The Power of Purpose and Meaning in Life
How to thrive and celebrate life beyond COVID-19.
Posted September 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- The pandemic and other unprecedented global trends are associated with distress, fear of contagion, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
- Uncertainty about the future is making people vulnerable to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
- Existential or meaning-centered psychotherapies are re-emerging as strategies to promote empowerment, adaptation, and flourishing.
In this first post of my blog, I outline the pragmatism and benefits of meaning-centered psychotherapies by providing an overview on how to use them in real life. Pragmatism is about connecting with reality by focusing on our daily decisions, self-commitment, and concrete actions. I will provide more detailed insights and strategies in subsequent posts.
The current pandemic, combined with other unprecedented global changes and social upheaval (e.g. climate change, vicarious exposure through news/social media to natural and human-induced traumatic events), has created a perfect storm for short- and long-term threats to our mental health.
Such events are associated with isolation, distress, fear of contagion, anxiety, depression, insomnia, financial hardship, and post-traumatic stress. Medical and frontline personnel, and mental health workers experience compassion fatigue, secondary or vicarious trauma — the prolonged exposure to others’ trauma and their stories. As individuals and communities, we need to adapt to effectively respond, recover, and thrive beyond this new reality.
In a strange, paradoxical way, while the current crisis poses unprecedented challenges, it also offers unique opportunities for human growth, including certain capabilities that have become more critical than ever to preserve or restore our mental health and adaptation in a transformed world.
By making individuals and their choices a central focus, existential psychotherapy offers this. As one of the longest-established forms of psychotherapy, dating back to the 1920s and supported by extensive research, it is profoundly transformational. With the emergence of the psychotherapy integration movement, person-centered, humanistic-experiential psychotherapies, and others sharing a phenomenological orientation come under umbrella terms such as existential psychotherapies or meaning-centered psychotherapies, grounded in Frankl’s (1969) Logotherapy (meaning therapy or therapy through meaning).
These approaches are dynamic, experiential, and focus on common concerns of existence, aimed at enabling people as the authors of their own lives. They underscore individuals as free and responsible agents determining their own development through acts of will. From this perspective, being anxious or depressed means being stuck in the present by holding onto the past, unable to connect with the future (e.g. relationships, possibilities). Having a meaningful life provides people with a special resilience that promotes sustained hope and motivation.
Purpose and Meaning
Meaning in life is the need to perceive our lives, in particular our suffering, as serving a worthy purpose. The positive relationship between a purposeful and meaningful life, and psychological well-being, is supported by extensive research (King et al., 2006). A purposeful and meaningful life provides a resilience promoting sustained hope, which, like happiness, cannot be achieved directly (Frankl, 1969). Meaninglessness, on the other hand, creates an "existential vacuum" leading to emptiness, depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychopathology (Ruffin, 1984).
Personal meaning relates to a life purpose, sense of direction, order and a reason for existence, identity and enhanced social consciousness. Impoverished meaning is associated with emotional distress, sadness, dejection and depression, across all age groups. Individuals with high levels of meaning in life spend more time and effort in pursuance of their goals, and it counters the inherent sadness, hopelessness and passivity of depression by generating and sustaining intrinsically motivated behaviour. It has also been identified as a protective factor against adolescents’ poor psychological health and risk behaviours. Hence, it not only acts as a buffer against the effects of stress, but is also a strong preventive factor against suicidal tendencies.
Strategies for purpose and meaning in life
Purpose and meaning can be achieved by integrating five unique human capacities: intention, intentionality, will, freedom, and responsibility.
Developing purpose requires intention and intentionality, which are at the heart of human will (May, 1965), and entails consciously searching for orientation and purpose. Our behaviour can only be understood in relation to the expression of our intentions, which means acting consciously toward something desired, as opposed to automatic or sub-conscious mode. It also means dealing with the real-life challenges we inevitably encounter throughout life. We can only move forward when we accept and own our discomfort, instead of trying to avoid or eliminate it, or to change our social environment in unhealthy ways. As Carl Rogers — one founder of humanistic and client-centered psychotherapy — put it, we exercise our freedom and responsibility to become who we aspire to be.
The main benefits of acting with intentionality and will are developing greater self-awareness and knowing ourselves intimately — uncovering blind spots. This is extremely liberating and can unleash a powerful chain reaction. By taking responsibility we become more authentic, and can exercise our freedom; in turn, revealing possibilities that increase our ability to make choices. We can experience the excitement that comes with this, and expanding our authenticity helps us live more purposefully and meaningfully, developing a clearer and unique sense of identity and direction. We become daring and fearless, with the impetus to set audacious goals. These give us the motivation, focus, energy, and strength to take bold action to achieve them.
Embarking on this journey, we experience a new sense of personal agency — our capability to initiate action, take direction toward achieving goals, and exercise control over our lives. This, in turn, gives us empowerment, including a strong sense of self, confidence, and self-esteem. We also gain the courage and resilience to face and deal with life’s adversities, which get in the way of achieving our goals. Overall, a meaning-centered approach to life makes you stronger. You’ll feel powerful and proud of yourself.
In closing, I invite you to consider three very simple — yet critical — questions:
- How are you currently living your life?
- How are you willing or wanting to live your life?
- What would the gap between these two answers look like, if you put only 10 percent more purpose and meaning into your life?
The COVID-19 world, combined with other unprecedented global trends, has exacerbated a wide range of challenges across our lifespan. By exploring the timeless themes of human existence, meaning-centered psychotherapies are re-emerging as effective means of providing new opportunities for development, and as strategies to recover, navigate, adapt, thrive, and celebrate life.
Frank, V. E. (1969). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of Logotherapy. New American Library.
King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., Krull, J. L., & Del Gaiso, A. K. (2006). Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 179-196.
May, R. (1965). Intentionality, the heart of human will. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 5(2), 202–209.
Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin.
Ruffin, J. E. (1984). The anxiety of meaninglessness. Journal of Counseling & Development, 63, 40-42.
Salicru, S. (2021). A Practical and Contemporary Model of Depression for Our Times—A Timeless Existential Clinician’s Perspective. Open Journal of Depression, 10(2), 54-89.