to have increased as a perverse counter-weight to this pace. However, those who have sought their meaning through money, endless pleasure-seeking or achieving shallow tasks have invariably not found it there. One need only look at Bill Gates to see this. He became the richest man in the world. You might think of him as the epitome of “success,” and yet he found little meaning there and so promised to give all of his money away for altruistic purposes. Now he feels his life to be happier and more fulfilled.
Perhaps Erich Fromm summed the modern predicament of man best in the Art of loving, when he said: “Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature. His main aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his "personality package" with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.”
It is hardly surprising that about half of the clients who come to me with one problem or another end up at some point by focusing on meaning. This is because, consciously at least, meaning is often a hidden, avoided or denied problem for many people. It's something they’d rather not consider, though sub-consciously it often works away to undermine their happiness. Some people will consider every other problem first, but they will avoid this "big one" until a crisis arrives or it is very late in their life and they wake up and realise that there is a hole where there shouldn't be one. The comment, “I have no real meaning in my life” is common, poignant and the cause of deep-seated distress in the speaker. Sometimes clients who have reached a state of nihilistic despair, finding nothing worthwhile at all in their life, have turned to one addiction or another in order to try to blot out their meaninglessness.
But need it be like that? I don’t think that it has to be so, even if we do live in a society whose machinations often work against rather than with meaningfulness.
Below, I’ve given 5 ways that people commonly seem to find meaning in their lives – there are others but these make a good start. Depending on the individual, some of them may be harder to work with than others, but there is likely to be something on this list that most people are able to engage with to find meaning. The concept of engagement is key here – to fully engage with any of these things is to begin to find meaning. Meaning will not be found by doing them half-heartedly.
- Love. The Beatles were onto something when they sang “All You Need is Love,” and a famous Larkin poem ends “What will survive of us is love.” The form of the love is not important - it needn’t be romantic, however much we desire that. Love for any other human being can give us great meaning and love of something vital in our lives can too.
- Connection. This can be to nature, other people (deep friendships being the best one), or God, if you believe in Him and however you perceive Him. Some people claim a sense of “feeling connected to the universe,” and though that may seem airy-fairy in one sense, when it is real, it can be a source of meaning.
- Doing good deeds for others. There is no doubt that bankers earn more than teachers or nurses, but are there many that can find a life’s meaning from their profession? I doubt it. Anything that makes our fellow travellers in this world have an easier journey helps to give us a purpose, money ultimately does not. It needn’t be hard work though some real engagement with selflessness is needed. I’ve no doubt Mother Theresa found endless meaning in her life, but we are not all called upon to reach her level of sainthood to reach meaning.
- A creative life task. There is no doubt that making or creating something can give people a purpose. It is not hard to see how a composer, artist, poet or architect can feel that his or her life has purpose; and the same is true for inventive and boundary pushing scientists or those whose work helps the planet or the creatures on it. Mystics, philosophers, nuns and monks may seem to get it on a deep level but on a less demanding level a hobby or sport that you love can do it.
- Improving ourselves to reach some sort of spiritual or other potential. It is possible to achieve this via career, but unless your career is something that you love it is unlikely to be enough on its own – because it has to be an improvement centred on within and that again means engagement. Such an inner improvement is bound to bring some feelings of enlightenment along with meaning.
It is even possible to find meaning through your suffering, if by it you feel that in some way you have grown or inspired others. If you think that idea unlikely, then I would recommend reading Victor Frankl’s book, 'Man’s Search for Meaning'. Frankl found that even in the unfathomable horror of Auschwitz it was possible to find meaning.
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