A Psychological Model to Find Meaning in Life

Why we do what we do

Posted Jul 03, 2020

Meitas/123RF
Source: Meitas/123RF

By Nathan T. Lee and Kyle K. Macintosh

Human beings have contemplated their existence since the evolution of higher-order cognition through abstract consciousness. Individuals have interpreted their existence through metaphysical explanations like religion, through philosophy, and by scientific rationality. Each attempt is a means to understand and explain how people choose to act in the world. What of psychology? How does psychology define the human drive for meaning? There are several theories to understand the human motivation for action. Great thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Viktor Frankl, and others have theorized reasons for why people are motivated.

We propose a psychological model to explain the human drive for meaning. This model brings forth several hypotheses to unify the field of psychology to understand this phenomenon. Our overall hypothesis is: For individuals to find deeper contentment in their life, they must find an ideal that provides them meaning and a purpose to withstand the innumerable hardships of existence.

Ideal, Self-Actualization, and the Actions

Sub-Hypothesis: Individuals must pursue meaning in their lives in the form of an ideal, in order to be a positive productive individual for themselves and for others around them.

From all appearances, people seek an ideal to attain. An individual’s ideal could be anything they wish, which is reflected in their actions.

Self-actualization can be described as that feeling of knowing you are on the right path. All actions are committed toward this ideal, and those actions will eventually become habitual. Essentially, an individuals’ ideal is what gives them meaning for living and purpose to act.

Individual-Community Feedback

Sub-Hypothesis: Individuals’ attainment toward their ideal is performed through action; those behaviors are constantly evaluated from internal feedback and from the feedback of others.

How do people know their vision of themselves and their actions line up with their ideal? First, internal feedback is important because you must understand that what you say and do align. Second, other people should agree that what you say reflects your actions. For example, I tell myself I can throw a football a hundred yards. I practice and make those words true. I then tell a rival I can throw a football a hundred yards and physically show them. This feedback is validation for knowing I am attaining my ideal. Even someone who challenges me would agree that I am true to my word. What happens when the balance is broken?

In brief, an individual who has a self-biased feedback system can be defined as a ‘false self-actual’. False self-actual individuals believe they embody their ultimate ideal despite their words and actions being incongruent. Some examples are narcissists and psychopaths. An individual who only listens to community feedback is defined as ‘self-sacrificial’. These types of people ignore their own individual voice and embody the beliefs of the group. Individuals who are self-sacrificial believe their ideal is determined solely by their chosen community—for example, ideologically driven people like Nazis.

Support Structure

Sub-Hypothesis: Individuals need a multifaceted support network to visualize and attain their ideal.

What does a support structure consist of? It can encapsulate family, friends, morals, values, beliefs, education, reading, podcasts, etc. An individual’s support structure assists them in having a basis for moving toward their ideal and informed feedback on their actions. Support helps individuals overcome adversity, but in the absence of structure, the individual’s ability to function deteriorates. If it is disrupted, it could send someone into conflict and/or create an inverse support structure. Overall, support structures enable people to conceptualize and perform actions toward an ideal.

Conflict

Sub-Hypothesis: When people lose sight of their ideal, they enter into an internal conflict; they must accept and resolve those pitfalls to re-engage with their ideal.

Individuals face a conundrum when something contradicts how they visualize their actions toward their ideal. When this disconnect occurs, people must either face these shortcomings or fall into chaos. If a person cannot restructure their conceptualizations they fall further into conflict, away from their ideal. Conflict stirs up negative emotion, anxiety, internal pain, fear, anger, etc., which worsens when individuals cannot resolve their ability to achieve their ideal. To overcome such chaos, people must either seek some sort of therapeutic intervention, or a person will seek short-term pleasures to avoid negative emotion. In context, individuals will either overcome the misalignment with their ideal or become overwhelmed with their continual failure to find meaning. Examples of people who overcome conflict are those who rise in the face of adversity. Examples of people who are in continual chaos are those who suffer from addiction. Internal conflict is the natural process for individuals to reorient their behavioral structures. If they do not overcome this tension, they succumb to the chaos of meaninglessness.

Summary

To date, there have been efforts to address issues such as depression or addiction that fall short because people need to find meaning in their life. Our theoretical model could potentially assist in addressing these issues and direct mental health efforts under one framework to better our communities. Viktor Frankl once said, “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” 

Kyle K. Macintosh, M.A., received a master’s degree in forensic psychology, works at INOVA as a mental health technician, and he has worked with adolescents with psychiatric disorders.

Nathan T. Lee, M.A., received a master’s degree in forensic psychology, works as a behavioral analyst for the U.S. Government, and he is the creator of the “Psychological Model to Find Meaning in Life.”