What’s the meaning of life? Isn’t this the most fundamental question that has plagued humanity since…well, forever? While not limited to philosophers, theologians, psychologists and other seekers, the quest to find the answer is the metaphorical holy grail of self-consciousness. Kurt Vonnegut summarizes this quest with a short poem:

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Isn’t it curious how much we yearn to satisfy the itch of not knowing why, why, why? Once, I was under the impression that if I could just discover that most fundamental answer, all my existential woes would cease, all stress would dissolve, and I could finally be at peace. Driven by the need to know the final answer to God, the universe, and everything (an homage to Douglas Adams in “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”), I chose to major in philosophy. Instead of finding answers, I discovered why everyone else’s answers were flawed in premise and/or logic. At the end of it all, I knew less than I knew what to do with, if that’s even possible.

Addicts and the Quest for Meaning

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with addiction, keep reading. It is said by many folks much brighter than I that addiction develops, in part, in response to a search for meaning, and that meaning is a key ingredient in why 12-step fellowships are successful. Many addicts struggle with meaning and purpose, and I generally find the following discussion helps guide them to uncover what their most authentic self yearns for.

Carl Jung, one of the major influences of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, described addiction as a spiritual malady that only a spiritual remedy can alleviate. George Vaillant, Harvard professor of psychiatry and prolific author, explains that AA makes spirituality safe for human consumption. It fosters a non-competitive relationship to spirituality among people of different beliefs, including atheists.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree, I gave myself permission to halt the quest for the holy grail of existential angst. I no longer search for the purpose of life, but rather focus on the meaning within life. As Albert Einstein explained, we can never know the meaning of life because we didn't create life. Something can only understand the complexity of that which it can create. And what’s more complex than life, the universe, and everything?

Meaning of Life vs. Meaning in Life

The distinction between “meaning of life” and “meaning in life” is no small matter. Accepting the difference is precisely the wisdom inherent in the serenity prayer. It’s moving from trying to manage everything to managing what is within one’s control. It’s like being given the task of navigating a log down a rushing river with a toy steering wheel. One must accept that it is fruitless to try to control the log or slow the river’s current, so why not sit back, take in the view and enjoy the ride? Or, in more practical terms for many of us who are alcoholics, it is releasing the idea that we can drink like a normal person if we just try hard enough. That is a runaway log that we cannot control with a toy steering wheel or any other method once it starts down the river.

The problem with not knowing what I can and can’t do makes all the difference in the world. You see, if we burn energy and equanimity worrying about what’s not in our control, we can’t do what is, such as choosing those things that enable us to flourish in recovery. So, what is in our power? What can we do along the way?

Purpose Is Meaning–With Legs

Meaning is how we fill up during that metaphorical log ride. Meaning is also complex, and even strange in the way it can’t be generalized. You see, it’s highly subjective–meaning in life is what you make of it. What you consider to be deeply meaningful may seem utterly trivial to others, but in the end it doesn't matter because it’s not up to them. Meaning in life is the extent to which you believe there is significance in your life and the degree to which you perceive yourself to have a purpose or mission. We don't find meaning–we create it. So meaning in life is what you make it to be and meaning is an idea. 

Purpose, on the other hand, is active. Purpose is meaning with legs. Each of us gets to decide what is meaningful in life, but it’s wasted without an active component. In recovery, we discover all kinds of things, such as who we are behind the fear and the mask, and what we stand for. While we can’t answer the meaning of life, we can decide the meaning in life and start pursuing meaningful goals in the service of something larger than ourselves. You may ask: What can I do if I don’t have a clue? What if I don’t yet know what I stand for? How can I start to discover meaning and purpose in my life?

Action Will Lead You to Answers

People who struggle with discovering meaning can fake it till they make it. Specifically, you don't need all the answers before you act. You can start acting to get the answers you’re looking for. If the idea of being a pro-social person is appealing, volunteer at a food bank. If your ideal world is filled with altruistic mentors, find people to teach. It’s not necessary to give, give, give, but the research is pretty clear that giving can be deeply meaningful. In addition, it’s an act that you really can’t give away–it keeps returning to you. Or, you may find meaning in a higher power, in nature, or within your body. The result of pursuing more meaning and purpose, for most people, is good–better physical and mental health, deeper and more supportive relationships, and longer life.

Of course, let’s not forget about happiness. Meaning is a huge contributor to our overall well-being. When your life is full of meaning, you feel better and more satisfied. Several of my Penn classmates agree that meaning trumps the rest of the elements that pave the road to living the best life possible.

When challenges seem daunting, or when the “gremlins of self-doubt” (thank you Brené Brown) make you feel unworthy, anchor yourself in meaning and engage your strengths in purpose.

Dr. Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer for Promises Austin and Right Step in Texas. He leads an intensive staff training program called Positive Recovery University to help addicts discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety. Dr. Powers is board certified in addiction medicine and family medicine and certified by the American Board of Addiction.

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